Iam back to my old ways. To my solitary walks through Victoria park. To my Romeo y Julietas, my Davidoff Grand Crus. To my embassy receptions, my Philharmonie concerts, my nightly rounds at the Felsenkeller. It’s my favorite time of year, fall. The slight chill to the air, quickening the brain, and all the schoolkid, school-year memories attached to autumn. You don’t get the bright leaves here in Europe the way you do in New England. The leaves smolder but never catch flame. It’s still warm enough to bicycle. Last night I rode from Schöneberg to Orianenburgstrasse in Mitte. I met a friend for a drink. Leaving, riding through the streets, I was hailed by the intergalactic streetwalkers. In their Manga suits, their moon boots, they tossed their teased doll’s hair and called, Hallo hallo. Maybe they would be just the thing for me. Remunerated to tolerate most anything. Shocked by nothing. And yet, as I pedaled past their lineup, theirStrich , my feelings toward them were not a man’s. I was aware of a good girl’s reproachfulness and disdain, along with a perceptible, physical empathy. As they shifted their hips, hooking me with their darkly painted eyes, my mind filled not with images of what I might do with them, but with what it must be like for them, night after night, hour after hour, to have to do it. TheHuren themselves didn’t look too closely at me. They saw my silk scarf, my Zegna pants, my gleaming shoes. They saw the money in my wallet. Hallo, they called. Hallo. Hallo.
It was fall then, too, the fall of 1973. I was only a few months from turning fourteen. And one Sunday after church Sophie Sassoon whispered in my ear, “Hon? You’re getting just the tiniest bit of a mustache. Have your mother bring you by the shop. I’ll take care of it for you.”
A mustache? Was it true? Like Mrs. Drexel? I hurried to the bathroom to see. Mrs. Tsilouras was reapplying lipstick, but as soon as she left I put my face up to the mirror. Not a full-fledged mustache: only a few darkish hairs above my upper lip. This wasn’t as surprising as it may seem. In fact, I’d been expecting it.
Like the Sun Belt or the Bible Belt, there exists, on this multifarious earth of ours, a Hair Belt. It begins in southern Spain, congruent with Moorish influence. It extends over the dark-eyed regions of Italy, almost all of Greece, and absolutely all of Turkey. It dips south to include Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt. Continuing on (and darkening in color as maps do to indicate ocean depth) it blankets Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan, before lightening gradually in India. After that, except for a single dot representing the Ainu in Japan, the Hair Belt ends.
Sing, Muse, of Greek ladies and their battle against unsightly hair! Sing of depilatory creams and tweezers! Of bleach and beeswax! Sing how the unsightly black fuzz, like the Persian legions of Darius, sweeps over the Achaean mainland of girls barely into their teens! No, Calliope was not surprised by the appearance of a shadow above her upper lip. My Aunt Zo, my mother, Sourmelina, and even my cousin Cleo all suffered from hair growing where they didn’t want it to. When I close my eyes and summon the fond smells of childhood, do I smell gingerbread baking or the pine-fresh scent of Christmas trees? Not primarily. The aroma that fills, as it were, the nostrils of my memory is the sulfurous, protein-dissolving fetor of Nair.
I see my mother, with her feet in the tub, waiting for the bubbling, stinging foam to work. I see Sourmelina, heating up a tin of wax on the stove. The pains they took to make themselves smooth! The rashes the creams left! The futility of it all! The enemy, hair, was invincible. It was life itself.
I told my mother to make an appointment for me at Sophie Sassoon’s beauty parlor at the Eastland Mall.
Wedged between a movie theater and a submarine sandwich shop, the Golden Fleece did what it could to distance itself socially from its neighbors. A tasteful awning hung over the entrance, bearing the silhouette of a Parisiangrande dame . Inside, flowers sat on the front desk. Just as colorful as the flowers was Sophie Sassoon herself. In a purple muumuu, braceleted and begemmed, she glided from chair to chair. “How we doing here? Oh, you look gorgeous. That color takes ten years off.” Then to the next customer: “Don’t look so worried. Trust me. This is how they’re wearing their hair now. Reinaldo, tell her.” And Reinaldo in his hip-huggers: “Like Mia Farrow inRosemary’s Baby . Sick flick, but she looked great.” By then Sophie had moved on to the next person. “Hon, let me give you some advice. Don’t blow-dry your hair. Let it dry wet. Also I’ve got a conditioner for you you won’t believe. I’m an authorized dealer.” It was Sophie Sassoon’s personal attention the women came for, the feeling of safety the salon gave them, the assurance that in here they could expose their flaws without embarrassment and Sophie would take care of them. It must have been the love they came for. Otherwise the customers would have noticed that Sophie Sassoon was herself in need of beauty advice. They would have seen that her eyebrows were drawn on as though by Magic Marker, and that her face, owing to the Princess Borghese makeup she sold on commission, was the color of a brick. But did I see it that day myself, or in the weeks that followed? Like everyone else, instead of judging the final effect of Sophie Sasoon’s makeup job, I was impressed by the complexity of it. I knew, as did my mother and the other ladies, that to “put on her face” every morning it took Sophie Sassoon no less than one hour and forty-five minutes. She had to apply eye creams and under-eye creams. She had to lay down various layers, like shellacking a Stradivarius. In addition to the brick-colored final coat there were others: dabs of green to control redness, pinks to add blush, blues above the eyes. She used dry eyeliner, liquid eyeliner, lip liner, lip conditioner, a frosted highlighter, and a pore minimizer. Sophie Sasoon’s face: it was created with the rigor of a sand painting blown grain by grain by Tibetan monks. It lasted only a day and then it was gone.
This face now said to us, “Right this way, ladies.” Sophie was warm, as always, loving as always. Her hands, treated every night with vanishing cream, fluttered around us, stroking, rubbing. Her earrings looked like something Schliemann had dug up at Troy. She led us past a line of women having their hair set, across a stifling ghetto of hair dryers, and through a blue curtain. In the front of the Golden Fleece, Sophie fixed people’s hair; in the back she removed it. Behind the blue curtain half-naked women presented portions of themselves to wax. One large woman was on her back, her blouse pulled up to expose her navel. Another was lying on her stomach, reading a magazine while wax dried on the back of her thighs. There was a woman sitting in a chair, her sideburns and chin smeared with dark golden wax, and there were two beautiful young women lying naked from the waist down, having their bikini lines done. The smell of the beeswax was strong, pleasant. The atmosphere was like a Turkish bath without the heat, a lazy, draped feeling to everything, steam curling off pots of wax.
“I’m only having my face done,” I told Sophie.
“She sounds like she’s paying,” Sophie joked to my mother.
My mother laughed, and the other women joined in. Everyone was looking our way, smiling. I’d come from school and was still in my uniform.
“Be glad it’s just your face,” said one of the bikini-liners.
“Few years from now,” said the other, “you might be heading south.”
Laughter. Winks. Even, to my astonishment, a sly smile spreading over my mother’s face. As if behind the blue curtain Tessie was another person. As if, now that we were getting waxed together, she could treat me like an adult.
“Sophie, maybe you can convince Callie to get her hair cut,” Tessie said.
“It’s a little bushy, hon,” Sophie leveled with me. “For your face shape.”
“Just a wax, please,” I said.
“She won’t listen,” said Tessie.
