October 22, 2016
About Dorin Schumacher
Dorin Schumacher’s writing on silent film star Helen Gardner appears in Women Screenwriters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), the Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (Routledge, 2010), This Film is Dangerous and many other anthologies and publications. Her personal writing appears in The New York Times and Stonepile Writers Anthology (University of North Georgia Press, 2014), alongside numerous other publications. Her website is http://beacontowers.media
When I was five, Emery Sizer, a seven-year-old friend, got me to play doctor. She’d lie down on her back, pull down her panties and declare, “I am the patient and you are the doctor.” She’d turn to her younger sister, nicknamed “Bumble,” and say, “You are the nurse.”
Emery’s eyes were dark and devilish as she pointed to her bare pubis and said, “Pretend to cut me here.”
I complied, finding this game a lot more exciting than our usual one in which she played the queen, I the princess, and Bumble the slave. I knew that Emery’s games were about her being in charge and humiliating her little sister, whom I felt sorry for but not sorry enough to trade roles.
Things got a lot more serious when I was nine and my friend Sallie Brown got me to play sex. She was eleven. I believed she knew a lot, but I felt humiliated when she made me play the man. Nevertheless, I let her be the woman in charge and assign me the subservient male role.
Why did I think being her slave was the price I had to pay for our thrilling explorations? I wonder if some law of nature requires that older girls lord it over younger ones? Must the younger ones submit, burying their wounds and their resentments?
“You have to be the man and lie on top because you are so flat,” Sallie smirked.
I hated being flat chested and I hated her saying it. I hated having to be the man. But not enough to stop dry humping her.
I think back to my parents’ efforts to encourage the masculine in me. I was tall, broad-shouldered and smart. I was intellectually ahead of them, a fact no one acknowledged. Neither had graduated from high school. Both wanted me to be a leader of others.
“Everyone’s eyes were on you,” my mother would say with pride after seeing one of my many starring performances in school events. She came to my plays, modern dance recitals and school speeches. She ate up my coverage in the school newspaper and in the Port Washington News.
My father bragged about my high grades.
“Dorin is smarter than everyone in her school,” he’d say to anyone who would listen, except me.
My mother’s wailing about her life made me think that being a woman meant being alone, trapped, powerless and unhappy.
“I can’t get the bills paid.”
“I can’t get these goddam dishes done.”
“I can’t get help for anything,”
“Your father is mean to me, and I can’t get him to stop.”
I knew that my mother’s mother, Helen Gardner, a headstrong, self-centered woman I never met, was bisexually promiscuous.
A silent film pioneer in the 1910s, Gardner slept with the director in her independent film company, “Helen Gardner Picture Players.” He may have been her first male lover of many.
“I was shocked to see them sleeping together when I visited Mother’s studio while she was making
Gardner told my mother when she was a child, “I tried to abort you. I got my doctors to rush at me and shout ‘Boo,’ but it didn’t work. You were born anyway. You ruined my body.”
“I was a rejected child,” my mother would say, to everyone , at every opportunity.
When my mother was ten, she wrote in her diary, “Miss Sherwood moved into Mother’s bed. She loves Mother. Mother calls her Misher.”
I found the diary among my mother’s things after she died. She wrote nothing about Gardner loving Misher back, but I would learn that the two women were a couple until their deaths one year apart, in the late 1960s.
“Mother went to Chicago for a health cure with a Dr. Hohn. She brought him back with her, and he set up a business nearby. They were having an affair, and she made me try to hide it from Misher. But Misher found out anyway and flew into rages.”
“My mother has loud orgasms,” Gardner reported about her mother, Helen Josephine (Hills) Gardner.
Helen Josephine, whom my mother called “Granny,” raised my mother while Gardner attended drama school in Manhattan and then made movies at the Vitagraph of America studios in Brooklyn, at her own studio northwest of New York City, and at the Universal studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
“Granny had an affair with a naturopath,” my mother wrote. “His wife must have known. When he died, Granny took over his practice. She gave vibrations and heat treatments. She gave Mother and me treatments.”
