Shameful as it is to say, the riots were the best thing that ever happened to us. Overnight we went from being a family desperately trying to stay in the middle class to one with hopes of sneaking into the upper, or at least the upper-middle. The insurance money didn’t amount to quite as much as Milton had anticipated. Two of the companies refused to pay the full amount, citing double indemnity clauses. They paid only a quarter of their policies’ value. Still, taken all together, the money was much more than the Zebra Room had been worth, and it allowed my parents to make some changes in our lives.
Of all my childhood memories, none has the magic, the pure dreaminess, of the night we heard a honk outside our house and looked out the window to see that a spaceship had landed in our driveway.
It had set down noiselessly next to my mother’s station wagon. The front lights flashed. The back end gave off a red glow. For thirty seconds nothing more happened. But then finally the window of the spaceship slowly retracted to reveal, instead of a Martian inside, Milton. He had shaved off his beard.
“Get your mother,” he called, smiling. “We’re going for a little ride.”
Not a spaceship then, but close: a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood, as intergalactic a car as Detroit ever produced. (The moon shot was only a year away.) It was as black as space itself and shaped like a rocket lying on its side. The long front end came to a point, like a nose cone, and from there the craft stretched back along the driveway in a long, beautiful, ominously perfect shape. There was a silver multi-chambered grille, as though to filter stardust. Chrome piping, like the housing for circuitry, led from conical yellow turn signals along the rounded sides of the car, all the way to the rear, where the vehicle flared propulsively into jet fins and rocket boosters.
Inside, the Cadillac was as plushly carpeted and softly lit as the bar at the Ritz. The armrests were equipped with ashtrays and cigarette lighters. The interior itself was black leather and gave off a strong new smell. It was like climbing into somebody’s wallet.
We didn’t move right away. We remained parked, as if it were enough just to sit in the car, as if now that we owned it, we could forget about our living room and stay in the driveway every night. Milton started the engine. Keeping the transmission in park, he showed us the marvels. He opened and closed the windows by pressing a button. He locked the doors by pressing another. He buzzed the front seat forward, then tilted it back until I could see the dandruff on his shoulders. By the time he put the car into gear we were all slightly giddy. We drove away down Seminole, past our neighbors’ houses, already saying farewell to Indian Village. At the corner, Milton put the blinker on and it ticked, counting the seconds down to our eventual departure.
The ’67 Fleetwood was my father’s first Cadillac, but there were many more to come. Over the next seven years, Milton traded up almost every year, so it’s possible for me to chart my life in relation to the styling features of his long line of Cadillacs. When tail fins disappeared, I was nine; when power antennas arrived, eleven. My emotional life accords with the designs, too. In the sixties, when Cadillacs were futuristically self-assured, I was also self-confident and forward-looking. In the gas-short seventies, however, when the manufacturer came out with the unfortunate Seville—a car that looked as though it had been rear-ended—I also felt misshapen. Pick a year and I’ll tell you what car we had. 1970: the cola-colored Eldorado. 1971: the red sedan DeVille. 1972: the golden Fleetwood with the passenger sun visor that opened up into a starlet’s dressing room mirror (in which Tessie checked her makeup and I my first blemishes). 1973: the long, black, dome-roofed Fleetwood that made other cars stop, thinking a funeral was passing. 1974: the canary-yellow, two-door “Florida Special” with white vinyl top, sunroof, and tan leather seats that my mother is still driving today, almost thirty years later.
But in 1967 it was the space-age Fleetwood. Once we got going the required speed, Milton said, “Okay. Now get a load of this.” He flipped a switch under the dash. There was a hissing sound, like balloons inflating. Slowly, as if lifted on a magic carpet, the four of us rose to the upper reaches of the car’s interior.
“That’s what they call the ‘Air-Ride.’ Brand-new feature. Smooth, huh?”
“Is it some kind of hydraulic suspension system?” Chapter Eleven wanted to know.
“I think so.”
“Maybe I won’t have to use my pillow when I drive,” said Tessie.
For a moment after that, none of us spoke. We were headed east, out of Detroit, literally floating on air.
Which brings me to the second part of our upward mobility. Shortly after the riots, like many other white Detroiters, my parents began looking for a house in the suburbs. The suburb they had their sights on was the affluent lakefront district of the auto magnates: Grosse Pointe.
It was much harder than they ever expected. In the Cadillac, scouting the five Grosse Pointes (the Park, the City, the Farms, the Woods, the Shores), my parents saw for sale signs on many lawns. But when they stopped in at the realty offices and filled out applications, they found that the houses suddenly went off the market, or were sold, or doubled in price.