A Hungarian woman (from the outskirts of the Hair Belt) did the honors. With the short-order efficiency of Jimmy Papanikolas, she positioned us around the room like food on a grill: in one corner the large woman as pink as a slab of Canadian bacon; down at the bottom Tessie and me, lumped together like home fries; over on the left the bikini-liners, lying sunny side up. Helga kept us all sizzling. Holding her aluminum tray, she moved from body to body, spreading maple-syrup-colored wax where it was needed with a flat wooden spoon, and pressing in strips of gauze before it hardened. When the large woman was done on one side, Helga flipped her over. Tessie and I lay in our chairs, listening to wax being violently removed. “Oh my!” cried the large lady. “Is nothing,” belittled Helga. “I do it perfect.” “Oweee!” yelped a bikini-liner. And Helga, taking an oddly feminist stance: “See what you do for the mens? You suffer. Is not worth it.”
Now Helga came over to me. She took hold of my chin and moved my head from side to side, examining. She spread wax above my upper lip. She moved to my mother and did the same. Thirty seconds later the wax had hardened.
“I have a surprise for you,” Tessie said.
“What?” I asked, as Helga ripped. I was certain my fledgling mustache was gone. Also, my upper lip.
“Your brother’s coming home for Christmas.”
My eyes were tearing. I blinked and said nothing, momentarily dumbfounded. Helga turned to my mother.
“Some surprise,” I said.
“He’s bringing a girlfriend.”
“He’s got a girlfriend? Who would go out with him?”
“Her name is . . .” Helga ripped. After a moment my mother resumed, “Meg.”
From then on, Sophie Sassoon took care of my facial hair. I went in about twice a month, adding depilation to an ever-growing list of upkeep requirements. I started shaving my legs and underarms. I plucked my eyebrows. The dress code at my school forbade cosmetics. But on weekends I got to experiment, within limits. Reetika and I painted our faces in her bedroom, passing a hand mirror back and forth. I was particularly given to dramatic eyeliner. My model here was Maria Callas, or possibly Barbra Streisand inFunny Girl . The triumphant, long-nosed divas. At home I snooped in Tessie’s bathroom. I loved the amulet-like vials, the sweet-smelling, seemingly edible creams. I tried out her facial steamer, too. You put your face to the plastic cone and were blasted by heat. I stayed away from greasy moisturizers, worried they would make me break out.
With Chapter Eleven off at college—he was a sophomore now—I had the bathroom to myself. This was evident from the medicine cabinet. Two pink Daisy razors stood upright in a small drinking cup, next to a spray can of Psssssst instant shampoo. A tube of Dr Pepper Lip Smacker, which tasted like the soft drink, kissed a bottle of “Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific.” My Breck Creme Rinse with Body promised to make me “the girl with the hair” (but wasn’t I already?). From there we move on to the facial products: my Epi*Clear Acne Kit; my Crazy Curl hair iron; a bottle of FemIron pills which I was hoping to someday need; and a shaker of Love’s Baby Soft body powder. Then there was my aerosol can of Soft & Dri non-sting antiperspirant and my two bottles of perfume: Woodhue, a mildly disturbing Christmas present from my brother, which I consequently never wore; and L’Air du Temps by Nina Ricci (“Only the romantic need apply”). I also had a tub of Jolén Creme Bleach, for between appointments at the Golden Fleece. Interspersed amid these totemic items were stray Q-tips and cotton balls, lip liners, Max Factor eye makeup, mascara, blush, and everything else I used in a losing battle to make myself beautiful. Finally, hidden in the back of the cabinet, was the box of Kotex pads, which my mother had given me one day. “We better just keep these on hand,” she’d said, astonishing me completely. No further explanation than that.
The hug I had given Chapter Eleven in the summer of ’72 turned out to be a kind of farewell, because when he returned home from college after his freshman year my brother had become another person. He’d grown his hair out (not as long as mine, but still). He’d started learning the guitar. Perched on his nose was a pair of granny glasses and instead of straight-legs he now wore faded bell-bottom jeans. The members of my family have always had a knack for self-transformation. While I finished my first year at Baker & Inglis and began my second, while I went from being a short seventh grader to an alarmingly tall eighth grader, Chapter Eleven, up at college, went from science geek to John Lennon look-alike.
He bought a motorcycle. He started meditating. He claimed to understand2001: A Space Odyssey , even the ending. But it wasn’t until Chapter Eleven descended into the basement to play Ping-Pong with Milton that I understood what was behind all this. We’d had a Ping-Pong table for years, but so far, no matter how much my brother or I practiced, we had never come close to beating Milton. Neither my new long reach nor Chapter Eleven’s beetle-browed concentration was sufficient to counter Milton’s wicked spin or his “killer shot” which left red marks on our chests,through our clothes . But that summer, something was different. When Milton used his extra-fast serve, Chapter Eleven returned it with a minimum of effort. When Milton employed the “English” he’d learned in the Navy, Chapter Eleven counter-spun. Even when Milton smashed a winner across the table, Chapter Eleven, with stupendous reflexes, sent it back where it came from. Milton began to sweat. His face turned red. Chapter Eleven remained cool. He had a strange, distracted look on his face. His pupils were dilated. “Go!” I cheered him on. “Beat Dad!” 12–12. 12–14. 14–15. 17–18. 18–21! Chapter Eleven had done it! He’d beaten Milton!
“I’m on acid,” he explained later.
“Windowpane. Three hits.”
The drug had made everything seem as if it were happening in slow motion. Milton’s fastest serves, his most arching spin shots and smashes, seemed to float in the air.
LSD? Three hits? Chapter Eleven had been tripping the whole time! He had been tripping during dinner! “That was the hardest part,” he said. “I was watching dad carve the chicken and then it flapped its wings and flew away!”
“What’s the matter with that kid?” I heard my father ask my mother through the wall separating our rooms. “Now he’s talking about dropping out of engineering. Says it’s too boring.”
“It’s just a stage. It’ll pass.”
Shortly thereafter, Chapter Eleven had returned to college. He hadn’t come back for Thanksgiving. And so, as Christmas of ’73 approached, we all wondered what he would be like when we saw him again.
We quickly found out. As my father had feared, Chapter Eleven had scuttled his plans to become an engineer. Now, he informed us, he was majoring in anthropology.
As part of an assignment for one of his courses, Chapter Eleven conducted what he called “fieldwork” during most of that vacation. He carried a tape recorder around with him, recording everything we said. He took notes on our “ideation systems” and “rituals of kin bonding.” He said almost nothing himself, claiming that he didn’t want to influence the findings. Every now and then, however, while observing our extended family eat and joke and argue, Chapter Eleven would let out a laugh, a private Eureka that made him fall back in his chair and lift his Earth shoes off the floor. Then he would lean forward and begin writing madly in his notebook.
As I’ve mentioned, my brother didn’t pay much attention to me while we were growing up. That weekend, however, spurred on by his new mania for observation, Chapter Eleven took a new interest in me. On Friday afternoon while I was diligently doing some advance homework at the kitchen table, he came and sat down. He stared at me thoughtfully for a long time.
“Latin, huh? That what they’re teaching you in that school?”
“I like it.”
“You a necrophiliac?”
“That’s someone who gets off on dead people. Latin’s dead, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know some Latin.”
“Don’t be gross.”
“I’m dying of laughter. You’re killing me. Look, I’m dead.”
Chapter Eleven was quiet for a while. I tried to go on studying but felt him staring at me. Finally, exasperated, I closed my book. “What are you looking at?” I said.
There was a pause characteristic of my brother. Behind his granny glasses his eyes looked bland, but the mind behind them was working things out.
“I’m looking at my little sister,” he said.
“Okay. You saw her. Now go.”
“I’m looking at my little sister and thinking she doesn’t look like my little sister anymore.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
Again the pause. “I don’t know,” said my brother. “I’m trying to figure it out.”