I learned about another occupant of the Gardner home: my mother’s grandfather. The marriage between Granny and Grandpa had initially been opposed by Granny’s wealthy aunt, “Aunt Helen.”
“Aunt Helen was a rich, autocratic woman,” my mother said. “She was supporting the family. When Granny met Grandpa, he was a trainer of trotting horses for William Rockefeller, brother of John D. Grandpa was twenty years older than Granny. Aunt Helen said she would agree to their marriage only if Grandpa stopped working. ‘Gentlemen do not work,’ she declared. Granny was already pregnant with my mother [Helen Gardner]. So Grandpa was left to dream about his trotters, go downtown and drink with the boys, and slap our maids on their behinds.”
My mother continued. “One night, I was in Granny’s bed and she was reading me a Charles Dickens story. We heard the front door slam. ‘Uh oh.’ Grandpa was coming home drunk. We heard him go down in the basement and shovel some coal around and then come back upstairs. He broke the lock on Granny’s door and barged into her room. [His room was down the hall.] I ran to my room, terrified.”
My mother call her grandfather “a beast.”
Both my mother and her grandfather knew about Granny’s affairs. “Grandpa knew about Granny’s love affairs. She was carrying them on under his nose.” Under her granddaughter’s nose too.
My mother was exposed to her mother’s and Misher’s nudity.
“Friends of Mother’s and Misher’s came for the weekend, so Mother and Misher had to sleep in my bed with me. When I woke up in the morning, the covers were off and Mother and Misher were naked.”
No wonder my mother was obsessed with sex ̶ hers, mine and everyone else’s. She perceived the world through a sexual prism and created a sexualized environment for me to grow up in.
But my mother adored Helen Gardner. “I worshiped Mother like she was a goddess and thought the dust from Mount Olympus was on her skirts. I was heartbroken when the New York, New Haven & Hartford train came and took her off to Brooklyn to the Vitagraph Company where she was making movies.”
Some of my mother’s stories were funny.
“Mother decided to give a concert on her player piano. She set up a stage and invited guests. She pretended she was a concert pianist and performed in the most melodramatic way. My dog Darby started to howl as soon as she started to sing. ‘Shush,’ she kept saying. He wouldn’t shush. She was so mad. I had to stifle my giggles.”
Sallie guided my hand to her breasts ̶ those tantalizing, soft, swelling breasts. I gently touched them, feeling envy and sharp pleasure. She moved my hand down to her stiff little pubic hairs that seemed so abundant when I could barely find a couple of my own.
I lay naked and excited on top of Sallie and buried my nose in her shoulder-length hair. Her hair smelled of her dark family kitchen with its grease-covered walls and reminded me of the times she melted brown sugar and butter in a pan and served me the sweet mix. I never saw her eat anything else. At home, I was stuck eating healthy food like broiled chicken, broccoli and salads.
Sallie showed me how to do cartwheels. We practiced by the hour on grassy spots. I’d do them alone after she went home, my legs flying straighter and straighter. Sometimes, I twisted as I came down.
Sallie showed me how to play jacks, which we played indoors when it rained.
My parents gave me a box of magic tricks. Sallie and I practiced the tricks and gave a magic show for my parent’s friends. One of the tricks was glass ice cubes with bugs in them. I chilled them in the refrigerator and brought them out in the middle of the show, pretending to drink a glass of water with the ice-cubes in it.
“Those are fake! They are glass ice cubes with bugs in them!” my friend Fritzi called out. I wanted to strangle him.
We raised $3.25 and donated it to the Village Welfare Society. My mother put an article in the Port Washington News.
Sallie was the first person I smoked with. I got in a lot more trouble for the smoking than the loving, but I’ll come to that.
I met Sallie toward the end of World War II, when my family moved a few miles from our big house to what my mother called the “apartment-over-a-garage,” on the old Alva Vanderbilt Belmont estate.
Sallie and her family lived in the estate’s faux medieval gatehouse. Covered in dull beige stucco, the gatehouse had a steep grey slate roof and cylindrical clock tower and looked like a small castle. On the ground floor of the clock tower was a round living room, and above it, Sallie’s round bedroom, where the head of her rectangular bed stood away from the curved wall. The big Seth Thomas tower clock, whose wrought iron Roman numerals made a circle on the stucco above her leaded-glass casement window, was still working. Sallie laughed about the heavy sandbag weights hanging directly over her head. I would have been too scared to sleep.