After two months of searching, Milton was down to his last real estate agent, a Miss Jane Marsh of Great Lakes Realty. He had her—and some growing suspicions.
“This property is rather eccentric,” Miss Marsh is telling Milton one September afternoon as she leads him up the driveway. “It takes a buyer with a little vision.” She opens the front door and leads him inside. “But it does have quite a pedigree. It was designed by Hudson Clark.” She waits for recognition. “Of the Prairie School?”
Milton nods, dubiously. He swivels his head, looking over the place. He hadn’t much cared for the picture Miss Marsh had shown him over at the office. Too boxy-looking. Too modern.
“I’m not sure my wife would go for this kind of thing, Miss Marsh.”
“I’m afraid we don’t have anything moretraditional to show at the moment.”
She leads him along a spare white hallway and down a small flight of open stairs. And now, as they step into the sunken living room, Miss Marsh’s head begins to swivel, too. Smiling a polite smile that reveals a rabbity expanse of upper gum, she examines Milton’s complexion, his hair, his shoes. She glances at his real estate application again.
“Stephanides. What kind of name is that?”
“Greek. How interesting.”
More upper gum flashes as Miss Marsh makes a notation on her pad. Then she resumes the tour: “Sunken living room. Greenhouse adjoining the dining area. And, as you can see, the house is well supplied with windows.”
“It pretty muchis a window, Miss Marsh.” Milton moves closer to the glass and examines the backyard. Meanwhile, a few feet behind, Miss Marsh examines Milton.
“May I ask what business you’re in, Mr. Stephanides?”
“The restaurant business.”
Another mark of pen on pad. “Can I tell you what churches we have in the area? What denomination are you?”
“I don’t go in for that sort of thing. My wife takes the kids to the Greek church.”
“She’s a Grecian, too?”
“She’s a Detroiter. We’re both East Siders.”
“And you need space for your two children, is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am. Plus we have my folks living with us, too.”
“Oh, I see.” And now pink gums disappear as Miss Marsh begins to add it all up.Let’s see. Southern Mediterranean. One point. Not in one of the professions. One point. Religion? Greek church. That’s some kind of Catholic, isn’t it? So there’s another point there. And he has his parents living with him! Two more points! Which makes—five! Oh, that won’t do. That won’t do at all.
To explain Miss Marsh’s arithmetic: back in those days, the real estate agents in Grosse Pointe evaluated prospective buyers by something called the Point System. (Milton wasn’t the only one who worried about the neighborhood going to hell.) No one spoke of it openly. Realtors only mentioned “community standards” and selling to “the right sort of people.” Now that white flight had begun, the Point System was more important than ever. You didn’t want what was happening in Detroit to happen out here.
Discreetly, Miss Marsh now draws a tiny “5” next to “Stephanides” and circles it. As she does so, however, she feels something. A kind of regret. The Point System isn’t her idea, after all. It was in place long before she came to Grosse Pointe from Wichita, where her father works as a butcher. But there is nothing she can do. Yes, Miss Marsh feels sorry.I mean, really. Look at this house! Who’s going to buy it if not an Italian or a Greek. I’ll never be able to sell it. Never!
Her client is still standing at the window, looking out.
“I do understand your preference for something more ‘Old World,’ Mr. Stephanides. We do get them from time to time. You just have to be patient. I’ve got your telephone number. I’ll let you know if anything comes on the market.”
Milton doesn’t hear her. He is absorbed in the view. The house has a roof deck, plus a patio out back. And there are two other, smaller buildings beyond that.
“Tell me more about this Hudson Clark fella,” he now asks.
“Clark? Well, to be honest, he’s a minor figure.”
“Prairie School, eh?”
“Hudson Clark was no Frank Lloyd Wright, if that’s what you mean.”
“What are these outbuildings I see here?”
“I wouldn’t call them outbuildings, Mr. Stephanides. That’s making it a bit grand. One’s a bathhouse. Rather decrepit, I’m afraid. I’m not sure it even works. Behind that is the guest house. Which also needs a lot of work.”
“Bathhouse? That’s different.” Milton turns away from the glass. He begins walking around the house, looking it over in a new light: the Stonehenge walls, the Klimt tilework, the open rooms. Everything is geometric and grid-like. Sunlight falls in beams through the many skylights. “Now that I’m in here,” Milton says, “I sort of get the idea behind this place. The photo you showed me doesn’t do it justice.”