“Well, when you figure it out, let me know. Right now I’ve got stuff to do.”
On Saturday morning, Chapter Eleven’s girlfriend arrived. Meg Zemka was as small as my mother and as flat-chested as me. Her hair was a mousy brown, her teeth, owing to an impoverished childhood, not well cared for. She was a waif, an orphan, a runt, and six times as powerful as my brother.
“What are you studying up at college, Meg?” my father asked at dinner.
“That sounds interesting.”
“I doubt you’d like my emphasis. I’m a Marxist.”
“Oh, you are, are you?”
“You run a bunch of restaurants, right?”
“That’s right. Hercules Hot Dogs. Haven’t you ever had one? We’ll have to take you down to one of our stands.”
“Meg doesn’t eat meat,” my mother reminded.
“Oh yeah, I forgot,” said Milton. “Well, you can have some french fries. We’ve got french fries.”
“What do you pay your workers?” Meg asked.
“The ones behind the counter? They get minimum wage.”
“And you live out here in this big house in Grosse Pointe.”
“That’s because I handle the entire business and accept the risk.”
“Sounds like exploitation to me.”
“It does, does it?” Milton smiled. “Well, if giving somebody a job is exploiting them, then I guess I’m an exploiter. Those jobs didn’t exist before I started the business.”
“That’s like saying that the slaves didn’t have jobs until they built the plantations.”
“You got a real live wire here,” Milton said, turning to my brother. “Where did you find her?”
“I found him,” said Meg. “On top of an elevator.”
That was when we learned how Chapter Eleven was spending his time at college. His favorite pastime was to unscrew the ceiling panel on the dorm elevator and climb up on top. He sat there for hours, riding up and down in the darkness.
“The first time I did it,” Chapter Eleven now confessed, “the car started going up to the top. I thought I might get crushed. But they leave some air space.”
“This is what we’re paying your tuition for?” Milton asked.
“That’s what you’re exploiting your workers for,” said Meg.
Tessie made Chapter Eleven and Meg sleep in separate bedrooms, but in the middle of the night there was a lot of tiptoeing and giggling in the dark. Trying to be the big sister I never had, Meg gave me a copy ofOur Bodies, Ourselves .
Chapter Eleven, swept up in the sexual revolution, tried to educate me, too.
“You ever masturbate, Cal?”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed. It’s natural. This friend of mine told me you could do it with your hand. So I went into the bathroom—“
“I don’t want to hear about—“
“—and tried it out. All of sudden, all the muscles in my penis started contracting—“
“In our bathroom?”
“—And then I ejaculated. It felt really amazing. You should try it, Cal, if you haven’t already. Girls are a little different, but physiologically it’s pretty much the same. I mean, the penis and the clitoris are analogous structures. You gotta experiment to see what works.”
I put my fingers in my ears and started humming.
“You don’t have to have any hang-ups with me,” Chapter Eleven said loudly. “I’m your brother.”
The rock music, the reverence for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the avocado pits sprouting on the windowsill, the rainbow-colored rolling papers. What else? Oh yeah: my brother had stopped using deodorant.
“You stink!” I objected one day, sitting next to him in the TV room.
Chapter Eleven gave the tiniest of shrugs. “I’m a human,” he said. “This is what humans smell like.”
“No way,” nuzzling up to his armpit. “It turns meon .”
“Will you guys get out of here! I’m trying to watch this show.”
“Hey, baby, my little sister wants us to split. What do you say to a little nookie?”
“See you, sis. We’ll be upstairsin flagrante delicto .”
Where could all this lead? Only to family dissension, shouting matches, and heartbreak. On New Year’s Eve, as Milton and Tessie toasted the new year with glasses of Cold Duck, Chapter Eleven and Meg swigged on bottles of Elephant Malt Liquor, going outside every so often to secretly smoke a joint. Milton said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about finally making that trip to the old country. We could go back and seepapou andyia yia ’s village.”
“And fix that church, like you promised,” said Tessie.
“What do you think?” Milton asked Chapter Eleven. “Maybe we could take a family vacation this summer.”
“Not me,” said Chapter Eleven.
“Tourism is just another form of colonialism.”
And so on and so forth. Before long, Chapter Eleven declared that he didn’t share Milton and Tessie’s values. Milton asked what was wrong with their values. Chapter Eleven said he was against materialism. “All you care about is money,” he told Milton. “I don’t want to live like this.” He gestured toward the room. Chapter Eleven was against our living room, everything we had, everything Milton had worked for. He was against Middlesex! Then shouting; and Chapter Eleven uttering two words to Milton, one beginning withf , the other withy ; and more shouting, and Chapter Eleven’s motorcycle roaring away, with Meg on the back.
What had happened to Chapter Eleven? Why had he changed so much? It was being away from home, Tessie said. It was the times. It was all this trouble with the war. I, however, have a different answer. I suspect that Chapter Eleven’s transformation was caused in no small part by that day on his bed when his life was decided by lottery. Am I projecting? Saddling my brother with my own obsessions with chance and fate? Maybe. But as we planned a trip—a trip that had been promised when Milton was saved from another war—it appeared that Chapter Eleven, taking chemical trips of his own, was trying to escape what he had dimly perceived while wrapped in an afghan: the possibility that not only his draft number was decided by lottery, but that everything was. Chapter Eleven was hiding from this discovery, hiding behind windowpane, hiding on the top of elevators, hiding in the bed of Meg Zemka with her multiple O’s and bad teeth, Meg Zemka who hissed in his ear while they made love,“Forget your family, man! They’re bourgeois pigs! Your dad’s an exploiter, man! Forget ’em. They’re dead, man. Dead. This is what’s real. Right here. Come and get it, baby!”
THE OBSCURE OBJECT
It occurred to me today that I’m not as far along as I thought. Writing my story isn’t the courageous act of liberation I had hoped it would be. Writing is solitary, furtive, and I know all about those things. I’m an expert in the underground life. Is it really my apolitical temperament that makes me keep my distance from the intersexual rights movement? Couldn’t it also be fear? Of standing up. Of becoming one ofthem .
Still, you can only do what you’re able. If this story is written only for myself, then so be it. But it doesn’t feel that way. I feel you out there, reader. This is the only kind of intimacy I’m comfortable with. Just the two of us, here in the dark.
Things weren’t always like this. In college, I had a girlfriend. Her name was Olivia. We were drawn together by our common woundedness. Olivia had been savagely attacked when she was only thirteen, nearly raped. The police had caught the guy who did it and Olivia had testified in court numerous times. The ordeal had arrested her development. Instead of doing the normal things a high school girl did, she had had to remain that thirteen-year-old girl on the witness stand. While Olivia and I were both intellectually capable of handling the college curriculum, of excelling in it even, we remained in key ways emotionally adolescent. We cried a lot in bed. I remember the first time we took off our clothes in front of each other. It was like unwinding bandages. I was as much of a man as Olivia could bear at that point. I was her starter kit.
After college, I took a trip around the world. I tried to forget my body by keeping it in motion. Nine months later, back home, I took the Foreign Service exam and, a year after that, started working for the State Department. A perfect job for me. Three years in one place, two in another. Never long enough to form a solid attachment to anyone. In Brussels, I fell in love with a bartender who claimed not to care about the uncommon way I was made. I was so grateful that I asked her to marry me, though I found her dull company, ambitionless, too much of a shouter, a hitter. Fortunately, she refused my proposal and ran off with someone else. Who has there been since? A few here and there, never long-lasting. And so, without permanence, I have fallen into the routine of my incomplete seductions. The chatting up I’m good at. The dinners and drinks. The clinches in doorways. But then I’m off. “I’ve got a meeting with the ambassador in the morning,” I say. And they believe me. They believe the ambassador wants to be briefed on the upcoming Aaron Copland tribute.