At night, as I dozed off in the bedroom my sister and I shared in the apartment-over-a-garage, the sounds of Sallie’s clock comforted me. Its hourly gongs played counterpoint with the foghorn that moaned offshore.
Whenever Sallie wanted to me to come out and play, she’d stand in our courtyard-like driveway and call. Her droopy clothes, stringy hair and sallow coloring made her look like a motherless waif. She never knocked on the door.
“Dahwin,” she’d wail, unable to pronounce “Dorin.”
“Dahwin,” until finally I opened a window and called “I’ll be right down.”
When I wanted to play with her, I stood outside her clock tower, tried to look droopy and called, “Sa-a-a-l-l-i-e.” We never used the telephone.
Sometimes, when Sallie wasn’t home, her mother came to the door of the gatehouse. Wearing shorts and paint-splattered, wedge-heeled, black suede ghillies on her slew feet, she looked like Minnie Mouse. Her short, coarse black hair stood out stiffly all over her head, and when she smiled, her horse-yellow buck teeth showed. She was friendly, though, and she seemed to want to chat with me, unlike my mother. She acted like she and I were the same age.
Sallie claimed that her mother was from an old Kentucky family. Sallie’s younger brother, Wade Hampton Brown, was named after the Confederate general Wade Hampton, so maybe the “old Kentucky family” story was true. I wouldn’t have guessed the story by looking at him or his siblings. Wade was a pale, scrawny kid with slanty eyes and wide spaces between his teeth, who, instead of saying “thing,” said something that sounded like “dang-ed.” Sallie’s sister, Suzanne, who was friends with my sister, was a smaller version of Sallie.
Sallie said her father was an engineer with the Lily Tulip Company, which I knew made paper cups. I didn’t know where he worked, but I could see across Long Island Sound a big Lily Tulip sign on what seemed to be a manufacturing plant. I imagined him there, designing better paper cups.
The reason Sallie knew a lot more about sex than I did was because she went to public school and I attended the small, private, sheltered, strict Vincent Smith School.
She told me my first dirty joke.
“Mommy, what is that thing called?”
“That’s my little red wagon.”
“Daddy, what is that thing called?”
“That’s my flashlight.”
“Daddy, can I borrow your flashlight to look for something in Mommy’s little red wagon?”
Although I didn’t get the punch line, I howled.
One day, Sallie told me she had found an object in her mother’s dresser that looked like half a rubber ball. Good at figuring such things out, she knew it had something to do with sex. But her confused explanation of how it worked didn’t make sense.
Unfortunately, the diaphragm did not keep Minnie Mouse from becoming pregnant and looking even more bizarre. When the cute little blond baby was born, they named her “Bonnie.”
Soon after, Sallie’s father broke a leg falling off their steep gatehouse roof he was trying to fix. He had to quit working. From then on, he hung around the house in his undershirt, unshaven, grouchy and drinking beer. I began to doubt that he really was an engineer.
It was Sallie’s idea to smoke. We could not have picked a worse place ̶ an old dried-up wood frame outbuilding with an attached greenhouse that was next to the apartment-over-a-garage.
My father liked to garden, and in his rare moments at home, he puttered around in the greenhouse, looking content. The outbuilding’s other rooms were unused and dusty, full of rusty garden implements and shards of broken flower pots. No one, including Elmer, our live-in houseman, ever went in there.
In a short dark hallway, above a waist-high storage closet, was a four-foot-square cubbyhole that Sallie and I could hoist ourselves into. It became our secret playhouse where we crouched in the gloom and read old comic strips in yellowed newspapers, like Maggie and Jiggs, Dagwood and Blondie and The Katzenjammer Kids.
On this day, Sallie came over all excited about having gathered a bunch of cigarette butts from her father’s ashtrays.
“Look at the cigarette butts I brought!”
We climbed into our cubbyhole playhouse and found a little rusty wheel.
“The wheel will be perfect for holding the butts,” she said.