“Really, Mr. Stephanides, for a family such as yours, with young children, I’m not sure this is quite the best—“
Before she can finish, however, Milton holds up his hands in surrender. “You don’t have to show me any more. Decrepit outbuildings or not, I’ll take it.”
There is a pause. Miss Marsh smiles with her double-decker gums. “That’s wonderful, Mr. Stephanides,” she says without enthusiasm. “Of course, it’s all contingent on the approval of the loan.”
But now it is Milton’s turn to smile. For all the disavowals of its existence, the Point System is no secret. Harry Karras tried unsuccessfully to buy a house in Grosse Pointe the year before. Same thing happened to Pete Savidis. But no one is going to tell Milton Stephanides where to live. Not Miss Marsh and not a bunch of country club real estate guys, either.
“You don’t have to bother with that,” my father said, relishing the moment. “I’ll pay cash.”
Over the barrier of the Point System, my father managed to get us a house in Grosse Pointe. It was the only time in his life he paid for anything up front. But what about the other barriers? What about the fact that real estate agents had shown him only the least-desirable houses, in the areas closest to Detroit? Houses no one else wanted? And what about his inability to see anything except the grand gesture, and the fact that he bought the house without first consulting my mother? Well, for those problems there was no remedy.
On moving day we set off in two cars. Tessie, fighting tears, took Lefty and Desdemona in the family station wagon. Milton drove Chapter Eleven and me in the new Fleetwood. Along Jefferson, signs of the riots still remained, as did my unanswered questions. “What about the Boston Tea Party?” I challenged my father from the backseat. “The colonists stole all that tea and dumped it into the harbor. That was the same thing as a riot.”
“That wasn’t the same at all,” Milton answered back. “What the hell are they teaching you in that school of yours? With the Boston Tea Party the Americans were revolting against another country that was oppressing them.”
“But it wasn’t another country, Daddy. It was the same country. There wasn’t even such a thing as the United States then.”
“Let me ask you something. Where was King George when they dumped all that tea into the drink? Was he in Boston? Was he in America even? No. He was way the hell over there in England, eating crumpets.”
The implacable black Cadillac powered along, bearing my father, brother, and me out of the war-torn city. We crossed over a thin canal which, like a moat, separated Detroit from Grosse Pointe. And then, before we had time to register the changes, we were at the house on Middlesex Boulevard.
The trees were what I noticed first. Two enormous weeping willows, like woolly mammoths, on either side of the property. Their vines hung over the driveway like streamers of sponge at a car wash. Above was the autumn sun. Passing through the willows’ leaves, it turned them a phosphorescent green. It was as though, in the middle of the block’s cool shade, a beacon had been switched on; and this impression was only strengthened by the house we’d now stopped in front of.
Middlesex! Did anybody ever live in a house as strange? As sci-fi? As futuristic and outdated at the same time? A house that was more like communism, better in theory than reality? The walls were pale yellow, made of octagonal stone blocks framed by redwood siding along the roofline. Plate glass windows ran along the front. Hudson Clark (whose name Milton would drop for years to come, despite the fact that no one ever recognized it) had designed Middlesex to harmonize with the natural surroundings. In this case, that meant the two weeping willow trees and the mulberry growing against the front of the house. Forgetting where he was (a conservative suburb) and what was on the other side of those trees (the Turnbulls and the Picketts), Clark followed the principles of Frank Lloyd Wright, banishing the Victorian vertical in favor of a midwestern horizontal, opening up the interior spaces, and bringing in a Japanese influence. Middlesex was a testament to theory uncompromised by practicality. For instance: Hudson Clark hadn’t believed in doors. The concept of the door, of this thing that swung one way or the other, was outmoded. So on Middlesex we didn’t have doors. Instead we had long, accordion-like barriers, made from sisal, that worked by a pneumatic pump located down in the basement. The concept of stairs in the traditional sense was also something the world no longer needed. Stairs represented a teleological view of the universe, of one thing leading to another, whereas now everyone knew that one thing didn’t lead to another but often nowhere at all. So neither did our stairs. Oh, they went up, eventually. They took the persistent climber to the second floor, but on the way they took him lots of other places as well. There was a landing, for instance, overhung with a mobile. The stairway walls had peepholes and shelves cut into them. As you climbed, you could see the legs of someone passing along the hallway above. You could spy on someone down in the living room.
“Where are the closets?” Tessie asked as soon as we got inside.
“The kitchen’s a million miles away from the family room, Milt. Every time you want a snack you have to traipse all the way across the house.”
“It’ll give us some exercise.”
“And how am I supposed to find curtains for those windows? They don’t make curtains that big. Everyone can see right in!”