It’s getting harder all the time. With Olivia and every woman who came after her there has been this knowledge to deal with: the great fact of my condition. The Obscure Object and I met unawares, however, in blissful ignorance.
After all the screaming in our house, there reigned, that winter on Middlesex, only silence. A silence so profound that, like the left foot of the President’s secretary, it erased portions of the official record. A soggy, evasive season during which Milton, unable to admit that Chapter Eleven’s attack had broken his heart, began visibly to swell with rage, so that almost anything set him off, a long red light, ice milk for dessert instead of ice cream. (His was a loud silence but a silence nonetheless.) A winter during which Tessie’s worries about her children immobilized her, so that she failed to return Christmas presents that didn’t fit, and merely put them in the closet, without getting a refund. At the end of this wounded, dishonest season, as the first crocuses appeared, returning from their winter in the underworld, Calliope Stephanides, who also felt something stirring in the soil of her being, found herself reading the classics.
Spring semester of eighth grade brought me into Mr. da Silva’s English class. A group of only five students, we met in the greenhouse on the second floor. Spider plants let down vines from the glass roof. Closer to our heads geraniums crowded in, giving off a smell somewhere between licorice and aluminum. In addition to me, there was Reetika, Tina, Joanne, and Maxine Grossinger. Though our parents were friends, I hardly knew Maxine. She didn’t mix with the other kids on Middlesex. She was always practicing her violin. She was the only Jewish kid at school. She ate lunch alone, spooning kosher food from Tupperware. I assumed her pallor was the result of being indoors all the time and that the blue vein that beat wildly at her temple was a kind of inner metronome.
Mr. da Silva had been born in Brazil. This was hard to notice. He wasn’t exactly the Carnival type. The Latin details of his childhood (the hammock, the outdoor tub) had been erased by a North American education and a love of the European novel. Now he was a liberal Democrat and wore black armbands in support of radical causes. He taught Sunday school at a local Episcopal church. He had a pink, cultivated face and dark blond hair that fell into his eyes when he recited poetry. Sometimes he picked thistles or wildflowers from the green and wore them in the lapel of his jacket. He had a short, compact body, and often did isometric exercises between class periods. He played the recorder, too. A music stand in his classroom held sheet music, early Baroque pieces, mostly.
He was a great teacher, Mr. da Silva. He treated us with complete seriousness, as if we eighth graders, during fifth period, might settle something scholars had been arguing about for centuries. He listened to our chirping, his hairline pressing down on his eyes. When he spoke himself, it was in complete paragraphs. If you listened closely it was possible to hear the dashes and commas in his speech, even the colons and semicolons. Mr. da Silva had a relevant quotation for everything that happened to him and in this way evaded real life. Instead of eating his lunch, he told you what Oblonsky and Levin had for lunch inAnna Karenina . Or, describing a sunset fromDaniel Deronda , he failed to notice the one that was presently falling over Michigan.
Mr. da Silva had spent a summer in Greece six years before. He was still keyed up about it. When he described visiting the Mani, his voice became even mellower than usual, and his eyes glistened. Unable to find a hotel one night, he had slept on the ground, awaking the next morning to find himself beneath an olive tree. Mr. da Silva had never forgotten that tree. They had had a meaningful exchange, the two of them. Olive trees are intimate creatures, eloquent in their twistedness. It’s easy to understand why the ancients believed human spirits could be trapped inside them. Mr. da Silva had felt this, waking up in his sleeping bag.
I was curious about Greece myself, of course. I was eager to visit. Mr. da Silva encouraged me in feeling Greek.
“Miss Stephanides,” he called on me one day. “Since you hail from Homer’s own land, would you be so kind as to read aloud?” He cleared his throat. “Page eighty-nine.”
That semester, our less academically inclined sisters were readingThe Light in the Forest . But in the greenhouse we were making our way throughThe Iliad . It was a paperback prose translation, abridged, set loose from its numbers, robbed of the music of the ancient Greek but—as far as I was concerned—still a terrific read. God, I loved that book! From the pouting of Achilles in his tent (which reminded me of the President’s refusal to hand over the tapes) to Hector’s being dragged around the city by his feet (which made me cry), I was riveted. ForgetLove Story . Harvard couldn’t match Troy as a setting, and in Segal’s whole novel only one person died. (Maybe this was another sign of the hormones manifesting themselves silently inside me. For while my classmates foundThe Iliad too bloody for their taste, an endless catalogue of men butchering one another after formally introducing themselves, I thrilled to the stabbings and beheadings, the gouging out of eyes, the juicy eviscerations.)
I opened my paperback and lowered my head. My hair fell forward, cutting off everything—Maxine, Mr. da Silva, the greenhouse’s geraniums—except the book. From behind the velvet curtain, my lounge singer’s voice began to purr. “Aphrodite put off her famous belt, in which all the charms of love are woven, potency, desire, lovely whispers, and the force of seduction, which takes away foresight and judgment even from the most reasonable people.”
It was one o’clock. An after-lunch lethargy lay over the room. Outside, rain threatened. There was a knock at the door.
“Excuse me, Callie. Could you stop for a moment, please?” Mr. da Silva turned toward the door. “Come in.”
Along with everyone else, I looked up. Standing in the doorway was a redheaded girl. Two clouds bumped up above, skidding past each other, and let down a beam of light. This beam struck the glass roof of the greenhouse. Passing through the hanging geraniums, it picked up the rosy light which now, in a kind of membrane, enveloped the girl. It was also possible that the sun wasn’t doing this at all, but a certain intensity, a soul ray, from my eyes.
“We’re in the middle of class, dear.”
“I’m supposed to be in this class,” said the girl, unhappily. She held out a slip of paper.
Mr. da Silva examined it. “Are you sure Miss Durrell wants you transferred intothis class?” he said.
“Mrs. Lampe doesn’t want me in her class anymore,” replied the girl.
I started reading again. That is, my eyes kept tracing over the sentences and my mouth kept forming the words. But my mind had stopped paying attention to their meaning. When I finished I didn’t toss my hair back. I let it stay hanging over my face. Through a keyhole in it I peeked out.
The girl had taken a seat across from me. She was leaning toward Reetika as though to look on with her, but her eyes were taking in the plants. Her nose wrinkled up at the mulchy smell.
Part of my interest was scientific, zoological. I’d never seen a creature with so many freckles before. A Big Bang had occurred, originating at the bridge of her nose, and the force of this explosion had sent galaxies of freckles hurtling and drifting to every end of her curved, warm-blooded universe. There were clusters of freckles on her forearms and wrists, an entire Milky Way spreading across her forehead, even a few sputtering quasars flung into the wormholes of her ears.
Since we’re in English class, let me quote a poem. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty,” which begins, “Glory be to God for dappled things.” When I think back about my immediate reaction to that redheaded girl, it seems to spring from an appreciation of natural beauty. I mean the heart pleasure you get from looking at speckled leaves or the palimpsested bark of plane trees in Provence. There was something richly appealing in her color combination, the ginger snaps floating in the milk-white skin, the gold highlights in the strawberry hair. It was like autumn, looking at her. It was like driving up north to see the colors.
