She didn’t like being left on earth. She didn’t like being left in America. She was tired of living. She was having a harder and harder time climbing stairs. A woman’s life was over once her husband died. Somebody had given her the evil eye.
Such were the answers Father Mike brought back to us the third day after Desdemona refused to get out of bed. My mother asked him to talk to her and he returned from the guest house with his Fra Angelico eyebrows lifted in tender exasperation. “Don’t worry, it’ll pass,” he said. “I see this kind of thing with widows all the time.”
We believed him. But as the weeks went by, Desdemona only became more depressed and withdrawn. A habitual early riser, she began to sleep late. When my mother brought in a breakfast tray, Desdemona opened one eye and gestured for her to leave it. Eggs got cold. Coffee filmed over. The only thing that roused her was her daily lineup of soap operas. She watched the cheating husbands and scheming wives as faithfully as ever, but she didn’t reprimand them anymore, as if she’d given up correcting the errors of the world. Propped up against the headboard, her hairnet cinched on her forehead like a diadem, Desdemona looked as ancient and indomitable as the elderly Queen Victoria. A queen of a sceptered isle that consisted only of a bird-filled bedroom. A queen in exile, with only two attendants remaining, Tessie and me.
“Pray for me to die,” she instructed me. “Pray foryia yia to die and go be withpapou .”
. . . But before I go on with Desdemona’s story, I want to update you on developments with Julie Kikuchi. With regard to the main point: there have been no developments. On our last day in Pomerania, we got very cozy, Julie and I. Pomerania belonged to East Germany. The seaside villas of Herringsdorf had been allowed to fall apart for fifty years. Now, after reunification, there is a real estate boom. Being Americans, Julie and I could not fail but be alert to this. As we strolled the wide boardwalk, holding hands, we speculated about buying this or that old, crumbling villa and fixing it up. “We could get used to the nudists,” Julie said. “We could get a Pomeranian,” I said. I don’t know what came over us. That “we.” We were prodigal in its usage, we were reckless with its implications. Artists have good instinct for real estate. And Herringsdorf energized Julie. We inquired about a few co-ops, a new thing here. We toured two or three mansions. It was all very marital. Under the influence of that old, aristocratic, nineteenth-century summer resort, Julie and I were acting old-fashioned, too. We discussed setting up house without even having slept together. But of course we never mentioned love or marriage. Only down payments.
But on the way back to Berlin a familiar fear descended on me. Humming over the road, I began to look ahead. I thought of the next step and what would be required of me. The preparations, the explanations, the very real possibility of shock, horror, withdrawal, rebuff. The usual reactions.
“What’s the matter?” Julie asked me.
“You seem quiet.”
In Berlin, I dropped her off. My hug was cold, peremptory. I haven’t called her since. She left a message on my machine. I didn’t respond. And now she has stopped calling, too. So it’s all over with Julie. Over before it began. And instead of sharing a future with someone, I am back again with the past, with Desdemona who wanted no future at all . . .
I brought her dinner, sometimes lunch. I carried trays along the portico of brown metal posts. Above was the sun deck, underutilized, the redwood rotting. To my right was the bathhouse, smooth and poured. The guest house repeated the clean, rectilinear lines of the main house. The architecture of Middlesex was an attempt to rediscover pure origins. At the time, I didn’t know about all that. But as I pushed through the door into the skylit guest house I was aware of the disparities. The boxlike room, stripped of all embellishment or parlor fussiness, a room that wished to be timeless or ahistorical, and there, in the middle of it, my deeply historical, timeworn grandmother. Everything about Middlesex spoke of forgetting and everything about Desdemona made plain the inescapability of remembering. Against her heap of pillows she lay, exuding woe vapors, but in a kindly way. That was the signature of my grandmother and the Greek ladies of her generation: the kindliness of their despair. How they moaned while offering you sweets! How they complained of physical ailments while patting your knee! My visits always cheered Desdemona up. “Hello, dollymou ,” she said, smiling. I sat on the bed as she stroked my hair, cooing endearments in Greek. With my brother Desdemona kept a happy face the entire time he was there. But with me, after ten minutes, her buoyant eyes subsided, and she told me the truth about how she felt. “I am too old now. Too old, honey.”
Her lifelong hypochondria had never had a better field in which to flower. When she first sentenced herself to the mahogany limbo of her four-poster bed, Desdemona complained only of her usual heart palpitations. But a week later she began to suffer fatigue, dizziness, and circulation problems. “I am having in my legs pain. The blood it doesn’t move.”
“She’s fine,” Dr. Philobosian told my parents, after a half-hour examination. “Not young anymore, but I see nothing serious.”
“I no can breathe!” Desdemona argued with him.
“Your lungs sound fine.”
“My leg it is like needles.”
“Try rubbing it. To stimulate the circulation.”
“He’s too old now too,” Desdemona said after Dr. Phil had left. “Get me a new doctor who he isn’t already dead himself.”