“Think of it this way. We can see right out.”
But then there was a scream at the other end of the house:
Against her better judgment, Desdemona had pressed a button on the wall. “What kind door this is?” she was shouting as we all came running. “It move by itself!”
“Hey, cool,” said Chapter Eleven. “Try it, Cal. Put your head in the doorway. Yeah, like that . . .”
“Don’t fool with that door, kids.”
“I’m just testing the pressure.”
“What did I tell you? Birdbrain. Now get your sister out of the door.”
“I’m trying. The button doesn’t work.”
“What do you mean it doesn’t work?”
“Oh, this is wonderful, Milt. No closets, and now we have to call the fire department to get Callie out of the door.”
“It’s not designed to have someone’s neck in it.”
“Can you breathe, honey?”
“Yeah, but it hurts.”
“It’s like that guy at Carlsbad Caverns,” said Chapter Eleven. “He got stuck and they had to feed him for forty days and then he finally died.”
“Stop wriggling, Callie. You’re making it—“
“I can see Callie’s underwear! I can see Callie’s underwear!”
“Stop that right now.”
“Here, Tessie, take Callie’s leg. Okay, on three. A-one and a-two and a-three!”
We settled in, with our various misgivings. After the incident with the pneumatic door, Desdemona had a premonition that this house of modern conveniences (which was in fact nearly as old as she was) would be the last she would ever live in. She moved what remained of her and my grandfather’s belongings into the guest house—the brass coffee table, the silkworm box, the portrait of Patriarch Athenagoras—but she could never get used to the skylight, which was like a hole in the roof, or the push-pedal faucet in the bathroom, or the box that spoke on the wall. (Every room on Middlesex was equipped with an intercom. Back when they had been installed in the 1940s—over thirty years after the house itself had been built in 1909—the intercoms had probably all worked. But by 1967 you might speak into the kitchen intercom only to have your voice come out in the master bedroom. The speakers distorted our voices, so that we had to listen very closely to understand what was being said, like deciphering a child’s first, garbled speech.)
Chapter Eleven tapped into the pneumatic system in the basement and spent hours sending a Ping-Pong ball around the house through a network of vacuum cleaner hoses. Tessie never stopped complaining about the lack of closet space and the impractical layout, but gradually, thanks to a touch of claustrophobia, she grew to appreciate Middlesex’s glass walls.
Lefty cleaned them. Making himself useful as always, he took upon himself the Sisyphean task of keeping all those Modernist surfaces sparkling. With the same concentration he trained on the aorist tense of ancient Greek verbs—a tense so full of weariness it specified actions that might never be completed—Lefty now cleaned the huge picture windows, the fogged glass of the greenhouse, the sliding doors that led to the courtyard, and even the skylights. As he was Windexing the new house, however, Chapter Eleven and I were exploring it. Or, I should say, them. The meditative, pastel yellow cube that faced the street contained the main living quarters. Behind that lay a courtyard with a dry pool and a fragile dogwood leaning over in vain to see its reflection. Along the western edge of this courtyard, extending from the back of the kitchen, ran a white, translucent tunnel, something like the tubes that conduct football teams onto the field. This tunnel led to a small domed outbuilding—a sort of huge igloo—surrounded by a covered porch. Inside was a bathing pool (just warming up now, getting ready to play its part in my life). Behind the bathhouse was yet another courtyard, floored with smooth black stones. Along the eastern edge of this, to balance the tunnel, ran a portico lined with thin brown iron beams. The portico led up to the guest house, where no guests ever stayed: only Desdemona, for a short time with her husband and a long time alone.
But more important to a kid: Middlesex had lots of sneaker-sized ledges to walk along. It had deep, concrete window wells perfect for making into forts. It had sun decks and catwalks. Chapter Eleven and I climbed all over Middlesex. Lefty would wash the windows and, five minutes later, my brother and I would come along, leaning on the glass and leaving fingerprints. And seeing them, our tall, mute grandfather, who in another life might have been a professor but in this one was holding a wet rag and bucket, only smiled and washed the windows all over again.
Although he never said a word to me, I loved my Chaplinesquepapou . His speechlessness seemed to be an act of refinement. It went with his elegant clothes, his shoes with woven vamps, the glaze of his hair. And yet he was not stiff at all but playful, even comedic. When he took me for rides in the car Lefty often pretended to fall asleep at the wheel. Suddenly his eyes would close and he would slump to one side. The car would continue on, unpiloted, drifting toward the curb. I laughed, screamed, pulled my hair and kicked my legs. At the last possible second, Lefty would spring awake, taking the wheel and averting disaster.