Meanwhile she remained slumped sideways in her desk, her legs with the blue knee socks shoved out, revealing the worn heels of her shoes. Because she hadn’t done the reading she was exempt from being called on, but Mr. da Silva sent concerned looks her way. The new girl didn’t notice. She sprawled in her orange light and sleepily opened and closed her eyes. At one point she yawned and, halfway through, cut the yawn off, as though it hadn’t gone right. She swallowed something back and pounded a fist against her breastbone. She burped quietly and whispered to herself,“Ay, caramba.” As soon as class was over she was gone.
Who was she? Where had she come from? Why had I never noticed her in school before? She was obviously not new at Baker & Inglis. Her oxfords were stamped down at the heels so that she could slip into them like clogs. This was something the Charm Bracelets did. Also, she had an antique ring on her finger, with real rubies in it. Her lips were thin, austere, Protestant. Her nose was not really a nose at all. It was only a beginning.
She came to class every day wearing the same distant, bored expression. She shuffled in her oxford-clogs, with a gliding or skating motion, her knees bent and her weight thrust forward. It added to the overall desultory impression. I would be watering Mr. da Silva’s plants when she entered. He asked me to do this before class. So every day began like that, me at one end of the crystal room, engulfed by geranium blooms, and this answering burst of red coming through the door.
The way she dragged her feet made it clear how she felt about the weird, old, dead poem we were reading. She wasn’t interested. She never did the homework. She tried to bluff her way through class. She hacked up the quizzes and tests. If she’d had a fellow Charm Bracelet with her, they could have formed a faction of uninterested note-passers. Alone, she could only mope. Mr. da Silva gave up trying to teach her anything and called on her as little as possible.
I watched her in class and I watched her outside it, too. As soon as I arrived at school I was on the lookout. I sat in one of the lobby’s yellow wing chairs, pretending to do homework, and waited for her to pass. Her brief appearances always knocked me out. I was like somebody in a cartoon, with stars vibrating around the head. She would come around the corner, chewing on a Flair pen and shuffling, as if wearing slippers. There was always a rush to her walk. If she didn’t keep her feet digging forward her crushed-down shoes would fly off. This brought out the muscles in her calves. She was freckled down there, too. It was almost a kind of suntan. Sliding, she charged by, talking to some other Charm Bracelet, both of them moving with that lazy, confident hauteur they all had. Sometimes she looked at me but showed no recognition. A nictitating membrane lowered itself over her eyes.
Allow me an anachronism. Luis Buñuel’sThat Obscure Object of Desire didn’t come out until 1977. By that time the redheaded girl and I were no longer in touch. I doubt she ever saw the movie. Nevertheless,That Obscure Object of Desire is what I think about when I think about her. I saw it on television, in a Spanish bar, when I was stationed in Madrid. I didn’t catch most of the dialogue. The plot was clear enough, though. An older gentleman played by Fernando Rey is smitten with a young and beautiful girl played by Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. I didn’t care about any of that. It was the surrealist touch that got me. In many scenes Fernando Rey is shown holding a heavy sack over his shoulder. The reason for this sack is never mentioned. (Or if it is, I missed that, too.) He just goes around lugging this sack, into restaurants and through city parks. That was exactly how I felt, following my own Obscure Object. As though I were carrying around a mysterious, unexplained burden or weight. I’m going to call her that, if you don’t mind. I’m going to call her the Obscure Object. For sentimental reasons. (I also have to protect her identity.)
There she was in gym class, malingering. There she was at lunch, having a laugh attack. Doubled over the table, she tried to hit the joker responsible. Her mouth bubbled milk. Her nose leaked a few drops, which started everyone laughing harder. Next I saw her after school, riding double with an unknown boy. She climbed up on the bicycle seat while he stood on the pedals. She didn’t put her arms around his waist. She managed the thing by balance alone. This gave me hope.
One day in class Mr. da Silva asked the Object to read aloud.
She was lounging in her desk as usual. At a girls’ school you didn’t have to be so vigilant about keeping your knees together or your skirt tugged down. The Object’s knees were spread apart and her legs, which were somewhat heavy in the thigh, were bare high up. Without moving, she said, “I forgot my book.”
Mr. da Silva compressed his lips.
“You can look on with Callie.”
The only sign of agreement she gave was to sweep her hair off her face. She placed a hand to her forehead and ran it back like a plow though her hair, her fingers leaving furrows. At the end of the stroke came a little flick of the head, a flourish. There was her cheek, permitting approach. I scooted over. I slid my book onto the crack between our desks. The Object leaned over it.
“Top of page one hundred and twelve. The description of the shield of Achilles.”
I’d never been this close to the Obscure Object before. It was hard on my organism. My nervous system launched into “Flight of the Bumblebee.” The violins were sawing away in my spine. The timpani were banging in my chest. At the same time, trying to conceal all this, I didn’t move a muscle. I hardly breathed. That was the deal basically: catatonia without; frenzy within.
I could smell her cinnamon gum. It was still in the back of her mouth somewhere. I didn’t look directly at her. I kept my eyes on the book. A strand of her red-gold hair fell onto the desk between us. Where the sun hit the hair, there was a prismatic effect. But while I was witnessing the half-inch rainbow she began to read.
I expected a nasal monotone, riddled with mispronunciations. I expected bumps, swerves, screeching brakes, head-on collisions. But the Obscure Object had a good reading voice. It was clear, strong, supple in its rhythms. It was a voice she’d picked up at home, from poetry-reciting uncles who drank too much. Her expression changed, too. A concentrated dignity, previously absent, marked her features. Her head rose on a proud neck. Her chin was lifted. She sounded twenty-four instead of fourteen. I wonder which was stranger, the Eartha Kitt voice that came out of my mouth or the Katharine Hepburn that came out of hers.
When she was finished there was silence. “Thank you,” said Mr. da Silva, as surprised as the rest of us. “That was very nicely done.”
The bell rang. Immediately the Object leaned away from me. She ran a hand through her hair again, as though rinsing it in the shower. She slipped out of the desk and left the room.
On certain days, when the greenhouse was lit just so and the Obscure Object’s blouse unbuttoned two buttons, when the light illuminated the scapulars dangling between the cups of her brassiere, did Calliope feel any inkling of her true biological nature? Did she ever, while the Obscure Object passed in the hall, think that what she was feeling was wrong? Yes and no. Let me remind you where all this was happening.
It was perfectly acceptable at Baker & Inglis to get a crush on a fellow classmate. At a girls’ school a certain amount of emotional energy, normally expended on boys, gets redirected into friendships. Girls walked arm in arm at B&I, the way French schoolgirls do. They competed for affection. Jealousies arose. Betrayals occurred. It was common to come into the bathroom and hear somebody sobbing in one of the stalls. Girls cried because so-and-so wouldn’t sit by them at lunch, or because their best friend had a new boyfriend who monopolized her time. On top of this, school rituals reinforced an intimate atmosphere. There was Ring Day, where Big Sisters initiated Little Sisters into maturity by giving them flowers and gold bands. There was the Distaff Dance, a maypole without men, held in the spring. There were the bimonthly “Heart-to-Hearts,” confessional meetings run by the school chaplain, which invariably ended in paroxysms of hugging and weeping. Nevertheless, the ethos of the school remained militantly heterosexual. My classmates might act cozy during the day, but boys were the number one after-school activity. Any girl suspected of being attracted to girls was gossiped about, victimized, and shunned. I was aware of all this. It scared me.
I didn’t know if the way I felt about the Obscure Object was normal or not. My friends tended to get envious crushes on other girls. Reetika swooned over the way Alwyn Brier playedFinlandia on the piano. Linda Ramirez was smitten with Sofia Cracchiolo because she was taking three languages at once. Was that it? Was the crush I had on the Object a result of her elocutionary talent? I doubted it. It felt physical, my crush. It wasn’t a judgment but a tumult in my veins. For that reason I kept quiet about it. I hid out in the basement bathroom to think the matter through. Every day, whenever I could, I took the back stairs down to the deserted washroom and shut myself up for at least half an hour.