We lit up and smoked while we read the newspapers. Just like grown-ups.
Suddenly, I heard my father’s voice thundering in the gloom.
“What’s going on here?”
Terrified, we snubbed out the butts and hastily covered them with the old newspapers. My father stormed in, looked right into the cubbyhole, which was at eye level for him, while we tried to look innocent. All I saw was his angry face peering through cigarette smoke.
“What are you doing?” he roared.
He ordered me to go to my room. I took off fast.
I found out later that as soon as I left, he asked Sallie “Have you been smoking?”
“No,” she lied.
“You get out of here and never come back,” he later claimed he told her.
He stormed into my bedroom in a rage.
“Were you smoking?” he shouted.
“Yes,” I admitted. “But it was Sallie’s idea.”
He stomped around and ranted about how dangerous it was to smoke in that dry wooden building on top of all those old newspapers, and he was right. Unbelievable as it may seem, the possibility of fire had never occurred to me. It was just another one of Sallie’s exciting schemes. My father didn’t say anything about the evils of smoking. The next day, he was gone, off to his mysterious work, and Sallie was back.
As I recall Sallie’s and my misadventures, I find that, for all her failures as a friend, she has become my dark muse.
As I imagine walking through Mrs. Belmont’s grounds toward my family’s home, I see Sallie and me playing on the grass between two faux medieval towers. Joe Wheeler, a mean-looking, round-faced little boy runs toward us shooting a cap pistol that he tries to fire up my skirt. Sallie laughs, but I run home, petrified.
I am practicing the cartwheels Sallie showed me. I get better and better, my legs flying over my head straighter and straighter.
Around this time, my left hip gets dislocated and requires three surgeries, two years of off-and-on hospitalizations, casts, crutches, pain, misery and loneliness. During my eleventh and twelfth years, my recovery closes me inside the walls of the apartment-over-a-garage and puts me at the mercy of my mother.
“Those cartwheels made your hip go out,” she says. “I knew it. You twisted as you came down.”
Funny she never tried to stop me. Besides, it was the right leg I twisted as I came down ̶ my un-dislocated-hip side.
I am going in the ground floor entrance to the apartment-over-a-garage. I enter the empty room to the right where our houseman Elmer once lived. He started working for us at our big house and came along when we moved here.
Sallie and I would peek in his windows and taunt him, excited by his maleness. Later, he would quit in a huff.
“Elmer quit because of you,” my mother accuses.
In Elmer’s old room, only his sour smell remains. The room has become Sallie’s and my hideaway. We play sex on the bare mattress where Elmer once slept. I feel his presence.
Sallie brings into our bedroom hideaway two boys from public school, Billy Fisher and Dick Baker. They want to neck. She gets the sallow Billy; I get the downy-cheeked Dick. Because of my hip surgery, I am in a cast that encases my body from under my arms down to my left toe on my left side and to the top of my right leg on my right side. I have to use crutches. I am miserable in the cast, miserable wearing the only clothes that fit over it: an ugly green and white vertically striped skirt with an elastic waist and an ugly square-cut T-shirt.
Billy and Dick leave.
“Billy calls you ‘Four Eyes,’’’ Sallie says, laughing.
I pretend I don’t care.
Inside the empty bathroom across the narrow hallway is a dead bat in the toilet. On the floor is a gallon jug of reddish brown liquid labeled “Prince Matchabelli.”
“I was part-owner of the Alvin Theatre on Broadway,” my father says. “They sprayed the scent around the lobby before the shows.”
One day, when he and I were alone, he began telling me about seeing the original “Porgy and Bess” at the Alvin Theatre around the time I was born.
I was sitting on the couch and he was standing in the middle of the living room.
“Anne Brown, who played Bess, had the most magnificent soprano voice. And Todd Duncan, who played the crippled beggar, Porgy, had a great voice too.”
My father, looking happier than I’d ever seen him, sang “Summertime” and “Bess, You is My Woman Now.”
As dusk came on, he told me the story of the whole opera.
I felt so privileged, so special, so in love.