We didn’t need to speak to each other. We understood each other without speaking. But then a terrible thing happened.
It is a Saturday morning a few weeks after our move to Middlesex. Lefty is taking me for a walk around the new neighborhood. The plan is to go down to the lake. Hand in hand we stroll across our new front lawn. Change is clinking in his trouser pocket, just below the level of my shoulders. I run my fingers over his thumb, fascinated by the missing nail, which Lefty has always told me a monkey bit off at the zoo.
Now we reach the sidewalk. The man who makes the sidewalks in Grosse Pointe has left his name in the cement: J. P. Steiger. There is also a crack, where ants are having a war. Now we are crossing the grass between the sidewalk and the street. And now we are at the curb.
I step down. Lefty doesn’t. Instead, he drops, cleanly, six inches into the street. Still holding his hand, I laugh at him for being so clumsy. Lefty laughs, too. But he doesn’t look at me. He keeps staring straight ahead into space. And, gazing up, I suddenly can see things about my grandfather I should be too young to see. I see fear in his eyes, and bewilderment, and, most astonishing of all, the fact that some adult worry is taking precedence over our walk together. The sun is in his eyes. His pupils contract. We remain at the curb, in its dust and leaf matter. Five seconds. Ten seconds. Long enough for Lefty to come face-to-face with the evidence of his own diminished faculties and for me to feel the onrush of my own growing ones.
What nobody knew: Lefty had had another stroke the week before. Already speechless, he now began to suffer spatial disorientation. Furniture advanced and retreated in the mechanical manner of a fun house. Like practical jokers, chairs offered themselves and then pulled away at the last moment. The diamonds of the backgammon board undulated like player piano keys. Lefty told no one.
Because he no longer trusted himself to drive, Lefty started taking me on walks instead. (That was how we’d arrived at that curb, the curb he couldn’t wake up and turn away from in time.) We went along Middlesex, the silent, old, foreign gentleman and his skinny granddaughter, a girl who talked enough for two, who babbled so fluently that her father the ex-clarinet man liked to joke she knew circular breathing. I was getting used to Grosse Pointe, to the genteel mothers in chiffon headscarves and to the dark, cypress-shrouded house where the one Jewish family lived (having also paid cash). Whereas my grandfather was getting used to a much more terrifying reality. Holding my hand to keep his balance, as trees and bushes made strange, sliding movements in his peripheral vision, Lefty was confronting the possibility that consciousness was a biological accident. Though he’d never been religious, he realized now that he’d always believed in the soul, in a force of personality that survived death. But as his mind continued to waver, to short-circuit, he finally arrived at the cold-eyed conclusion, so at odds with his youthful cheerfulness, that the brain was just an organ like any other and that when it failed he would be no more.
A seven-year-old girl can take only so many walks with her grandfather. I was the new kid on the block and wanted to make friends. From our roof deck I sometimes glimpsed a girl about my age who lived in the house behind us. She came out onto a small balcony in the evenings and tugged petals off flowers in the window box. In friskier moods, she performed lazy pirouettes, as though to the accompaniment of my own music box, which I always brought to the roof to keep me company. She had long, white-blond hair cut in bangs, and since I never saw her in the daytime, I decided she was an albino.
But I was wrong: because there she was one afternoon in sunshine, getting a ball that had flown onto our property. Her name was Clementine Stark. She wasn’t an albino, just very pale, and allergic to hard-to-avoid items (grass, house dust). Her father was about to have a heart attack, and my memories of her now are tinged with a blue wash of misfortune that hadn’t quite befallen her at the time. She was standing bare-legged in the jungly weeds that grew up between our houses. Her skin was already beginning to react to the grass cuttings stuck to the ball, whose sogginess was suddenly explained by the overweight Labrador who now limped into view.
Clementine Stark had a canopy bed moored like an imperial barge at one end of her sea-blue bedroom carpet. She had a collection of mounted poisonous-looking insects. She was a year older than me, hence worldly, and had been to Krakow once, which was in Poland. Because of her allergies, Clementine was kept indoors a lot. This led to our being inside together most of the time and to Clementine’s teaching me how to kiss.
When I told my life story to Dr. Luce, the place where he invariably got interested was when I came to Clementine Stark. Luce didn’t care about criminally smitten grandparents or silkworm boxes or serenading clarinets. To a certain extent, I understand. I even agree.
