Strange Days

 

Redbook

Things changed in ’67. My mother, who had for years visited Mr. Robert’s Beauty Salon twice a week to keep her bouffant in faultless shape, became a hippie overnight, greeting me at the kitchen door one day with hair hanging to her shoulders and strands of yellow love beads around her neck. “Do you like?” She spun around, an Indian-print gauze skirt floating behind her.

I didn’t like. The night before, she had left for her first book club meeting in slacks and cardigan, her usual clothes. “What kind of book club sold you new clothes?” I asked.

She’d gone shopping in Harvard Square, she said, and the book club itself was fabulous. She’d forgotten there were open minds in this world. She talked on, about how the club was going to cover the twentieth century. All I could think was, she was in over her head. A single row of paperbacks, with cheap covers and titles like Love’s Lonely Flame lined the shelf in her bedroom. She said it didn’t matter that she’d never read any of the people the club was discussing. So what? She’d learn. Next time was James Joyce. “Short stories.”

“What about a job?” I said. “I thought you were going to find a job.” Her money from the house sale wouldn’t last forever. My father sent fifty dollars a week child support, but what was fifty dollars a week? That wouldn’t get us back to Cider Hill.

“We’ll manage, Carol,” she said. This from the woman who had run the Cider Hill house with a hefty household allowance and cried the day we moved out. “It’s not so bad here.”

“It’s horrible here.” What could she be thinking? Was she suddenly blind to the cement slab walls, the orange Jetsons carpet? Granita Apartments was a place where women hung underwear on imitation wrought-iron balconies, a place where kids like Leah Carshio, who shoplifted from Woolworth’s and hitchhiked down Route 7, lived.

“You told me this was temporary and Dad would come to his senses. You aren’t even trying to make things work anymore,” I said, happy to see my words slap the excitement off her face. Immediately, I was sorry. She’d been a huddle on the couch for so many months. She’d even left the grocery shopping to me, in case she should run into Monica, my father’s girlfriend. My father and Monica lived just twenty minutes away, but I didn’t see them anywhere, never mind at the supermarket.

She fingered the beads around her neck, her expression bleak. “He doesn’t seem to be coming to his senses, after all.” She gestured to the flyer I was holding, ART ‘67! in large letters. “What’s that?”

I had practically fallen up the stairs in my rush to get to the apartment⎯I refused to call it home⎯ready to tell her about the art classes. My junior high, I said, was one of ten selected by the state Governor’s Council to participate in an after-school pilot art program. I would be taking classes every day.

“Well, that’s something to do now you didn’t make the basketball cut.”

Like Cider Hill, basketball was one more thing I was no longer a part of. “The art teacher says I have natural talent.”

My mother’s gaze was fixed on her reflection in the oven window. “Maybe I’ll take an art class, too. I’ve got talent somewhere, I know I do.” She twirled again. “You never said. How do you like my outfit?” She tossed her head. The beads made a clicking noise.

There was a nasty edge building inside me. I said she looked like a weirdo. I’d never spoken to her that way; now I was ready for a fight.

But she eyed me calmly. “Better get used to a mother who’s doing what she wants for once in her life.”

Doing what you wanted⎯I seemed to be hearing that more and more. Miss Perlman, the art teacher, said the best thing about living in the sixties was that old ways were being reexamined. People were recognizing “different strokes for different folks,” she said. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with old ways. I remembered my brick elementary school with the Founding Fathers faces looking down at us from above the American flag, and steam rising from radiators on winter mornings. The old days were nights around the television, laughing with my father as we watched Andy Griffith. They were shopping trips to New York, my mother’s Jackie Kennedy hat, lunch in the birdcage at Lord & Taylor as she hummed “A Summer Place,” a song I loved, and showed me how to place a napkin on my lap just so. Now I pretended to like The Doors, Debra Jean’s new favorite band, but every time I heard “Strange Days,” Jim Morrison’s sinister voice seemed to be stealing across my skin like a hiss.

Art class was a way to sink back into those things I missed. My first effort, not bad, was a watercolor⎯the pond where I’d learned to skate. Miss Perlman held up the finished January at Cider Hill and asked the class to applaud. Miss Perlman, in her navy cardigans and scraped-back bun, didn’t look like someone who wanted new ways. She was probably fifty, with ink-stained fingers and a shiny face that took on an eager expression when she suggested I free myself, experiment with oils. Working with them was almost hypnotic. I loved inhaling the fumes, and pulling my brush through thick paint. The art room was a haven at the end of the day. There were only about twelve of us in the class⎯quiet people. From the gym came distant sounds of the basketball teams, the calling and pounding of feet making soothing background noise as we worked.