At the end of the downstairs hall, I see into the cavernous four-car garage empty of cars. To the left is the refrigerator that was too large to be carried up the narrow staircase. My mother stands in front of it, crying over having to go downstairs every time she has to get something from the “icebox.”
I climb the steep stairs to the second floor, turn right and enter the long white bathroom the family uses. In the scene embedded in this room, I am naked. My mother looks into my eyes and laughs as she reaches out and pinches my little pink nipples showing their first swelling. Her eyes are daring me. I stand stunned and helpless.
Now I wonder if my mother’s intrusion explains why I accepted Sallie’s mistreatment.
I sit on the toilet examining my sparse little pubic hairs. My mother laughs.
“Peach fuzz?” she asks.
I feel invaded, exposed, diminished.
I walk out of the bathroom and enter the dining room with its green-ivy-on-white wallpaper. The family is having breakfast. Elmer serves the last of the scrambled eggs to me, the dry scrapings. I know he hates me.
I look in the adjoining kitchen and see my mother bending over an old-fashioned washing machine with a wringer that is standing next to the laundry tub. She is crying. Elmer used to do the laundry but now he is gone.
“It’s your fault he left,” she says.
I enter the long living room that is the width of the building, its walls covered with the same green-ivy-on-white wallpaper. A reproduction of Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse, which shows the boy’s penis, is hanging on the wall. I see my mother sitting in the yellow-with-gray-feathers chintz-covered wing chair, sobbing because FDR is dead.
She cries over my father too. “I cry because I‘m having sex with him, and I don’t love him,” she says. She tells me she cries during church for the same reason.
”But sex with your father is good,” she tearfully admits. “He is considerate.”
One day, I find my mother crying over an old, yellowed, angry letter her silent-movie-star mother Helen Gardner sent when I was a newborn. Gardner was distraught that her film career was over and was taking it out on my mother. My mother is unable to let go of her childhood suffering.
I never see her cry over what she is doing to me.
While looking through the books in the built-in bookshelf, I find The Sex Life of Savages and start reading. I am excited by the descriptions of how savages have intercourse but can’t figure out what “missionary position” means. Later, I look for the book in the same place, but it is gone.
My mother reappears. She is sitting in the wing chair, giving me the sex lecture.
“The man’s penis is placed in the woman’s vagina and deposits the sperm that fertilizes the woman’s egg,” she says.
“What makes the sperm come out?” I ask, sensing I am on the trail of something exciting.
“Friction,” she says. “Friction on the part of the male makes the sperm come out.”
Later, I will call this the “Piston Theory of Sexual Intercourse.” No pleasure, no excitement, no orgasm.
I can’t make the mechanical friction fit with my mother’s next words: “Sex between two people who love each other is beautiful.”
“Don’t tell any of your friends what I told you,” she warns.
I run over to Sallie’s and teach her about friction. I leave out the beautiful part.
I am so adept on my crutches that I can swing myself around. Suddenly, I lose my balance and fall against my mother’s Grand Rapids mahogany plant stand. The left leg of my cast cracks and has to be repaired. After several months, the cast is taken off and I am finally allowed to walk without crutches. I feel the same pain as before the surgery.
“The operation didn’t take because you fell down and broke your cast. You hurt your leg when you fell. You shouldn’t have hurled yourself around on those crutches,” my mother says.
I see myself in the long narrow bedroom off the living room that my little sister Adrienne and I share. I am sitting on my maple twin bed, putting on the ugly orthopedic shoes that a local quack prescribed because he thinks the searing pain down the side of my left leg is caused by bad shoes. I wear the shoes for a month. My leg hurts the whole time.
Another doctor thinks fatigue is causing the pain. He prescribes six weeks in bed. I read all of Nancy Drew and explore my vagina with the smooth end of a fountain pen.
My mother comes into the bedroom with my baby doll Teresa, but Teresa doesn’t look like herself. Without asking me, my mother has taken her to a doll hospital in New York City and gotten her a new, dull-looking head. I burst into tears. I want my shiny-headed Teresa with the crack over her eye back. I am inconsolable.
I get up after six weeks in bed and my leg still hurts.