Clementine Stark invited me over to her house. Without even comparing it to Middlesex, it was an overwhelmingly medieval-looking place, a fortress of gray stone, unlovely except for the one extravagance—a concession to the princess—of a single, pointed tower flying a lavender pennant. Inside there were tapestries on the walls, a suit of armor with French script over the visor, and, in black leotards, Clementine’s slender mother. She was doing leg lifts.
“This is Callie,” Clementine said. “She’s coming over to play.”
I beamed. I attempted a kind of curtsy. (This was my introduction to polite society, after all.) But Clementine’s mother didn’t so much as turn her head.
“We just moved in,” I said. “We live in the house behind yours.”
Now she frowned. I thought I’d said something wrong—my first etiquette mistake in Grosse Pointe. Mrs. Stark said, “Why don’t you girls go upstairs?”
We did. In her bedroom Clementine mounted a rocking horse. For the next three minutes she rode it without saying another word. Then she abruptly got off. “I used to have a turtle but he escaped.”
“My mom says he could survive if he made it outside.”
“He’s probably dead,” I said.
Clementine accepted this bravely. She came over and held her arm next to mine. “Look, I’ve got freckles like the Big Dipper,” she announced. We stood side to side before the full-length mirror, making faces. The rims of Clementine’s eyes were inflamed. She yawned. She rubbed her nose with the heel of her hand. And then she asked, “Do you want to practice kissing?”
I didn’t know what to answer. I already knew how to kiss, didn’t I? Was there something more to learn? But while these questions were going through my head, Clementine was going ahead with the lesson. She came around to face me. With a grave expression she put her arms around my neck.
The necessary special effects are not in my possession, but what I’d like for you to imagine is Clementine’s white face coming close to mine, her sleepy eyes closing, her medicine-sweet lips puckering up, and all the other sounds of the world going silent—the rustling of our dresses, her mother counting leg lifts downstairs, the airplane outside making an exclamation mark in the sky—all silent, as Clementine’s highly educated, eight-year-old lips met mine.
And then, somewhere below this, my heart reacting.
Not a thump exactly. Not even a leap. But a kind of swish, like a frog kicking off from a muddy bank. My heart, that amphibian, moving that moment between two elements: one, excitement; the other, fear. I tried to pay attention. I tried to hold up my end of things. But Clementine was way ahead of me. She swiveled her head back and forth the way actresses did in the movies. I started doing the same, but out of the corner of her mouth she scolded, “You’re the man.” So I stopped. I stood stiffly with arms at my sides. Finally Clementine broke off the kiss. She looked at me blankly a moment, and then responded, “Not bad for your first time.”
“Mo-om!” I shouted, coming home that evening. “I made a friend!” I told Tessie about Clementine, the old rugs on the walls, the pretty mother doing exercises, omitting only the kissing lessons. From the beginning I was aware that there was something improper about the way I felt about Clementine Stark, something I shouldn’t tell my mother, but I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it. I didn’t connect this feeling to sex. I didn’t know sex existed. “Can I invite her over?”
“Sure,” said Tessie, relieved that my loneliness in the neighborhood was now over.
“I bet she’s never seen a house like ours.”
And now it is a cool, gray October day a week or so later. From the back of a yellow house, two girls emerge, playing geisha. We have coiled up our hair and crossed take-out chopsticks in it. We wear sandals and silk shawls. We carry umbrellas, pretending they’re parasols. I know bits ofThe Flower Drum Song , which I sing as we traverse the courtyard and mount the steps to the bathhouse. We come in the door, failing to notice a dark shape in the corner. Inside, the bath is a bright, bubbling turquoise. Silk robes fall to floor. Two giggling flamingos, one fair-skinned, the other light olive, test the water with one toe each. “It’s too hot.” “It’s supposed to be that way.” “You first.” “No, you.” “Okay.” And then: in. Both of us. The smell of redwood and eucalyptus. The smell of sandalwood soap. Clementine’s hair plastered to her skull. Her foot appearing now and then above the water like a shark fin. We laugh, float, waste my mother’s bath beads. Steam rises from the surface so thick it obscures the walls, the ceiling, the dark shape in the corner. I’m examining the arches of my feet, trying to understand what it means that they have “fallen,” when I see Clementine breasting through the water to me. Her face appears out of the steam. I think we’re going to kiss again, but instead she wraps her legs around my waist. She’s laughing hysterically, covering her mouth. Her eyes widen and she says into my ear, “Get some comfort.” She hoots like a monkey and pulls me back onto a shelf in the tub. I fall between her legs, I fall on top of her, we sink . . . and then we’re twirling, spinning in the water, me on top, then her, then me, and giggling, and making bird cries. Steam envelops us, cloaks us; light sparkles on the agitated water; and we keep spinning, so that at some point I’m not sure which hands are mine, which legs. We aren’t kissing. This game is far less serious, more playful, free-style, but we’re gripping each other, trying not to let the other’s slippery body go, and our knees bump, our tummies slap, our hips slide back and forth. Various submerged softnesses on Clementine’s body are delivering crucial information to mine, information I store away but won’t understand until years later. How long do we spin? I have no idea. But at some point we get tired. Clementine beaches on the shelf, with me on top. I rise on my knees to get my bearings—and then freeze, hot water or not. For right there, sitting in the corner of the room—is my grandfather! I see him for a second, leaning over sideways—is he laughing? angry?—and then the steam rises again and blots him out.