Is there anyplace as comforting as an old, institutional, prewar bathroom? The kind of bathroom they used to build in America when the country was on the rise. The basement bathroom at Baker & Inglis was done up like a box at the opera. Edwardian lighting fixtures gleamed overhead. The sinks were deep white bowls set in blue slate. When you bent to wash your face you saw tiny cracks in the porcelain, as in a Ming vase. Gold chains held the drain-stoppers in place. Beneath the taps, dripping had worn the porcelain thin in green stripes.
Above each sink hung an oval mirror. I wanted nothing to do with any of them. (“The hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age” started early for me.) Avoiding my reflection, I headed straight for the toilet stalls. There were three, and I chose the middle. Like the others, it was marble. Gray New England marble, two inches thick, quarried in the nineteenth century and studded with fossils millions of years old. I closed the door and latched it. I took a Safe-T-Guard from the dispenser and laid it over the toilet seat. Germ-protected, I lowered my underpants, lifted my kilt, and sat. Right away I could feel my body relaxing, my stoop unkinking itself. I brushed my hair out of my face so that I could see. There were little fern-shaped fossils, and fossils that looked like scorpions stinging themselves to death. Down beneath my legs the toilet bowl had a rust stain, ancient, too.
The basement bathroom was the opposite of our locker room. The stalls were seven feet high and extended all the way to the floor. Fossilized marble concealed me even better than my hair. In the basement bathroom was a time frame I felt much more comfortable with, not the rat race of the school upstairs but the slow, evolutionary progress of the earth, of its plant and animal life forming out of the generative, primeval mud. The faucets dripped with the slow, inexorable movement of time and I was alone down there, and safe. Safe from my confused feelings about the Obscure Object; and safe, too, from the bits of conversation I’d been overhearing from my parents’ bedroom. Just the night before, Milton’s exasperated voice had reached my ears: “You still got a headache? Christ, take some aspirin.” “I took some already,” my mother replied. “Nothing helps.” Then my brother’s name, and my father grumbling something I couldn’t make out. Then Tessie: “I’m worried about Callie, too. She still hasn’t gotten her period.” “Hell, she’s only thirteen.” “She’sfourteen . And look how tall she is. I think something’s wrong.” Silence a moment, after which my father asked, “What does Dr. Phil say?” “Dr. Phil! He doesn’t say anything. I want to take her to someone else.”
The humming of my parents’ voices from behind my bedroom wall, which throughout my childhood had filled me with a sense of security, had now become a source of anxiety and panic. So I exchanged it for walls of marble, which echoed only with the sound of dripping water, of the flushing of my toilet, or of my voice softly readingThe Iliad aloud.
And when I got tired of Homer, I started reading the walls.
That was another selling point of the basement bathroom. It was covered with graffiti. Upstairs, class photos showed rows and rows of student faces. Down here it was mostly bodies. Sketched in blue ink were little men with gigantic sexual parts. And women with enormous breasts. Also various permutations: men with dinky penises; and women with penises, too. It was an education both in what was and what might be. Over the gray marble this new, jagged etching of bodies doing things, growing parts, fitting together, changing shape. Plus also jokes, words to the wise, confessions. In one spot: “I love sex.” In another, “Patty C. is a slut.” Where else would a girl like me, hiding from the world a knowledge she didn’t quite understand herself—where else would she feel more comfortable than in this subterranean realm where people wrote down what they couldn’t say, where they gave voice to their most shameful longings and knowledge?
For that spring, while the crocuses bloomed, while the headmistress checked on the daffodil bulbs in the flower beds, Calliope, too, felt something budding. An obscure object all her own, which in addition to the need for privacy was responsible for bringing her down to the basement bathroom. A kind of crocus itself, just before flowering. A pink stem pushing up through dark new moss. But a strange kind of flower indeed, because it seemed to go through a number of seasons in a single day. It had its dormant winter when it slept underground. Five minutes later, it stirred in a private springtime. Sitting in class with a book in my lap, or riding home in car pool, I’d feel a thaw between my legs, the soil growing moist, a rich, peaty aroma rising, and then—while I pretended to memorize Latin verbs—the sudden, squirming life in the warm earth beneath my skirt. To the touch, the crocus sometimes felt soft and slippery, like the flesh of a worm. At other times it was as hard as a root.
How did Calliope feel about her crocus? This is at once the easiest and the hardest thing to explain. On the one hand she liked it. If she pressed the corner of a textbook against it, the sensation was pleasurable. This wasn’t new. It had always felt nice to apply pressure there. The crocus was part of her body, after all. There was no reason to ask questions.
But there were times when I felt that something was different about the way I was made. At Camp Ponshewaing I’d learned, on certain humid bunkhouse nights, of the bicycle seats and fence posts that had seduced my campmates at tender ages. Lizzie Barton, roasting a marshmallow on a stick, told us how she had become fond of the post of a leather saddle. Margaret Thompson was the first girl in town whose parents owned a massaging shower head. I added my own sense data to these clinical histories (that was the year I fell in love with gym ropes), but there remained a vague, indefinable gap between the stirrings my friends reported and the clutching ecstasy of my own dry spasms. Sometimes, hanging down from my top bunk into the beam of someone’s flashlight, I would finish my little self-revelation with “You know?” And in the dimness three or four stringy-haired girls would nod, once, and bite the corner of their lips, and shift their eyes away. They didn’t know.
I worried at times that my crocus was too elaborate a bloom, not a common perennial but a hothouse flower, a hybrid named by its originator like a rose. Iridescent Hellene. Pale Olympus. Greek Fire. But no—that wasn’t right. My crocus wasn’t for show. It was in a state of becoming and might turn out fine if I waited patiently. Maybe it happened like this to everybody. In the meantime, it was best to keep everything under wraps. Which was what I was doing down in the basement.
Another tradition at Baker & Inglis: every year the eighth graders put on a classical Greek play. Originally, these plays had been performed in the Middle School auditorium. But after Mr. da Silva took his trip to Greece, he got the idea of converting the hockey field into a theater. With its bleachers set into the slope and its natural acoustics, it was a perfect mini-Epidaurus. The custodial staff brought risers out and set up a stage on the grass.
The year of my infatuation with the Obscure Object, the play Mr. da Silva selected wasAntigone . There were no auditions. Mr. da Silva filled the major roles with his pets from Advanced English. Everyone else he stuck in the chorus. So the cast list read like this: Joanne Maria Barbara Peracchio as Creon; Tina Kubek as Eurydice; Maxine Grossinger as Ismene. In the role of Antigone herself—the only real possibility from even a physical standpoint—was the Obscure Object. Her midterm grade had been only a C minus. Still, Mr. da Silva knew a star when he saw one.
“We have to learn all these lines?” asked Joanne Maria Barbara Peracchio at our first rehearsal. “In two weeks?”
“Learn what you can,” said Mr. da Silva. “Everyone’s going to be wearing a robe. You can keep your script underneath. Miss Fagles will also be our prompter. She’ll be in the orchestra pit.”
“We’re going to have an orchestra?” Maxine Grossinger wanted to know.
“The orchestra,” Mr. da Silva said, pointing to his recorder, “is I.”
“I hope it doesn’t rain,” said the Object.
“Will it rain the Friday after next?” said Mr. da Silva. “Why don’t we ask our Tiresias?” And then he turned to me.