Each night, my mother struggled with the Joyce book, a pocket dictionary by her side. When she returned from the next club meeting, I was awake, photo album open, sketching the Cape Cod cottage where we’d spent my eleventh and happiest summer. I heard her shaking her umbrella and went out to meet her. She was sitting at the table, looking glum, her new outfit bedraggled, a net of raindrops clinging to her hair.

“How’d it go?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Maybe it’s not for me. Everything I said sounded stupid.”

“What do you mean?”

She put her head in her hands and sighed. “I had a hard time with that book.”

“Why a book club, anyway?” I asked. “Why Cambridge?”

She looked at me blankly. “What is there for me here?”

“What about the Chelton Club? The PTA?”

“The club canceled my membership as soon as they heard about the divorce. My so-called friends at the PTA don’t invite me to anything anymore.”

All the more reason to get back with my father. “Let’s invite Dad to dinner,” I said.

Oh, Carol, forget it.” She got up and reached into the cupboard where we kept the mail. “I was going to find the right time to give this to you.” She handed me a postcard: fat peaches hanging from a leafy branch. “He’s in Atlanta.”

I turned the card around. Carol honey, sorry I didn’t have time to call. Down here till June⎯representing a big client. Real busy! It’s just a phase, I thought. He’d be back. He got heat rash really easily; Atlanta would be too steamy for his sensitive skin.

“I’m sure she’s with him,” my mother said.

I knew she was an antiques photographer. I’d never met Monica, but I pictured silk suits, a blonde pageboy, expensive cameras. One of the things I’d once heard my father throw in my mother’s face was that her⎯my mother’s⎯tastes were lowbrow. She threw back that when they were first married, he’d been happy to take her lowbrow tips from the Copper Kettle to help pay for his credits at Suffolk Law.

They’d made up that time. He’d bought her a dozen roses “for now,” a rose bush “for always.” Maybe when he came back in June, he’d see a new Jean, one more like Monica, who could talk about books. She’d have to get rid of the Granny clothes, though. “Maybe next week’s book will be better,” I offered.

She brightened. “Well, it’s Lolita. That’s supposed to be spicy.”

I tried to help things along. I painted her in her pink A-line dress, standing by the tulip bed, my father digging a hole, the rosebush waiting to be planted, and me, bare-legged in the grass. I used azalea for my mother’s lips, and painted her upswept hair a mixture of oxblood and gold. I spent two days on the tulips, trying to bring them to satiny life. The roses were easier: crescents of pink and white. I was finishing them when Miss Perlman announced that in late May, the Governor’s Council would award a summer scholarship to the Massachusetts College of Art. One student from each of the ten schools in the pilot program would be selected to attend the college, tuition-free, for two months, five days a week. Miss Perlman hung what she considered the best efforts of the class along the south wall. She included my Cape Cod Idyll, then stood by my easel and raved about Return to Cider Hill. “Wonderful, Carol, just brilliant,” she said.

“All the work in this class is good,” she added, but it seemed that her voice harbored special warmth toward me. The only other decent paintings were Andy Shulman’s cornfield and Mary Emmanuel’s modern stuff: big purple cubes, swirls, and eyeballs. My Cape Cod Idyll, with its shades of white and gray⎯sand blowing about a pebbly beach, steel-gray waves in the background, was easily, I thought, the best. I hurried through my work that day, putting the still-wet Return to Cider Hill in a box to protect it during my walk home. I was eager to get to the apartment to give my mother the painting and tell her about the scholarship.

Inside, I unlocked our door. Simon and Garfunkel was playing softly and my mother was so engrossed in her book, she didn’t hear me come in. She was holding a yellow-and-black Cliff Notes; Lolita lay on the table in front of her.

I coughed, wanting to save us both the embarrassment of having to acknowledge what I’d seen. She stuffed the Cliff Notes down the side of the chair cushion and jumped to her feet. Worse, she grabbed Lolita from the coffee table and said she was almost finished.

“It’s a marvelous book,” she said. “A perfect mixture of satire and imagination.”

I was embarrassed for her, passing that evaluation off as her own, but wanted to think the best. Perhaps the Cliff Notes were a one-time thing, a push to get her started. I didn’t want to believe there was no hope for her.