An orthopedic doctor in New York City thinks I have a dislocated hip. My mother likes this new doctor. They sit in his office and laugh while I wait in the examining room naked and alone. The nurse comes in and calls me a “brazen hussy.” She had told me to get undressed.
This doctor says I need “manipulation,” so I am taken to a hospital in New Rochelle, a town north of Manhattan that is an hour’s drive from Sands Point.
When I come to, I am imprisoned in a cold, clammy, “semi-frog” cast that goes from under my arms down to my left toe and down to my right knee. The cast pulls my knees apart in a spread-eagle position that exposes my genitals. My hip aches. My mother is sitting by the side of my hospital bed, crying.
“Oh God,” she sobs, as soon as she sees me waking up. “It was so awful. You can’t believe how much I suffered. Your operation took five and a half hours! They wouldn’t tell me anything. I was worried to death. It was so terrible for me.”
I throw up.
I have endless hours to think about myself. I feel abnormal. I am flat chested. I am eleven, and my periods haven’t started, despite fervent longings. My girlfriends got theirs when they were ten. In my diary, I write, “I wish I wish I wish my periods would start.
My father visits and brings presents he bought at a little gift store in Port Washington.
“I got these on sale,” he brags.
The presents are sweet: a little manicure set wrapped in a baby blue cloth envelope trimmed with pink piping, postcards with flowers on them, a little sewing kit. He holds my hand and calls me “Sweetie.” I feel close to him.
I am touched by his gifts and his visit. I am glad my mother isn’t here to nag.
Because of the size of my cast, a regular bedpan won’t fit under me. The nurses use a “kidney pan,” a longish vessel that has a rim that is higher on one end than the other. A nurse puts it under me with the short end in front, and my urine sprays onto the sheet.
“Oh, you got the bed wet,” she says as she takes the pan away, leaving me lying on the urine-soaked sheet.
A few days later, a night nurse finds me like that. She raises my cast and sees that the moisture has melted the plaster on the parts of the cast that are over my buttocks. She cuts out the melted parts, puts in new fabric lining and puts cream on my raw, chapped skin. I love her.
I can’t drink the hospital milk that tastes of cows.
“If you don’t drink your milk, your leg won’t heal,” another nurse threatens me.
I hate her.
After a month in the hospital lying flat on my back ̶ enclosed, exposed, mostly alone ̶ with no radio, no magazines, no friends, the doctor puts on a smaller cast and I go home to Sands Point in an ambulance. To give me what the driver thinks will be a thrill, he turns on the siren as we pass the Roman Catholic school where students are at recess. I turn my head, embarrassed.
After a month, the smaller cast comes off. I feel the same pain as in the beginning.
One night, in the bedroom my sister and I share, Adrienne is sound asleep. I hear funny noises and tiptoe to the open door between our room and my parents’ room. I hear rhythmic movement of their sheets and think it must be the penis creating friction. I wonder if they are in the missionary position, whatever that is. I am aroused but don’t have a name for it. I creep back to my bed and lie awake, trying to hear more.
Now I am alone in my parents’ bedroom, looking through the drawers of my mother’s cream-colored, gold-trimmed, black-swan-decorated French provincial dresser. Under a flesh-colored lace lingerie bag, I find a collection of black and white photographs. The settings are Victorian, the carpets dark, the furnishings heavy. The men are naked except for black garters, socks and shoes; the women wear only black hose.
In one photograph, a woman kneels on the floor between two naked men who stand facing her. She holds one man’s erect penis in her mouth and the other man’s in her hand. In another photograph, a woman and a man are sprawled on a chaise among satin and lace bedding, his penis inside her vagina.
I find dirty rhymes and a little book of line drawings whose pages I flip to see the feet of a man moving to lie between a woman’s feet. I feel a combination of arousal and horror.
Not long after this, I am in my own bed unable to sleep because of a throbbing earache. My mother is putting hot oil in my ear and rubbing my forehead. I break down crying.
“I found pictures in your dresser drawer,” I sob in emotional and physical pain.
“I know,” she says. “I felt so terrible. I didn’t know how to talk to you about it. When you get older you’ll understand. They’re just something grown-ups laugh about.”
I think her excuse is another dirty joke I don’t get.
The family doctor comes every day and injects my buttocks with a new drug, penicillin. He disposes of the needless and leaves the plastic syringes behind for me to play with. The shots hurt but my earache goes away.
While lying in bed reading, I hear my mother scream. I run into my parents’ bedroom and find her squatted naked on the clear hobnailed glass water pitcher she keeps by the side of her bed to use as a chamber pot. Her urine is red with blood.
“Get out!” my father yells.
Hurt and confused, I run outside to my favorite little place in the woods and lie down in the tender green grass to console myself. My father finds me.
“You have to make up with your mother,” he says.
“I don’t want to.”
“You have to. Come with me.”
We get to the bedroom where she is lying in bed, looking unhappy.
“Kiss your mother,” my father orders.
I am repelled, but I kiss her as I am being forced to. No one explains what happened or why they threw me out.
I am alone in my parents’ bedroom, crouching in my father’s clothes closet under the eaves. I am hiding a large ornate “PAID” stamp I have just stolen from the reception desk at the Sands Point Bath Club.
My father finds it and confronts me.
“Did you put this in my closet?”
“Tell me the truth,” he says. “You don’t ever have to be afraid to tell Daddy the truth.”
“Yes, I did it.”
“Always tell Daddy the truth,” he says.
He says he won’t tell anyone. He doesn’t scold me for stealing. I understand it is our special secret.
It will not be long before I realize that the rule about telling the truth applies only to me. He will tell me only exaggerations, shaded truths and outright lies.
I have a second, different kind of operation. The doctor my mother likes so much has never done this operation before. After several failed tries at hammering a metal pin into my hip socket, he gives up. The New Rochelle hospital’s chief of surgery takes over and gets it right. This time, when I get off crutches, my leg no longer hurts.
Some boys from the Sands Point Bath Club come over. Sallie joins us. My mother is out, my father away at work.
“Let’s play Spin-the-Bottle!” one of the boys says.
We sit in a circle in the living room. Warner van Zandt, a slight, sallow-skinned boy, stands in the middle and spins an empty coke bottle on the floor. It stops at me, and he gives me a little peck on the lips.
Now it is my turn to spin. The bottle stops at handsome Bobby Gallaway. I lean over to kiss him. He grabs me and gives me a deep kiss with his full lips. He is sweating profusely, and I don’t understand why.
After a while, the boys get bored, and Bobby and I sit on the couch and neck. He is breathing heavily, still sweating. His intensity confuses me.
Another time, we play strip poker. We laugh and laugh as we take off pieces of clothing. When I am left in nothing but a long shirt, my bra and panties long gone, we end the game.
Now I can finish my story about Sallie.
While Bonnie was still a toddler, Sallie’s mother took her to Kentucky, leaving the rest of the family behind. Sallie’s father spent his days sitting alone in the dark kitchen, drinking and crying for Bonnie. Sallie was now the woman of the house.
When I was twelve, my parents looked for a house to buy. My mother found a “converted farmhouse” on the other side of Sands Point and fell in love with the place. She nagged my father until he caved in and bought it.
“I could have gotten the house a lot cheaper if you hadn’t pushed me so hard,” he accuses.
I wasn’t sad about leaving Sallie.
After I spent eighth grade at Vincent Smith School, my parents enrolled me in the elite Friends Academy in Locust Valley, Long Island. I had to repeat eighth grade there because of missed school from the hip.
I don’t know why my parents had me change schools, but I felt totally out of place in the new, larger one full of stuck-up rich kids. I had to ride the school bus for an hour to get there and an hour back. I couldn’t take part in after-school activities, which might have helped me make friends. Sports were out of the question anyway because of my hip problem.
My friend Fritzi said, “You go to Friends Academy to make enemies.” I didn’t make enemies, but I didn’t make any friends.
I entered ninth grade at Port Washington Junior High in a building that held seventh, eighth and ninth grades and began to make friends.
When I moved up to tenth grade, which was in the high school on the other side of town, I sometimes saw Sallie, now a senior, in the halls. She looked shrunken and furtive, like a weasel. She was always alone.
We pretended not to know each other.