I am too stunned to move or speak. How long has he been there? What did he see? “We were just doing water ballet,” Clementine says lamely. The steam parts again. Lefty hasn’t moved. He’s sitting exactly as before, head tilted to one side. He looks as pale as Clementine. For one crazy second I think he’s playing our driving game, pretending to asleep, but then I understand that he will never play anything ever again . . .
And next all the intercoms in the house are wailing. I shout to Tessie in the kitchen, who shouts to Milton in the den, who shouts to Desdemona in the guest house. “Come quick! Something’s wrong withpapou !” And then more screaming and an ambulance flashing its lights and my mother telling Clementine it’s time for her to go home now.
Later that night: the spotlight rises on two rooms in our new house on Middlesex. In one pool of light, an old woman crosses herself and prays, while in the other a seven-year-old girl is also praying, praying for forgiveness, because it was clear to me that I was responsible. It was what I did . . . what Lefty saw . . . And I am promising never to do anything like that again and askingPlease don’t let papoudie and swearingIt was Clementine’s fault. She made me do it.
(And now it’s time for Mr. Stark’s heart to have its moment. Its arteries coated with what looks like foie gras, it seizes up one day. Clementine’s father crumples forward in the shower. Down on the first floor, sensing something, Mrs. Stark stops doing leg lifts; and three weeks later she sells the house and moves her daughter away. I never saw Clementine again . . .)
Lefty did recover and came home from the hospital. But this was only a pause in the slow but inevitable dissolution of his mind. Over the next three years, the hard disk of his memory slowly began to be erased, beginning with the most recent information and proceeding backward. At first Lefty forgot short-term things like where’d he put down his fountain pen or his glasses, and then he forgot what day it was, what month, and finally what year. Chunks of his life fell away, so that while we were moving ahead in time, he was moving back. In 1969 it became clear to us that he was living in 1968, because he kept shaking his head over the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. By the time we crossed over into the valley of the seventies, Lefty was back in the fifties. Once again he was excited about the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and he stopped referring to me altogether because I hadn’t been born. He reexperienced his gambling mania and his feelings of uselessness after retiring, but this soon passed because it was the 1940s and he was running the bar and grill again. Every morning he got up as though he were going to work. Desdemona had to devise elaborate ruses to satisfy him, telling him that our kitchen was the Zebra Room, only redecorated, and lamenting at how bad business was. Sometimes she invited ladies from church over who played along, ordering coffee and leaving money on the kitchen counter.
In his mind Lefty Stephanides grew younger and younger while in actuality he continued to age, so that he often tried to lift things he couldn’t or to tackle stairs his legs couldn’t climb. Falls ensued. Things shattered. At these moments, bending to help him up, Desdemona would see a momentary clarity in her husband’s eyes, as if he were playing along too, pretending to relive his life in the past so as not to face the present. Then he would begin to cry and Desdemona would lie down next to him, holding him until the fit ended.
But soon he was back in the thirties and was searching the radio, listening for speeches from FDR. He mistook our black milkman for Jimmy Zizmo and sometimes climbed up into his truck, thinking they were going rum-running. Using his chalkboard, he engaged the milkman in conversations about bootleg whiskey, and even if this had made sense, the milkman wouldn’t have been able to understand, because right about this time Lefty’s English began to deteriorate. He made spelling and grammatical mistakes he’d long mastered and soon he was writing broken English and then no English at all. He made written allusions to Bursa, and now Desdemona began to worry. She knew that the backward progression of her husband’s mind could lead to only one place, back to the days when he wasn’t her husband but her brother, and she lay in bed at night awaiting the moment with trepidation. In a sense she began to live in reverse, too, because she suffered the heart palpitations of her youth.O God, she prayed,Let me die now. Before Lefty gets back to the boat . And then one morning when she got up, Lefty was sitting at the breakfast table. His hair was pomaded à la Valentino with some Vaseline he’d found in the medicine chest. A dishrag was wrapped around his neck like a scarf. And on the table was the chalkboard, on which was written, in Greek, “Good morning, sis.”