“I have a present,” I said. I lifted the box lid and laid the Cider Hill painting on the coffee table. Her long hair brushed the canvas as she bent over it, exclaiming over the colors, how true to life it was.

“You could do really meaningful work,” she said. “Anti-war posters or something.”

She glanced up, the tips of her hair flecked with paint. She must have seen that I expected something more. “Cider Hill⎯that’s really another world now, isn’t it?”

It was another world, and I would have to be the one to get us back to it. She had no interest in our old life. Soon she made friends at her club and they went for coffee after meetings. “I had a lot to say about John Cheever’s themes of isolation,” she’d say when she got home. Or, “Faulkner plants the burden of southern loneliness firmly on its past.” She began working in Harvard Square, at a used bookshop that did a brisk side business in incense and candles, and said we’d move to Cambridge as soon as she could afford it. She burned patchouli in the ashtray of our Ford Falcon, gave her A-line dresses and slack sets to the Salvation Army, bought more Indian gauze skirts, and wore bangles, and sandals with socks. By spring, everyone in my class knew my mother was a hippie. She mortified me by showing up at Parent-Student Day wearing a daisy wreath, and when she set her contribution⎯bean sprout cookies⎯on the bake sale table, they sat untouched.

That same night, my friend Jean was due to sleep over. I arrived home to find a man with a long beard sitting on our couch, strumming a guitar. The woman by his side was nodding her head in rhythm, her eyes closed. Two gray-haired women held hands.

My mother waved at me. “Hi honey. Come join us.”

I glared at her and made for my room. On my desk were paper and charcoal pencils. I sketched lines, shapes, nothing comprehensible. Then I called Jean. I told her I’d had a fight with my mother, hoping she’d invite me over. Instead, she said her team decided to have a party last minute, and now she could go, and she felt bad telling me, but well, her mom was a little leery about her visiting me anyway. “She thinks your mother’s smoking stuff.”

“Of course she isn’t,” I said, with that overconfident voice people use when deep down they’re not sure at all. Jean hung up and my mother called down the hall that she and her friends were going out for a bite to eat. As soon as the door shut behind them, I went out into the living room and kicked the sofa and chairs where they’d sat, kicked my father’s old leather hassock from Cider Hill. The top loosened⎯I’d forgotten it came off. When I was small, I’d hidden my Barbies in there. I wished I could be nine again, that I’d find my Barbies hiding on me, my parents on the couch when I looked up. But there were no dolls in the hassock. Inside lay Cliff Notes for all the books my mother’s group had read: Light in August, Goodbye, Columbus, The Wapshot Chronicle.

I painted another portrait for Mother’s Day: a study in mockery. I made my mother’s hips too large in the swirly Indian-print skirt and used an oily brown on her hair. I painted books under her arm, and though I didn’t actually write the words Cliff Notes on them, I painted them yellow and black.

“Another painting,” she said on Mother’s Day morning, seeming pleased until she looked more closely. Confusion flickered briefly in her eyes, but she propped the canvas up beside Cider Hill on the kitchen shelf. “It’s really groovy, Carol.”

Groovy.

She began going out on Saturday nights, saying she was meeting a few friends from the group, but she was humming, happy. The third Saturday, I confronted her.

“Are you going on a date?”

She hesitated, then said yes, she was.

“He’s not a hippie, is he?”

“He’s a very nice man.”

“What’s his job?”

“He’s got a very good job, Carol, at Harvard. Now I know you probably don’t like to see me dating, but it’s just once a week.”

Harvard? “I want you to go on dates,” I said. “Invite him here. I’ll even make dinner.”

“Are you serious?” She looked uncertain. “You seemed so intent on wishing your father and me⎯.”

“⎯I’m serious.” If some decent man liked her, I’d have to encourage it. Our life had to change.

Her look of surprise turned to pleasure. “Well, thanks. We have plans next Saturday, but I’ll invite him for the Saturday after.”

“Right.”

At last, our situation was improving.

At my next art class, I overheard Miss Perlman in the hallway, talking on the phone. “Marvelous expression of form and color,” she was saying. “Certainly one of the more original students I’ve worked with.” My heart beat hard. I held my breath. Then: “Really fresh. Yes. Mary Emmanuel.”