You expected someone else? No, if the Obscure Object was perfect to play the avenging sister, I was a shoo-in to play the old, blind prophet. My wild hair suggested clairvoyance. My stoop made me appear brittle with age. My half-changed voice had a disembodied, inspired quality. Tiresias had also been a woman, of course. But I didn’t know that then. And it wasn’t mentioned in the script.
I didn’t care what part I played. All that mattered, all I could think about, was that now I would be near the Obscure Object. Not near her as I was during class, when it was impossible to speak. Not near her as I was in the lunchroom, when she was spitting milk at another table. But near her in rehearsals for a school play, with all the waiting around that implied, all the backstage intimacy, all the intense, fraught, giddy, emotional abandon brought on by assuming identities not your own.
“I don’t think we should use scripts,” the Obscure Object now declared. She had arrived for rehearsal looking professional, all her lines highlighted in yellow. Her sweater was tied around her shoulders like a cloak. “I think we should all memorize our lines.” She looked from face to face. “Otherwise it’ll be too fakey.”
Mr. da Silva was smiling. Learning lines would require effort on the Object’s part. A novel undertaking. “Antigone has far and away the most lines,” he said. “So if Antigone wants to be off book, then I think the rest of you should be off book, too.”
The other girls groaned. But Tiresias, already having a vision of the future, turned toward the Object. “I’ll go over your lines with you. If you want.”
The future. It was already happening. The Object was looking at me. The nictitating membranes were lifting. “Okay,” she said, distantly.
We agreed to meet the next day, a Tuesday evening. The Obscure Object wrote out her address and Tessie dropped me at the house. She was sitting on a green velvet sofa when I was shown into the library. Her oxfords were off but she still had her uniform on. Her long red hair was tied back, the better to do what she was doing, which was to light her cigarette. Sitting Indian style, the Object leaned forward, holding the cigarette in her mouth over a green ceramic lighter shaped like an artichoke. The lighter was low on fluid. She shook it and flicked the button with her thumb until at last a small flame shot out.
“Your parents let you smoke?” I said.
She looked up, surprised, then returned to the work at hand. She got the cigarette going, inhaled deeply, and let it out, slowly, satisfyingly. “Theysmoke,” she said. “They’d be pretty big hypocrites if they didn’t let me smoke.”
“But they’re adults.”
“Mummy and Daddy know I’m going to smoke if I want to. If they don’t let me do it, I’ll just sneak it.”
By the looks of it, this dispensation had been in effect for some time. The Object was not new to smoking. She was already a professional. As she sized me up, her eyes narrowing, the cigarette hung aslant from her mouth. Smoke drifted close to her face. It was a strange opposition: the hard-bitten private-eye expression on the face of a girl wearing a uniform for private school. Finally she reached up and took the cigarette out of her mouth. Without looking for the ashtray, she flicked her ash. It fell in.
“I doubt a kid like you smokes,” she said.
“That would be a good guess.”
“You interested in starting?” She held out her pack of Tareytons.
“I don’t want to get cancer.”
She tossed the pack down, shrugging. “I figure they’ll be able to cure it by the time I get it.”
“I hope so. For your sake.”
She inhaled again, even more deeply. She held the smoke in and then turned in cinematic profile and let it out.
“You don’t have any bad habits, I bet,” she said.
“I’ve got tons of bad habits.”
“Like I chew my hair.”
“I bite my nails,” she said competitively. She lifted one hand to show me. “Mummy got me this stuff to put on them. It tastes like shit. It’s supposed to help you quit.”
“Does it work?”
“At first it did. But now I sort of like the taste.” She smiled. I smiled. Then, briefly, trying it out, we laughed together.
“That’s not as bad as chewing your hair,” I resumed.
“Because when you chew your hair it starts smelling like what you had for lunch.”
She made a face and said, “Bogue.”
At school we would have felt funny talking together, but here no one could see us. In the bigger scheme of things, out in the world, we were more alike than different. We were both teenagers. We were both from the suburbs. I set down my bag and came over to the sofa. The Object put her Tareyton in her mouth. Planting her palms on either side of her crossed legs, she lifted herself up, like a yogi levitating, and scooted over to make room for me.
“I’ve got a history test tomorrow,” she said.
“Who do you have for history?”
“Miss Schuyler has a vibrator in her desk.”
“A vibrator. Liz Clark saw it. It’s in her bottom drawer.”
“I can’t believe it!” The Object was shocked, amused. But then she squinted, thinking. In a confidential voice she asked, “What are those for, anyway?”
“Yeah.” She knew she was supposed to know. But she trusted I wouldn’t make fun of her. This was the form of the pact we made that day: I would handle the deep intellectual matters, like vibrators; she would handle the social sphere.
“Most women can’t have orgasms by regular intercourse,” I said, quoting from the copy ofOur Bodies, Ourselves Meg Zemka had given me. “They need clitoral stimulation.”
Behind her freckles, a blush rose to the Object’s face. She was, of course, transfixed by such information. I was speaking into her left ear. The blush spread across her face from that side, as if my words left a visible trace.
“I can’t believe you know all this stuff.”
“I’ll tell you who knows about it. Miss Schuyler, that’s who.”
The laugh, the hoot, shot out of her mouth like a geyser, and then the Object was falling back on the couch. She screamed, with delight, with revulsion. She kicked her legs, knocking her cigarettes off the table. She was fourteen again, instead of twenty-four, and against all odds we were becoming friends.
“ ‘Unwept, unfriended, without marriage song, I am led forth in my horror—’ ”
“ ‘—sorrow—’ ”
“ ‘—in my sorrow on this journey that can be delayed no more. No longer . . .’ ”
“ ‘. . . hapless one . . .’ ”
“ ‘Hapless one!’ I hate that! ‘No longer, hapless one, may I behold yon day-star’s sacred eye; but for my fate no tear is shed, no . . . no . . .’ ”
“ ‘No friend makes moan.’ ”
“ ‘No friend makes moan.’ ”
We were at the Object’s house again, going over our lines. We were in the sun room, sprawled on the Caribbean sofas. Parrots flocked behind the Object’s head as she squeezed her eyes shut, reciting. We’d been at it for two hours. The Object had gone through almost a full pack. Beulah, the maid, brought us sandwiches on a tray along with two sixty-four-ounce bottles of Tab. The sandwiches were white, crustless, but not cucumber or watercress. A salmon-colored spread caked the spongy bread.
We took frequent breaks. The Object required constant refreshment. I still wasn’t comfortable in the house. I couldn’t get used to being waited on. I kept jumping up to serve myself. Beulah was black, too, which didn’t make it any easier.
“I’m really glad we’re in this play together,” the Object said, munching. “I would’ve never talked to a kid like you.” She paused, realizing how this sounded. “I mean, I never knew you were such a cool kid.”
Cool? Calliope cool? I had never dreamed of such a thing. But I was ready to accept the Object’s judgment.
“Can I tell you something, though?” she asked. “About your part?”
“You know how you’re supposed to be blind and everything? Well, where we go in Bermuda there’s this man who runs a hotel. And he’s blind. And the thing about him is, it’s like his ears are his eyes. Like if someone comes into the room, he turns one ear that way. The wayyou do it—“ She stopped suddenly and seized my hand. “You’re not getting mad at me, are you?”
“You’ve got the worst expression on your face, Callie!”
She had my hand. She wasn’t letting go. “You sure you’re not mad?”
“I’m not mad.”
“Well, the way you pretend to be blind is you just, sort of, stumble around a lot. But the thing is, this blind man down in Bermuda, he never stumbles. He stands up really straight and he knows where everything is. And his ears are always focusing in on stuff.”