My parents complied. Violating our family loyalty to Dr. Phil, they went behind his back and called in new physicians. A Dr. Tuttlesworth. A Dr. Katz. The unfortunately named Dr. Cold. Every single one gave Desdemona the same dire diagnosis that there was nothing wrong with her. They looked into the wrinkled prunes of her eyes; they peered into the dried apricots of her ears; they listened to the indestructible pump of her heart, and pronounced her well.
We tried to cajole her out of bed. We invited her to watchNever on Sunday on the big television. We called Aunt Lina in New Mexico and put the phone up to the intercom. “Listen, Des, why don’t you visit me down here? It’s so hot you’ll think you’re back in thehoreo .”
“I no can hear you, Lina!” Desdemona shouted, despite her lung problems. “It is working no good the machine!”
Finally, appealing to Desdemona’s fear of God, Tessie told her that it was a sin to miss church when you were physically able to go. But Desdemona patted the mattress. “The next time I go to the church is in a coffin.”
She began to make final preparations. From her bed she directed my mother to clean out the closets. “Papou’s clothes you can give to the Goodwill. My nice dresses, too. Now I only need something for to bury me.” The necessity of caring for her husband during his final years had made Desdemona a bundle of activity. Only a few months before, she’d been peeling and stewing the soft food he ate, changing his diapers, cleaning his bedding and pajamas, and harrying his body with moistened towels and Q-tips. But now, at seventy, the strain of having no one to care for but herself aged her overnight. Her salt-and-pepper hair turned completely gray and her robust figure sprang a slow leak, so that she seemed to be deflating day by day. She grew paler. Veins showed. Tiny red sunspots burst on her chest. She stopped checking her face in the mirror. Because of her poor dentures, Desdemona hadn’t really had lips for years. But now she stopped putting lipstick even in the place where her lips used to be.
“Miltie,” she asked my father one day, “you bought for me the place next topapou ?”
“Don’t worry, Ma. It’s a double plot.”
“Nobody they are going take it?”
“It’s got your name on it, Ma.”
“Itno have my name, Miltie! That why I worry. It havepapou ’s name one side. Other side is grass only. I want you go put sign it says, this place is foryia yia . Some other lady maybe she die and try to get next to my husband.”
But her funeral preparations didn’t end there. Not only did Desdemona pick out her burial plot. She also picked out her mortician. Georgie Pappas, Sophie Sassoon’s brother who worked at the T. J. Thomas Funeral Home, arrived at Middlesex in April (when a bout of pneumonia was looking promising). He carried his sample cases of caskets, crematory urns, and flower arrangements out to the guest house and sat by Desdemona’s bed while she looked the photographs over with the excitement of someone browsing travel brochures. She asked Milton what he could afford.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Ma. You’re not dying.”
“I am no asking for the Imperial. Georgie says Imperial is top of line. But foryia yia Presidential is okay.”
“When the time comes, you can have whatever you want. But—“
“And satin inside. Please. And a pillow. Like here. Page eight. Number five. Pay attention! And tell Georgie leave my glasses.”
As far as Desdemona was concerned, death was only another kind of emigration. Instead of sailing from Turkey to America, this time she would be traveling from earth to heaven, where Lefty had already gotten his citizenship and had a place waiting.
Gradually we became accustomed to Desdemona’s retreat from the family sphere. By this time, the spring of 1971, Milton was busy with a new “business venture.” After the disaster on Pingree Street, Milton vowed never to make the same mistake again. How do you escape the real estate rule of location, location, location? Simple: be everywhere at once.
“Hot dog stands,” Milton announced at dinner one night. “Start with three or four and add on as you go.”
With the remaining insurance money Milton rented space in three malls in the Detroit metropolitan area. On a pad of yellow paper, he came up with the design for the stands. “McDonald’s has Golden Arches?” he said. “We’ve got the Pillars of Hercules.”
If you ever drove along the blue highways anywhere from Michigan to Florida, anytime from 1971 to 1978, you may have seen the bright white neon pillars that flanked my father’s chain of hot dog restaurants. The pillars combined his Greek heritage with the colonial architecture of his beloved native land. Milton’s pillars were the Parthenon and the Supreme Court Building; they were the Herakles of myth as well as the Hercules of Hollywood movies. They also got people’s attention.
Milton started out with three Hercules Hot Dogs™ but quickly added franchises as profits allowed. He began in Michigan but soon spilled over into Ohio, and from there went on down the Interstate to the deep South. The format was more like Dairy Queen than McDonald’s. Seating was minimal or nonexistent (at most a couple of picnic tables). There were no play areas, no sweepstakes or “Happy Meals,” no giveaways or promotions. What there was was hot dogs, Coney Island style, as that term was used in Detroit, meaning they were served with chili sauce and onions. Hercules Hot Dogs were side-of-the-road places, and usually not the nicest roads. By bowling alleys, by train stations, in small towns on the way to bigger ones, anywhere where real estate was cheap and a lot of cars or people passed through.