I walked over to my easel and stood numb in front of my new painting, an illustration of The Secret Garden for the elementary school’s June book fair. My flowers were stiff, fake. The light was all wrong. I looked at my Cape Cod Idyll up on the wall and felt pity for it, like a child only its mother saw beauty in. Mary Emmanuel. It was a name like trumpets, an angel’s name. I’d never seen her as a threat. Now, watching her hovering intensely over her canvas, her long fingers working her brush, I felt the first prick of anxiety. I needed to paint a masterpiece, something undeniably brilliant.

On Tuesday, I skipped school for the first time. I called the principal’s office from a payphone, pretending to be my mother saying I was sick, then caught the bus to the Boston commuter train. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I knew if I walked around the Museum of Fine Arts, inspiration would come.

I wandered through the galleries, past frame after frame of talent until I came to a still life so different I had to stop and stare. The work was a composition of fruit, but nothing about it was typical. This was no fruit displayed unnaturally, in a bowl or on a table, but a gasp of real life, a French peddler’s display. There were clusters of ripened pears, groupings of golden apples. In the middle were boxes: of raspberries, blueberries⎯all ready to burst their skins with lip-staining juices. The painting reminded me of the Stiller Street Market, where we’d shopped when I was small. Mr. Mariano’s oranges and bananas were always piled high on a wooden cart in the center of his shop, a sweet smell hanging heavy in the air. Mr. Mariano died when I was ten. His shop became a real estate agent’s office. The Wonder Mart opened, with its packages of cellophane-wrapped fruit. But Caillebotte’s painting brought back memories I’d nearly forgotten. I made a mental note of the title and practically ran to the museum store.

I paid for a print and brought it home, not really sure what I would do with it. A day went by, two. The third day, I picked up some tracing paper at the drugstore and began to trace Caillebotte’s painting, just to get the feel of the shapes, get a sense of the composition, the balance. Maybe the traced shapes would help me create something of my own. I thought I would use just a few of the shapes, but when I was done I had penciled almost the entire Caillebotte onto my canvas. But my hand had moved the pencil, and the composition somehow seemed my own. That afternoon I began to paint. I painted as if in a fever for the next week. At night, I would eye the colors and the shadings of the Caillebotte, then try to reproduce them the next day. By Thursday of the following week, my canvas was finished. I stood back to admire it.

Miss Perlman joined me. I sensed something reserved about her manner, but I was so in love with what I’d done I didn’t pay attention. “Well, Carol,” she said briskly. “An interesting effort.”

“I’d like this to be the one you consider for the scholarship,” I said.

“Mmm, of course, dear. Although, might there be just a little something about it that is well⎯not quite felt?”

I struggled. I drew great gulps of air to keep my voice from cracking. “What do you mean?”

She flushed and clasped her hands together. “Being influenced by the greats is one thing, Carol. But plagiarism applies to the visual arts, too.”

Even though my face was flaming, I stuck out the rest of the class. When I escaped, I knew I’d never go back. At home, I looked at the Caillebotte and saw my stupidity with new eyes. I had worked so hard, my painting had actually felt like my own creation. Okay, I thought, my mother’s literary pronouncements, lifted from the pages of her Cliff Notes, probably felt like her own thoughts, too. Still, I was angry with myself, angry with her. I was angry with the world. And the next afternoon, the announcement was made over the intercom system: They’d chosen the “new visions” of Mary Emmanuel.

I ran out to the waiting school buses. I stepped onto #8, the bus to Cider Hill, and mumbled that I was visiting an old neighbor to all the nosy kids who asked what I was doing. At Whiskey Street I got off and headed up Cider Hill Road, following the stone walls that lined the street. The apple trees were spotted with papery pink petals, the air smelled like spring, and it wasn’t fair. There was our brick house. My house, my room up in the corner. The pink and white rosebush covered with tight pink buds. Stupid bush that didn’t know we’d planted it, didn’t know we were gone. My friends were busy without me. My father was never coming back. I’d kidded myself. I’d kidded myself about everything when people only cared about Mary Emmanuel and Jim Morrison and new visions.

I remembered the dinner I was making the next night, and fought to keep from crying. “Please,” I said, my words sounding like a prayer. “Please let this man be someone who can help us.” A woman peered from the front window until I began to move away. It took me two hours to walk back to Granita Apartments.

On Saturday night, the doorbell rang while my mother was still in the shower. I ran to let our guest in, took one look, and wanted to slam the door. He was wearing sandals and frayed jean shorts with a peace sign on the thigh. He wore a ponytail; hairy sideburns crawled down his cheeks.

A skinny white hand reached for mine and shook it. “Carol. Hi, I’m Bill.”