I turned my face away.
“See, you’re mad!”
“I’m being blind,” I said. “I’m looking at you with my ear.”
“Oh. That’s good. Yeah, like that. That’s really good.”
Without letting go of my hand, she leaned closer and I heard, felt, very softly, her hot breath in my ear. “Hi, Tiresias,” she said, giggling. “It’s me. Antigone.”
The day of the play arrived (“opening night” we called it, though there would be no others). In an improvised “dressing room” behind the stage we lead actors sat on folding chairs. The rest of the eighth graders were already onstage, standing in a big semicircle. The play was set to begin at seven o’clock and finish before sunset. It was 6:55. Beyond the flats we could hear the hockey field filling up. The low rumble got steadily louder—voices, footsteps, the creaking of bleachers, and the slamming of car doors up in the parking lot. We were each dressed in a floor-length robe, tie-dyed black, gray, and white. The Obscure Object, however, was wearing a white robe. Mr. da Silva’s concept was minimal: no makeup, no masks.
“How many people are out there?” Tina Kubek asked.
Maxine Grossinger peeked out. “Tons.”
“You must be used to this, Maxine,” I said. “From all your recitals.”
“I don’t get nervous when I’m playing the violin. This is way worse.”
“I am sooo nervous,” the Object said.
In her lap she had a jar of Rolaids, which she was eating like candy. I understood now why she had pounded her chest the first day of class. The Obscure Object suffered from a more or less constant case of heartburn. It was worse during times of stress. A few minutes earlier, she had wandered off to smoke her last cigarette before showtime. Now she was chewing on the antacid tablets. Part of coming from old money, apparently, was having old-person habits, those gross, adult needs and desperate palliatives. The Object was still too young for the effects to tell on her. She didn’t have eye bags yet or stained fingernails. But the appetite for sophisticated ruin was already there. She smelled like smoke, if you got close. Her stomach was a mess. But her face continued to give off its autumnal display. The cat eyes above the snub nose were alert, blinking and resetting their attention to the growing noise beyond the flats.
“There’s my mom and dad!” Maxine Grossinger shouted. She turned back to us and broke into a big smile. I’d never seen Maxine smile before. Her teeth were jagged and gappy, like those of a Sendak creature. She had braces, too. Her unconcealed joy made me understand her. She had a whole other life apart from school. Maxine was happy in her house behind the cypresses. Meanwhile, curly hair gushed from her fragile, musical head.
“Oh, Jesus.” Maxine was peeking out again. “They’re sitting right in the front row. They’re going to be staring right at me.”
We all peeked out, each in our turn. Only the Obscure Object remained seated. I saw my parents arrive. Milton stopped at the crest of the slope to look down at the hockey field. His expression suggested that the spectacle before him, the emerald grass, the white wooden bleachers, the school in the distance with its blue slate roof and ivy, pleased him. In America, England is where you go to wash yourself of ethnicity. Milton had on a blue blazer and cream-colored trousers. He looked like the captain of a cruise ship. With one arm on her back, he was gently leading Tessie down the steps to get a good seat.
We heard the audience grow quiet. Then a pan flute was heard—Mr. da Silva playing his recorder.
I went over to the Object and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”
She had been repeating her lines silently to herself but now stopped.
“You’re a really good actress,” I continued.
She turned away and lowered her head, moving her lips again.
“You won’t forget your lines. We went over them a billion times. You had them down perfect yester—“
“Will you stop bugging me for a minute?” the Object snapped. “I’m trying to get psyched up.” She glared at me. Then she turned and walked off.
I stood watching her, crestfallen, hating myself. Cool? I was anything but. I’d already made the Obscure Object sick of me. Feeling as if I might cry, I grabbed one of the black curtains and wrapped myself up in it. I stood in the darkness, wishing I were dead.
I hadn’t just been flattering her. Shewas good. Onstage, the Object’s fidgetiness stilled itself. Her posture improved. And of course there was the sheer physical fact of her, the blood-tinged blade that she was, the riot of color that caught everyone’s attention. The pan flute stopped and the hockey field got silent again. People coughed, getting it out of their systems. I peeked out from the curtains and saw the Object waiting to go on. She was standing just inside the middle arch, no more than ten feet from me. I had never seen her so serious before, so concentrated. Talent is a kind of intelligence. As she waited to go on, the Obscure Object was coming into hers. Her lips moved as if she were speaking Sophocles’ lines to Sophocles himself, as if, contrary to all intellectual evidence, she understood the literary reasons for their endurance. So the Object stood, waiting to go on. Far away from her cigarettes and her snobbishness, her cliquish friends, her atrocious spelling. This was what she was good at: appearing before people. Stepping out and standing there and speaking. She was just beginning to realize it then. What I was witnessing was a self discovering the self it could be.
On cue, our Antigone took a deep breath and walked onstage. Her white robe was cinched around her torso with silver braid. The robe fluttered as she stepped out in the warm breeze.
“Wilt thou aid this hand to lift the dead?”
Maxine-Ismene replied, “Thou wouldst bury him, when ‘tis forbidden to Thebes?”
“I will do my part, and thou wilt not, to a brother. False to him will I never be found.”
I wasn’t on for a while. Tiresias wasn’t that big a part. So I closed the curtain around me again and waited. I had a staff in my hand. It was my only prop, a plastic stick painted to look like wood.
It was then I heard a small, choking sound. Again the Object said, “False to him will I never be found.” Followed by silence. I peeked out the curtain. Through the central arch I could see them. The Object had her back to me. Farther downstage Maxine Grossinger stood with a blank look on her face. Her mouth was open, though no words were coming out. Beyond, just above the lip of the stage, was Miss Fagles’s florid face, whispering Maxine’s next line.
It wasn’t stage fright. An aneurysm had burst in Maxine Grossinger’s brain. At first, the audience took her quick stagger and shocked expression to be part of the play. Titters had begun at the way the girl playing Ismene was hamming it up. But Maxine’s mother, knowing exactly what pain looked like on her child’s face, shot up out of her seat. “No,” she cried. “No!” Twenty feet away, elevated under a setting sun, Maxine Grossinger was still mute. A gurgle escaped from her throat. With the suddenness of a lighting cue her face went blue. Even in the back rows people could see the oxygen leave her blood. Pinkness drained away, down her forehead, her cheeks, her neck. Later, the Obscure Object would swear that Maxine had been looking at her with a kind of appeal, that she had seen the light go out of Maxine’s eyes. According to the doctors, however, this was probably not true. Wrapped in her dark robe, still on her feet, Maxine Grossinger was already dead. She toppled forward seconds later.
Mrs. Grossinger scrambled up onstage. She made no sound now. No one did. In silence she reached Maxine and tore open her robe. In silence the mother began to give the daughter mouth-to-mouth. I froze. I let the curtains untwist and I stepped out and gawked. Suddenly a white blur filled the arch. The Obscure Object was fleeing the stage. For a second I had a crazy idea. I thought Mr. da Silva had been holding out on us. He was doing things the traditional way after all. Because the Obscure Object was wearing a mask. The mask for tragedy, her eyes like knife slashes, her mouth a boomerang of woe. With this hideous face she threw herself on me. “Oh my God!” she sobbed. “Oh my God, Callie,” and she was shaking and needing me.
Which leads me to a terrible confession. It is this. While Mrs. Grossinger tried to breathe life back into Maxine’s body, while the sun set melodramatically over a death that wasn’t in the script, I felt a wave of pure happiness surge through my body. Every nerve, every corpuscle, lit up. I had the Obscure Object in my arms.