I didn’t like the stands. To me they were a steep come-down from the romantic days of the Zebra Room. Where were the knickknacks, the jukebox, the glowing shelf of pies, the deep maroon booths? Where were the regulars? I couldn’t understand how these hot dog stands could make so much more money than the diner ever had. But make money they did. After the first, touch-and-go year, my father’s chain of hot dog restaurants began to make him a comfortably wealthy man. Aside from securing good locations, there was another element to my father’s success. A gimmick or, in today’s parlance, a “branding.” Ball Park franks plumped when you cooked them, but Hercules Hot Dogs did something better. They came out of the package looking like normal, udder-pink wieners, but as they got hot, an amazing transformation took place. Sizzling on the grill, the hot dogs bulged in the middle, grew fatter, and, yes,flexed .
This was Chapter Eleven’s contribution. One night, my then seventeen-year-old brother had gone down into the kitchen to make himself a late-night snack. He found some hot dogs in the refrigerator. Not wanting to wait for water to boil, he got out a frying pan. Next he decided to cut the hot dogs in half. “I wanted to increase the surface area,” he explained to me later. Rather than slicing the hot dogs lengthwise, Chapter Eleven tried various combinations to amuse himself. He made notches here and slits there and then he put all the hot dogs in a pan and watched what happened.
Not much, that first night. But a few of my brother’s incisions resulted in the hot dogs assuming funny shapes. After that, it became a kind of game with him. He grew adept at manipulating the shapes of cooking hot dogs and, for fun, developed an entire line of gag frankfurters. There was the hot dog that stood on end when heated, resembling the Tower of Pisa. In honor of the moon landing, there was the Apollo 11, whose skin gradually stretched until, bursting, the wiener appeared to blast off into the air. Chapter Eleven made hot dogs that danced to Sammy Davis’s rendition of “Bojangles” and others that formed letters,L andS , though he never accomplished a decentZ . (For his friends he had hot dogs do other things. Laughter emanated from the kitchen late at night. You heard Chapter Eleven: “I call this the Harry Reems,” and then the other boys shouting: “No way, Stephanides!” And while we’re on the subject, was I the only one who was shocked by those old Ball Park ads with their shots of red franks swelling and lengthening? Where were the censors? Did anyone notice the expressions on mothers’ faces when those ads played, or the way, right afterward, they often discussed what kind of “buns” they preferred? I certainly noticed, because I was a girl at the time and those ads were designed to get my attention.)
Once you ate a Hercules hot dog you never forgot it. Very quickly they had wide name recognition. A large food processing company offered to buy the rights and sell the hot dogs in stores, but Milton, mistakenly thinking that popularity is eternal, rejected it.
Aside from inventing the Herculean frankfurters, my brother had little interest in the family business. “I’m an inventor,” he said. “Not a hot dog man.” In Grosse Pointe he fell into a group of boys whose main bond was their unpopularity. A hot Saturday night for them consisted of sitting in my brother’s room, staring at Escher prints. For hours they followed figures up staircases that were also going down, or watched geese turn into fish and then into geese again. They ate peanut butter crackers, getting gunk all over their teeth while quizzing each other on the periodic table. Steve Munger, Chapter Eleven’s best friend, used to infuriate my father with philosophical arguments. (“But how can youprove you exist, Mr. Stephanides?”) Whenever we picked my brother up at school I saw him through a stranger’s eyes. Chapter Eleven was geeky, nerdy. His body was a stalk supporting the tulip of his brain. As he walked to the car, his head was often tilted back, alert to phenomena in the trees. He didn’t pick up on styles or trends. Tessie still bought his clothes for him. Because he was my older brother, I admired him; but because I was his sister, I felt superior. In doling out our respective gifts God had given me all the important ones. Mathematical aptitude: to Chapter Eleven. Verbal aptitude: to me. Fix-it handiness: to Chapter Eleven. Imagination: to me. Musical talent: to Chapter Eleven. Looks: to me.
The beauty I possessed as a baby only increased as I grew into a girl. It was no surprise why Clementine Stark had wanted to practice kissing with me. Everyone wanted to. Elderly waitresses bent close to take my order. Red-faced boys appeared at my desk, stammering, “Y-y-you dropped your eraser.” Even Tessie, angry about something, would look down at me—at my Cleopatra eyes—and forget what she was mad about. Wasn’t there the slightest rumble in the air whenever I brought in drinks to the Sunday debaters? Uncle Pete, Jimmy Fioretos, Gus Panos, men fifty, sixty, seventy years old looking up over expansive bellies and having thoughts they didn’t admit? Back in Bithynios, where sustained respiration rendered a bachelor eligible, men of equivalent age had successfully asked for the hand of a girl like me. Were they remembering those days, lounging on our love seats? Were they thinking, “If this wasn’t America, I just might . . .”? I can’t say. Looking back now, I can only remember a time when the world seemed to have a million eyes, silently opening wherever I went. Most of the time they were camouflaged, like the closed eyes of green lizards in green trees. But then they snapped open—on the bus, in the pharmacy—and I felt the intensity of all that looking, the desire and the desperation.
For hours at a time I would admire my looks myself, turning this way and that before the mirror, or assuming a relaxed pose to see what I looked like in real life. By holding a hand mirror I could see my profile, still harmonious at the time. I combed my long hair and sometimes stole my mother’s mascara to do my eyes. But increasingly my narcissistic pleasure was tempered by the unlovely condition of the pool into which I gazed.
“He’s popping his zits again!” I complained to my mother.
“Don’t be so squeamish, Callie. It’s just a little . . . here, I’ll wipe it off.”
“Wait’ll you get pimples!” Chapter Eleven shouted, ashamed and furious, from the hallway.
“I’m not going to.”
“You will, too! Everybody’s sebaceous glands overproduce when they go through puberty!”
“Quiet, both of you,” said Tessie, but she didn’t need to. I’d already gotten quiet on my own. It was that word:puberty . The source of a great amount of anxious speculation on my part at the time. A word that lay in wait for me, jumping out now and then, scaring me because I didn’t know exactly what it meant. But now at least I knew one thing: Chapter Eleven was involved in it somehow. Maybe that explained not only the pimples but the other thing about my brother I’d been noticing lately.
Not long after Desdemona took to her bed, I’d begun to notice, in the vague creepy way of a sister with a brother, a new, solitary pastime of Chapter Eleven’s. It was a matter of a perceptible activity behind the locked bathroom door. Of a certain strain to the reply, “Just a minute,” when I knocked. Still, I was younger than he was and ignorant of the pressing needs of adolescent boys.
But let me backtrack a minute. Three years earlier, when Chapter Eleven was fourteen and I was eight, my brother had played a trick on me. It happened on a night when our parents had gone out to dinner. It was raining and thundering. I was watching television when Chapter Eleven suddenly appeared. He was holding out a lemon cake. “Look what I have!” he sang.
Magnanimously he cut me a slice. He watched me eat it. Then he said, “I’m telling! That cake was for Sunday.”
I ran at him. I tried to hit him, but he caught my arms. We wrestled standing up, until finally Chapter Eleven offered a deal.
As I said: in those days, the world was always growing eyes. Here were two more. They belonged to my brother, who, in the guest bathroom, amid the fancy hand towels, stood watching as I pulled down my underpants and lifted my skirt. (If I showed him, he wouldn’t tell.) Fascinated as he was, he stayed at a distance. His Adam’s apple rose and fell. He looked amazed and frightened. He didn’t have much to compare me to, but what he saw didn’t misinform him either: pink folds, a cleft. For ten seconds Chapter Eleven studied my documents, detecting no forgery, as the clouds burst overhead, and I made him get me one more piece of cake.
Apparently, Chapter Eleven’s curiosity hadn’t been satisfied by looking at his eight-year-old sister. Now, I suspected, he was looking at pictures of the real thing.
In 1971, all the men in our lives were gone, Lefty to death, Milton to Hercules Hot Dogs, and Chapter Eleven to bathroom solitaire. Leaving Tessie and me to deal with Desdemona.
We had to cut her toenails. We had to hunt down flies that found their way into her room. We had to move her birdcages around according to the light. We had to turn on the television for the day’s soap operas and we had to turn it off before the murders on the evening news. Desdemona didn’t want to lose her dignity, however. When nature called, she called us on the intercom, and we helped her out of bed and into the bathroom.
The simplest way to say it is: years passed. As the seasons changed outside the windows, as the weeping willows shed their million leaves, as snow fell on the flat roof and the angle of sunlight declined, Desdemona remained in bed. She was still there when the snow melted and the willows budded again. She was there when the sun, climbing higher, dropped a sunbeam straight though the skylight, like a ladder to heaven she was more than eager to climb.
What happened while Desdemona was in bed:
Aunt Lina’s friend Mrs. Watson died, and with the poor judgment grief always brings, Sourmelina decided to sell their adobe house and move back north to be close to her family. She arrived in Detroit in February of 1972. The winter weather felt colder than she ever remembered. Worse, her time in the Southwest had changed her. Somehow in the course of her life Sourmelina had become an American. Almost nothing of the village remained in her. Her self-entombed cousin, on the other hand, had never left it. They were both in their seventies, but Desdemona was an old, gray-haired widow waiting to die while Lina, another kind of widow entirely, was a bottle redhead who drove a Firebird and wore belted denim skirts with turquoise belt buckles. After her life in the sexual counterculture, Lina found my parents’ heterosexuality as quaint as a sampler. Chapter Eleven’s acne alarmed her. She disliked sharing a shower with him. A strained atmosphere existed in our house while Sourmelina stayed with us. She was as garish and out of place in our living room as a retired Vegas showgirl, and because we watched her so closely out of the corners of our eyes, everything she did made too much noise, her cigarette smoke got into everything, she drank too much wine at dinner.
We got to know our new neighbors. There were the Picketts, Nelson, who’d played tackle for Georgia Tech and now worked for Parke-Davis, the pharmaceutical company, and his wife, Bonnie, who was always reading the miraculous tales inGuideposts . Across the street was Stew “Bright Eyes” Fiddler, an industrial parts salesman with a taste for bourbon and barmaids, and his wife, Mizzi, whose hair changed color like a mood ring. At the end of the block were Sam and Hettie Grossinger, the first Orthodox Jews we’d ever met, and their only child, Maxine, a shy violin prodigy. Sam, however, was funny, and Hettie was loud, and they talked about money without thinking it was impolite, and so we felt comfortable around them. Milt and Tessie often had the Grossingers over to dinner, though their dietary restrictions continually baffled us. My mother would drive all the way across town to buy kosher meat, for instance, only to serve it with a cream sauce. Or she would skip the meat and cream altogether and serve crab cakes. Though faithful to their religion, the Grossingers were midwestern Jews, low-key and assimilationist. They hid behind their wall of cypresses and at Christmas put up a Santa Claus along with lights.
In 1971: Judge Stephen J. Roth of the U.S. District Court ruled thatde jure segregation existed in the Detroit school system. He immediately ordered the schools to be desegregated. There was only one problem. By 1971 the Detroit student population was 80 percent black. “That busing judge can bus all he wants,” Milton crowed, reading about the decision in the paper. “Doesn’t make any difference now. You see, Tessie? You understand why your dear old husband wanted to get the kids out of that school system? Because if I didn’t, that goddamn Roth would be busing them to school in downtown Nairobi, that’s why.”
In 1972: Five-foot five-inch S. Miyamoto, rejected by the Detroit police force for failing to meet the five-foot seven-inch requirement (he had tried elevator heels, etc.), appeared onThe Tonight Show to plead his case. I wrote a letter to the police commissioner myself in support of Miyamoto, but I never received a reply, and Miyamoto was rejected. A few months later, Police Commissioner Nichols was thrown from his horse during a parade. “That’s what you get!” I said.
In 1972: H. D. Jackson and L. D. Moore, who had brought a police brutality case for four million dollars, hijacked a Southern Airways jet to Cuba, outraged at being awarded damages in the amount of twenty-five dollars.
In 1972: Mayor Roman Gribbs claimed that Detroit had turned around. The city had overcome the trauma of the ’67 riots. Therefore, he wasn’t planning on running for another term. A new candidate appeared, the man who would become the city’s first African American mayor, Coleman A. Young.
And I turned twelve.
A few months earlier, on the first day of sixth grade, Carol Horning came into class wearing a slight but unmistakably self-satisfied smile. Below this smile, as if displayed on a trophy shelf, were the new breasts she had gotten over the summer. She wasn’t the only one. During the growing months, quite a few of my schoolmates had—as adults liked to say—“developed.”
I wasn’t entirely unprepared for this. I’d spent a month the previous summer at Camp Ponshewaing, near Port Huron. During the slow march of summer days I was aware, as one is aware of a drum steadily beating across a lake, of something unspooling itself in the bodies of my campmates. Girls were growing modest. They turned their backs to dress. Some had surnames stitched onto not only shorts and socks but training bras, too. Mostly, it was a personal matter that no one spoke about. But now and then there were dramatic manifestations. One afternoon during swimming hour, the tin door of the changing room clanged open and shut. The sound caromed off the trunks of pine trees, carrying past the meager beach out over the water, where I floated on an inner tube, readingLove Story . (Swimming hour was the only time I could get any reading done, and though the camp counselors tried to motivate me to practice my freestyle, I persevered every day in reading the new bestseller I’d found on my mother’s night table.) Now I looked up. Along a dusty brown path in the pine needles, Jenny Simonson was advancing in a red, white, and blue swimsuit. All nature grew hushed at the sight. Birds fell silent. Lake swans unfurled tremendous necks to get a glimpse. Even a chainsaw in the distance cut its engine. I beheld the magnificence of Jenny S. The golden, late afternoon light intensified around her. Her patriotic swimsuit swelled in ways no one else’s did. Muscles flexed in her long thighs. She ran to the end of the dock and plunged into the lake, where a throng of naiads (her friends from Cedar Rapids) swam over to meet her.
Lowering my book, I looked down at my own body. There it was, as usual: the flat chest, the nothing hips, the forked, mosquito-bitten legs. Lake water and sun were making my skin peel. My fingers had gotten all wrinkly.
Thanks to Dr. Phil’s decrepitude and Tessie’s prudishness, I arrived at puberty not knowing much about what to expect. Dr. Philobosian still had an office near Women’s Hospital, though the hospital itself had been closed down by then. His practice had changed considerably. There were a few remaining elderly patients who, having survived so long under his care, were afraid to change doctors. The rest were welfare families. Nurse Rosalee ran the office. She and Dr. Phil had been married a year after they met delivering me. Now she did the scheduling and administered shots. Her Appalachian childhood had acquainted her with government assistance, and she was a whiz with the Medicaid forms.
In his eighties, Dr. Phil had taken up painting. His office walls were covered salon-style with thick, swirling oils. He didn’t use a brush much, mainly a palette knife. And what did he paint? Smyrna? The quay at dawn? The terrible fire? No. Like many amateurs, Dr. Phil assumed that the only proper subject for art was a picturesque landscape that had nothing to do with his experience. He painted sea vistas he’d never seen and forest hamlets he’d never visited, complete with a pipe-smoking figure resting on a log. Dr. Philobosian never talked about Smyrna and left the room if anyone did. He never mentioned his first wife, or his murdered sons and daughters. Maybe this was the reason for his survival.
Nevertheless, Dr. Phil was becoming a fossil. For my annual physical in 1972 he used diagnostic methods popular back in medical school in 1910. There was a trick where he pretended to slap me in the face to check my reflexes. There was an auscultation accomplished with a wineglass. When he bent his head to listen to my heart I was treated to an aerial view of the Galápagos of scabs on his bald pate. (The archipelago changed position from year to year, continentally drifting across the globe of his skull but never healing.) Dr. Philobosian smelled like an old couch, of hair oil and spilled soup, of unscheduled naps. His medical diploma looked as if it were written on parchment. I wouldn’t have been surprised if, to cure fever, Dr. Phil had written out a prescription for leeches. He was correct with me, never friendly, and directed most of his conversation to Tessie, who sat in a chair in the corner. What memories, I wonder, was Dr. Phil avoiding in not looking at me? Did the ghosts of Levantine girls haunt those cursory checkups, suggested by the fragility of my collarbone, or the birdcall of my small, congested lungs? Was he trying not to think of water palaces and loosened robes, or was he just tired, old, half-blind, and too proud to admit it?
Whatever the answer, year after year, Tessie faithfully took me to him, in repayment for an act of charity during a catastrophe he would no longer acknowledge. In his waiting room I encountered the same tatteredHighlights magazine every visit. “Can you find these?” the puzzle asked inside. And there in the spreading chestnut tree were the knife, the dog, the fish, the old woman, the candlestick—all circled by my own hand, shaky with earache, years and years before.
My mother avoided bodily matters, too. She never spoke openly about sex. She never undressed in front of me. She disliked dirty jokes or nudity in movies. For his own part, Milton was unable to discuss the birds and the bees with his young daughter, and so I was left, in those years, to figure things out for myself.
From hints Aunt Zo let slip in the kitchen I was aware that something happened to women every so often, something they didn’t like, something men didn’t have to put up with (like everything else). Whatever it was, it seemed safely far off, like getting married or giving birth. And then one day at Camp Ponshewaing, Rebecca Urbanus climbed up on a chair. Rebecca was from South Carolina. She had slave-owning ancestors and a trained voice. During dances with the boys from the neighboring camp, she waved a hand in front of her face as though holding a fan. Why was she up on a chair? We were having a talent show. Rebecca Urbanus was maybe singing or reciting the poetry of Walter de la Mare. The sun was still high and her shorts were white. And then suddenly, as she sang (or recited), the back of her white shorts darkened. At first it appeared to be only a shadow of the surrounding trees. Some kid’s waving hand. But no: while our band of twelve-year-olds sat watching, each of us in camp T-shirt and Indian headband, we saw what Rebecca Urbanus didn’t. While her upper half performed, her bottom half upstaged her. The stain grew, and it was red. Camp counselors were unsure how to react. Rebecca sang, arms outflung. She revolved on her chair before her theater-in-the-round: us, staring, perplexed and horrified. Certain “advanced” girls understood. Others, like me, thought: knife wound, bear attack. Right then Rebecca Urbanus saw us looking. She looked down herself. And screamed. And fled the stage.
I returned from camp browner and leaner, pinned with a single badge (ironically, for orienteering). But that other badge, which Carol Horning displayed so proudly the first day of school, I was still without. I felt ambivalent about this. On the one hand, if Rebecca Urbanus’s mishap was any indication, it might be safer to stay the way I was. What if something similar happened to me? I went through my closet and threw out anything white. I stopped singing altogether. You couldn’t control it. You never knew. It could happen anytime.
Except, with me, it didn’t. Gradually, as most of the other girls in my grade began to undergo their own transformations, I began to worry less about possible accidents and more about being left behind, left out.
I am in math class, sometime during the winter of sixth grade. Miss Grotowski, our youngish teacher, is writing an equation on the blackboard. Behind her, at wooden-topped desks, students follow her calculations, or doze, or kick each other from behind. A gray winter Michigan day. The grass outside resembles pewter. Overhead, fluorescent lights attempt to dispel the season’s dimness. A picture of the great mathematician Ramanujan (whom we girls at first took to be Miss Grotowski’s foreign boyfriend) hangs on the wall. The air is stuffy in the way only air at school can be stuffy.
And behind our teacher’s back, in our desks, we are flying through time. Thirty kids, in six neat rows, being borne along at a speed we can’t perceive. As Miss Grotowski sketches equations on the board, my classmates all around me begin to change. Jane Blunt’s thighs, for instance, seem to get a little bit longer every week. Her sweater swells in front. Then one day Beverly Maas, who sits right next to me, raises her hand and I see darkness up her sleeve: a patch of light brown hair. When did it appear? Yesterday? The day before? The equations get longer and longer throughout the year, more complicated, and maybe it’s all the numbers, or the multiplication tables; we are learning to quantify large sums as, by new math, bodies arrive at unexpected answers. Peter Quail’s voice is two octaves lower than last month and he doesn’t notice. Why not? He’s flying too fast. Boys are getting peach fuzz on upper lips. Foreheads and noses are breaking out. Most spectacularly of all, girls are becoming women. Not mentally or emotionally even, but physically. Nature is making its preparations. Deadlines encoded in the species are met.
Only Calliope, in the second row, is motionless, her desk stalled somehow, so that she’s the only one who takes in the true extent of the metamorphoses around her. While solving proofs she is aware of Tricia Lamb’s purse on the floor next to her desk, of the tampon she glimpsed inside it that morning—which you use how, exactly?—and whom can she ask? Still pretty, Calliope soon finds herself the shortest girl in the room. She drops her eraser. No boy brings it back. In the Christmas pageant she is cast not as Mary as in past years but as an elf . . . But there’s still hope, isn’t there? . . . because the desks are flying, day after day; arranged in their squadron, the students bank and roar through time, so that Callie looks up from her ink-stained paper one afternoon and sees it is spring, flowers budding, forsythia in bloom, elms greening; at recess girls and boys hold hands, kissing sometimes behind trees, and Calliope feels gypped, cheated. “Remember me?” she says, to nature. “I’m waiting. I’m still here.”
As was Desdemona. By April of 1972, her application to join her husband in heaven was still working its way though a vast, celestial bureaucracy. Though Desdemona was perfectly healthy when she got into bed, the weeks, months, and finally years of inactivity, coupled with her own remarkable willpower to do away with herself, brought her the reward of aPhysician’s Handbook of ailments. During her bedridden years Desdemona had fluid in her lungs; lumbago; bursitis; a spell of eclampsia that manifested itself a half-century later than etiologically normal and then just as mysteriously vanished, to Desdemona’s regret; a severe case of shingles that made her ribs and back the color and texture of ripe strawberries and stung like a cattle prod; nineteen colds; a week of purely figurative “walking” pneumonia; ulcers; psychosomatic cataracts which clouded her vision on the anniversaries of her husband’s death and which she basically just cried away; and Dupuytren’s contracture, where inflamed fascia in her hand curled her thumb and three fingers painfully into her palm, leaving her middle finger raised in an obscene gesture.
One doctor enrolled Desdemona in a longevity study. He was writing an article for a medical journal on “The Mediterranean Diet.” To that end he plied Desdemona with questions about the cuisine of her homeland. How much yogurt had she consumed as a child? How much olive oil? Garlic? She answered every one of his queries because she thought his interest indicated that there was something, at last, organically the matter with her, and because she never missed a chance to stroll through the precincts of her childhood. The doctor’s name was Müller. German by blood, he renounced his race when it came to its cooking. With postwar guilt, he decried bratwurst, sauerbraten, and Königsberger Klopse as dishes verging on poison. They were the Hitler of foods. Instead he looked to our own Greek diet—our eggplant aswim in tomato sauce, our cucumber dressings and fish-egg spreads, ourpilafi , raisins, and figs—as potential curatives, as life-giving, artery-cleansing, skin-smoothing wonder drugs. And what Dr. Müller said appeared to be true: though he was only forty-two, his face was wrinkled, burdened with jowls. Gray hair prickled up on the sides of his head; whereas my father, at forty-eight, despite the coffee stains beneath his eyes, was still the possessor of an unlined olive complexion and a rich, glossy, black head of hair. They didn’t call it Grecian Formula for nothing. It was in our food! A veritable fountain of youth in our dolmades and taramasalata and even in our baklava, which didn’t commit the sin of containing refined sugar but had only honey. Dr. Müller showed us graphs he’d made, listing the names and birth dates of Italians, Greeks, and a Bulgarian living in the Detroit metropolitan area, and we saw our own entrant—Desdemona Stephanides, age ninety-one—going strong in the midst of the rest. Plotted against Poles killed off by kielbasa, or Belgians done in by pommes frites, or Anglo-Saxons disappeared by puddings, or Spaniards stopped cold by chorizo, our Greek dotted line kept going where theirs tailed off in a tangle of downward trajectories. Who knew? As a people we hadn’t had, for the past few millennia, that much to be proud of. So it was perhaps understandable that during Dr. Müller’s house calls we failed to mention the troubling anomaly of Lefty’s multiple strokes. We didn’t want to skew the graph with new data, and so didn’t mention that Desdemona was actually seventy-one, not ninety-one, and that she always confused sevens with nines. We didn’t mention her aunts, Thalia and Victoria, who both died of breast cancer as young women; and we said nothing about the high blood pressure that taxed the veins within Milton’s own smooth, youthful exterior. We couldn’t. We didn’t want to lose out to the Italians or even that one Bulgarian. And Dr. Müller, lost in his research, didn’t notice the store display of mortuary services next to Desdemona’s bed, the photograph of the dead husband next to the photograph of his grave, the abundant paraphernalia of a widow abandoned on earth. Not a member of a band of immortals from Mount Olympus. Just the only member left alive.
Meanwhile, tensions between my mother and me were rising.
“I’m sorry, honey. But it’s just, you’ve got nothing to . . . to . . .”
“. . . to hold it up.”
A tantrum-edged scream. Twelve-year-old feet running up the stairs, while Tessie called out, “Don’t be so dramatic, Callie. We’ll get you a bra if you want.” Up into my bedroom, where, after locking the door, I pulled off my shirt before the mirror to see . . . that my mother was right. Nothing! Nothing at all to hold up anything. And I burst into tears of frustration and rage.
That evening, when I finally came back down to dinner, I retaliated in the only way I could.
“What’s the matter? You’re not hungry?”
“I want normal food.”
“What do you mean normal food?”
“I have to make whatyia yia likes.”
“What about whatI like?”
“You like spanikopita. You’ve always liked spanikopita.”
“Well, I don’t anymore.”
“Okay, then. Don’t eat. Starve if you want. If you don’t like what we give you, you can just sit at the table until we’re finished.”
Faced with the mirror’s evidence, laughed at by my own mother, surrounded by developing classmates, I had come to a dire conclusion. I had begun to believe that the Mediterranean Diet that kept my grandmother alive against her will was also sinisterly retarding my maturity. It only served to reason that the olive oil Tessie drizzled over everything had some mysterious power to stop the body’s clock, while the mind, impervious to cooking oils, kept going. That was why Desdemona had the despair and fatigue of a person of ninety along with the arteries of a fifty-year-old. Might it be, I wondered, that the omega-3 fatty acids and the three-vegetables-per-meal I consumed were responsible for retarding my sexual maturity? Was yogurt for breakfast stalling my breast development? It was possible.
“What’s the matter, Cal?” asked Milton, eating while reading the evening newspaper. “Don’t you want to live to be a hundred?”
“Not if I have to eat this stuff the whole time.”
But now Tessie was the one tearing up. Tessie who for almost two years now had taken care of an old lady who wouldn’t get out of bed. Tessie who had a husband more in love with hot dogs than her. Tessie who secretly monitored her children’s bowel movements and so of course knew exactly how greasy American foods could disrupt their digestion. “You don’t do the shopping,” she said, tearfully. “You don’t see what I see. When’s the last time you’ve been to the drugstore, Little Miss Normal Food? You know what the shelves are full of? Laxatives! Every time I go to the drugstore the person in front of me is buying Ex-Lax. And not just one box. They buy it by the bushel.”
“That’s just old people.”
“It’s not just old people. I see young mothers buying it. I see teenagers buying it. You want to know the truth? This entire country can’t do number two!”
“Oh, now I really want to eat.”
“Is this about the bra, Callie? Because if it is, I told you—“
But it was too late. “What bra?” Chapter Eleven asked. And now, smiling: “Does the Great Salt Lake think she needs a bra?”
“Here. My glasses must be dirty. Let me clean them. Ah, that’s better. Now let’s have a look—“
“No, I wouldn’t say the Great Salt Lake has undergone any kind of geological—“
“Well, your face has, zithead!”
“Still as flat as ever. Perfect for time trials.”
But then Milton shouted, “Goddamn it!”—drowning us both out.
We thought he was tired of our bickering.
“That goddamn judge!”
He wasn’t looking at us. He was staring at the front page ofThe Detroit News . He was turning red and then—that high blood pressure we hadn’t mentioned—almost purple.
That morning, at U.S. District Court, Judge Roth had devised a clever way to desegregate the schools. If there weren’t enough white students left in Detroit to go around, he would get them from somewhere else. Judge Roth had claimed jurisdiction over the entire “metropolitan area.” Jurisdiction over the city of Detroit and the surrounding fifty-three suburbs. Including Grosse Pointe.
“Just when we get you kids out of that hellhole,” Milton was shouting, “that goddamn Roth wants to send you back!”