He looked like a teenager. She must have lied about her age. “How old are you?”

He rolled his head back in an exaggerated show of shock, then smiled. “Twenty-nine.”

“So you like going out with older women?”

“Hey, your mom’s only thirty-four.”

So she hadn’t lied. “Well, you might as well sit down.” A sweet patchouli smell rose from his clothes. I led him to the couch, wishing I hadn’t already put out the snacks. The bowl of chips and onion dip looked too welcoming.

“Your mom tells me you’re an artist,” Bill said. “That’s cool.”

I could picture my mother, the reader, in those coffeehouses bragging about her daughter, the artist.

“Painting was a hobby,” I said. “Math is my favorite subject. I’m going to work in a bank when I get out of school. Take care of myself.”

“Oh, I thought⎯.”

“I’m not.” I waved my hand to change the topic. “So, why do you go to this reading group? You don’t look like a reader.”

He smiled. “You know, if you’re feeling hostile, it’s cool, I’ll leave. But your mom said this was your idea.”

“I just don’t see what you want with my mother.”

“Your mom’s an intelligent woman. Do you know how hard it is to find women who like the same things you like?”

“Oh, yeah, what do you like?”

He leaned forward. His manner was earnest and corny, like a minister’s. “Well, we both have a very deep love of books.”

“Ha,” I said. “My mom doesn’t read books.”

“Excuse me?”

“Look around this place. Do you see books?” I enjoyed his puzzled discomfort. Why should she get away with cheating? “She reads the Cliff Notes,” I said. “She’s got a whole collection. Want to see?” I reached for the top of the hassock, pulled out a handful of Cliff Notes, and scattered them across the coffee table. Lolita slid against the bowl, knocking a blob of dip onto Rabbit, Run.

The bathroom door opened and my mother called that she was coming. Bill’s uneasy face made me feel terrible and powerful at the same time. “She’s just going through an ‘I’m-an-intellectual’ stage,” I said.

My mother entered the room. She had slipped on a floral caftan and she looked from Bill to me, her happy expression changing to one of wariness.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

Bill stood. “This kid is too much for me, man,” he said.
My heart was already sick with regret but I spoke as if I was the calmest girl alive. “I guess old Bill and I didn’t hit it off. Sorry, Mom.”

Her glance fell on the Cliff Notes and her eyes closed with embarrassment. A buzzing began to sound in my ears. I remembered every nice thing she had ever done for me: cool washcloths to bring down fevers, Barbie clothes sewn by hand, and I opened my mouth but nothing came out. She told Bill she’d treat him to Chinese, grabbed her purse, and led him out of the apartment without another glance at me.

My mother saw Bill a few more times, although he never came to the apartment again. She was cool to me for weeks, but I was afraid that admitting I’d been wrong would be the same as condoning her new lifestyle. My refusal to meet her halfway marked our strained relationship with a sense of permanence. And soon she began mixing even deeper into the counterculture. She found a new boyfriend, took over the used bookshop, and began to embrace the antiwar movement with a full-blown sense of alienation. By ‘69 we were living in Cambridge, she was marching in the streets, and I focused on my math and business classes, wanting only to be eighteen and free to take care of myself. When she saw she couldn’t get me to care about antiwar protests and abortion-rights marches, our conversations sought out comfortable and impersonal ground: items needed at the supermarket, a joke overheard on the subway.

What my mother didn’t know, or wouldn’t have understood, I thought, was that I was scared to be coming of age in the seventies. I wasn’t cut out for drugs and easy attitudes toward sex. When the time came to discuss college, an accounting degree seemed like a haven of logic.

My mother suggested a school for the arts.

“You had a talent for painting,” she said. “Why not try to create something of your own?”

We were sitting side by side at our kitchen table in Cambridge, her eyes fixed on mine. Traffic sounds filtered through the screen window. An old alarm clock ticked. My upper lip was perspiring in the unseasonably warm April weather. I closed my eyes, feeling dizzy, as if I was swaying. I’d cheated back in art class, I said. I’d done it under pressure; the judges had been into modern stuff. “I was born into the wrong era,” I said, sounding foolish and tragic.

I waited for her to laugh at my dramatics. I opened my eyes. She was studying me carefully, seriously, and I saw then how it was going to be for us⎯lifelong incompatibility, yes, but also these odd, fragile, moments of connection. “Times change,” she said. “This time will change.”

“Listen,” she said. It was only the clock, but⎯. “You can almost hear it happening.”