For three days he teased her as he used to do, and pulled her hair, and performed dirty Karaghiozis puppet shows. Desdemona hid his chalkboard, but it was no use. During Sunday dinner he took a fountain pen from Uncle Pete’s shirt pocket and wrote on the tablecloth, “Tell my sister she’s getting fat.” Desdemona blanched. She put her hands to her face and waited for the blow she’d always feared to descend. But Peter Tatakis only took the pen from Lefty and said, “It appears that Lefty is now under the delusion that you are his sister.” Everyone laughed. What else could they do?Hey there, sis, everyone kept saying to Desdemona all afternoon, and each time she jumped; each time she thought her heart would stop.
But this stage didn’t last long. My grandfather’s mind, locked in its graveyard spiral, accelerated as it hurtled toward its destruction, and three days later he started cooing like a baby and the next he started soiling himself. At that point, when there was almost nothing left of him, God allowed Lefty Stephanides to remain another three months, until the winter of 1970. In the end he became as fragmentary as the poems of Sappho he never succeeded in restoring, and finally one morning he looked up into the face of the woman who’d been the greatest love of his life and failed to recognize her. And then there was another kind of blow inside his head; blood pooled in his brain for the last time, washing even the last fragments of his self away.
From the beginning there existed a strange balance between my grandfather and me. As I cried my first cry, Lefty was silenced; and as he gradually lost the ability to see, to taste, to hear, to think or even remember, I began to see, taste, and remember everything, even stuff I hadn’t seen, eaten, or done. Already latent inside me, like the future 120 mph serve of a tennis prodigy, was the ability to communicate between the genders, to see not with the monovision of one sex but in the stereoscope of both. So that at themakaria after the funeral, I looked around the table at the Grecian Gardens and knew what everyone was feeling. Milton was beset by a storm of emotion he refused to acknowledge. He worried that if he spoke he might start to cry, and so said nothing throughout the meal, and plugged his mouth with bread. Tessie was seized with a desperate love for Chapter Eleven and me and kept hugging us and smoothing our hair, because children were the only balm against death. Sourmelina was remembering the day at Grand Trunk when she’d told Lefty that she would know his nose anywhere. Peter Tatakis was lamenting the fact that he would never have a widow to mourn his death. Father Mike was favorably reviewing the eulogy he’d given earlier that morning, while Aunt Zo was wishing she had married someone like her father.
The only one whose emotions I couldn’t plumb was Desdemona. Silently, in the widow’s position of honor at the head of the table, she picked at her whitefish and drank her glass of Mavrodaphne, but her thoughts were as obscured to me as her face behind her black veil.
Lacking any clairvoyance into my grandmother’s state of mind that day, I’ll just tell you what happened next. After themakaria , my parents, grandmother, brother, and I got into my father’s Fleetwood. With a purple funeral pennant flying from the antenna, we left Greektown and headed down Jefferson. The Cadillac was three years old now, the oldest one Milton ever had. As we were passing the old Medusa Cement factory, I heard a long hiss and thought that myyia yia , sitting next to me, was sighing over her misfortunes. But then I noticed that the seat was tilting. Desdemona was sinking down. She who had always feared automobiles was being swallowed by the backseat.
It was the Air-Ride. You weren’t supposed to turn it on unless you were going at least thirty miles per hour. Distracted by grief, Milton had been going only twenty-five. The hydraulic system ruptured. The passenger side of the car sloped down and stayed like that from then on. (And my father began trading in his cars in every year.)
Limping, dragging, we returned home. My mother helped Desdemona out of the car and led her to the guest house out back. It took some time. Desdemona kept leaning on her cane to rest. Finally, outside her door, she announced, “Tessie, I am going to bed now.”
“Okay,yia yia ,” my mother said. “You take a rest.”
“I am going to bed,” Desdemona said again. She turned and went inside. Beside the bed, her silkworm box was still open. That morning, she had taken out Lefty’s wedding crown, cutting it away from her own so he could be buried with it. She looked into the box for a moment now before closing it. Then she undressed. She took off her black dress and hung it in the garment bag full of mothballs. She returned her shoes to the box from Penney’s. After putting on her nightgown, she rinsed out her panty hose in the bathroom and hung them over the shower rod. And then, even though it was only three in the afternoon, she got into bed.
For the next ten years, except for a bath every Friday, she never got out again.
THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET