There was a hot bubbling in my chest. As if my heart were eating Pop Rocks. But I played it cool, looking out at the lake.
“Who says I’m a lady?”
“I justwent to the doctor, Mom.”
“That was for your physical.”
“What’s this for?”
“When girls get to be a certain age, Callie, they have to go get checked.”
“To make sure everything’s okay.”
“What do you mean, everything?”
We were in the car. The second-best Cadillac. When Milton got a new car he gave Tessie his old one. The Obscure Object had invited me to spend the day at her club and my mother was taking me to her house.
It was summer now, two weeks since Maxine Grossinger had collapsed onstage. School was out. On Middlesex preparations were under way for our trip to Turkey. Determined not to let Chapter Eleven’s condemnation of tourism ruin our travel plans, Milton was making airplane reservations and haggling with car rental agencies. Every morning he scanned the newspaper, reporting the weather conditions in Istanbul. “Eighty-one degrees and sunny. How does that sound, Cal?” In response to which I generally twirled an index finger. I wasn’t keen on visiting the homeland anymore. I didn’t want to waste my summer painting a church. Greece, Asia Minor, Mount Olympus, what did they have to do with me? I’d just discovered a whole new continent only a few miles away.
In the summer of 1974 Turkey and Greece were about to be in the news again. But I didn’t pay any mind to the rising tensions. I had troubles of my own. More than that, I was in love. Secretly, shamefully, not entirely consciously, but for all that quite head-over-heels in love.
Our pretty lake was trimmed in filth. The usual June scum of fish flies. There was also a new guardrail, which gave me a somber feeling as we drove past. Maxine Grossinger wasn’t the only girl at school who had died that year. Carol Henkel, a junior, had died in a car accident. One Saturday night her drunken boyfriend, a guy named Rex Reese, had plunged his parents’ car into the lake. Rex had survived, swimming back to shore. But Carol had been trapped inside the car.
We passed Baker & Inglis, closed for vacation and succumbing to the unreality of schools during summertime. We turned up Kerby Road. The Object lived on Tonnacour, in a gray stone and clapboard house with a weather vane. Parked on the gravel was an unprepossessing Ford sedan. I felt self-conscious in the second-best Cadillac and got out quickly, wishing my mother gone.
When I rang the bell, Beulah answered. She led me to the staircase and pointed up. That was all. I climbed to the second floor. I’d never been upstairs at the Object’s house before. It was messier than ours, the carpeting not new. The ceiling hadn’t been painted in years. But the furniture was impressively old, heavy, and sent out signals of permanence and settled judgment.
I tried three rooms before I found the Object’s. Her shades were drawn. Clothes were scattered all over the shag carpeting and I had to wade through them to reach the bed. But there she was, sleeping, in a Lester Lanin T-shirt. I called her name. I jiggled her. Finally she sat up against her pillows and blinked.
“I must look like shit,” she said after a moment.
I didn’t say whether she did or not. It strengthened my position to keep her in doubt.
We had breakfast in the breakfast nook. Beulah served us without elaboration, bringing and taking plates. She wore an actual maid’s uniform, black, with white apron. Her eyeglasses hailed from her other, more stylish life. In gold script her name curled across the left lens.
Mrs. Object arrived, clacking in sensible heels: “Good morning, Beulah. I’m off to the vet’s. Sheba’s getting a tooth pulled. I’ll drop her back here, but then I’m off to lunch. They say she’ll be woozy. Oh—and the men are coming for the drapes today. Let them in and give them the check that’s on the counter. Hello, girls! I didn’t see you. You must be a good influence, Callie. Nine-thirty and this one’s up already?” She mussed the Object’s hair. “Are you spending the day at the Little Club, dear? Good. Your father and I are going out with the Peterses tonight. Beulah will leave something for you in the fridge. Bye, all!”
All this while, Beulah rinsed glasses. Keeping to her strategy. Giving Grosse Pointe the silent treatment.
The Object spun the lazy Susan. French jams, English marmalades, an unclean butter dish, bottles of ketchup and Lea & Perrins circled past, before what the Object wanted: an economy-size jar of Rolaids. She shook out three tablets.
“What is heartburn, anyway?” I said.
“You’ve never had heartburn?” asked the Object, amazed.
The Little Club was only a nickname. Officially the club was known as the Grosse Pointe Club. Though the property was on the lake, there were no docks or boats in sight, only a mansion-like clubhouse, two paddle tennis courts, and a swimming pool. It was beside this pool that we lay every day that June and July.
As far as swimwear went, the Obscure Object favored bikinis. She looked good in them but by no means perfect. Like her thighs, her hips were on the large side. She claimed to envy my thin, long legs, but she was only being nice. Calliope appeared poolside, that first day and every day thereafter, in an old-fashioned one-piece with a skirt. It had belonged to Sourmelina during the 1950s. I found it in an old trunk. The stated intent was to look funky, but I was grateful for the full coverage. I also hung a beach towel around my neck or wore an alligator shirt over my suit. The bodice of the bathing suit was a plus, too. The cups were rubberized, pointy, and beneath a towel or a shirt gave me the suggestion of a bust I didn’t have.
Beyond us, pelican-bellied ladies in swim caps followed kickboards back and forth across the pool. Their bathing suits were a lot like mine. Little kids waded and splashed in the shallow end. There is a small window of opportunity for freckled girls to tan. The Object was in it. As we revolved on our towels that summer, self-basting, the Object’s freckles darkened, going from butterscotch to brown. The skin between them darkened, too, knitting her freckles together into a speckled harlequin mask. Only the tip of her nose remained pink. The part in her hair flamed with sunburn.
Club sandwiches, on wave-rimmed plates, sailed out to us. If we were feeling sophisticated, we ordered the French dip. We had milk shakes, too, ice cream, french fries. For everything the Object signed her father’s name. She talked about Petoskey, where her family had a summer house. “We’re going up in August. Maybe you could come up.”
“We’re going to Turkey,” I said unhappily.
“Oh, right. I forgot.” And then: “Why do you have to paint a church?”
“My dad made this promise.”
Behind us married couples were playing paddle tennis. Pennants flew from the clubhouse roof. Was this the place to mention St. Christopher? My father’s war stories? My grandmother’s superstitions?
“You know what I keep thinking?” I said.
“I keep thinking about Maxine. I can’t believe she’s dead.”
“I know. It doesn’t seem like she’s really dead. It’s like I dreamed it.”
“The only way we know it’s true is that we both dreamed it. That’s what reality is. It’s a dream everyone has together.”
“That’s deep,” said the Object.
I smacked her.
“That’s what you get.”
Bugs were attracted by our coconut oil. We killed them without mercy. The Object was making a slow, scandalized progress throughThe Lonely Lady by Harold Robbins. Every few pages she shook her head and announced, “This book is sooo dirty.” I was readingOliver Twist , one of the assigned volumes for our summer reading list.
Suddenly the sun went in. A drop of water hit my page. But this was nothing compared to the cascade that was being shaken onto the Obscure Object. An older boy was leaning over sideways, shaking his wet mop of hair.
“Goddamn you,” she said, “cut it out!”
“What’s the matter? I’m cooling you off.”
Finally, he did. He straightened up. His bathing suit had fallen down over his skinny hipbones. This exposed an ant trail of hair running down from his navel. The ant trail was red. But on his head the hair was jet black.
“Who’s the latest victim of your hospitality?” the boy asked.
“This is Callie,” said the Object. Then to me: “This is my brother. Jerome.”
The resemblance was clear. The same palette had gone into Jerome’s face (oranges and pale blues, primarily) but there was a crudeness to the overall sketch, something bulbous about the nose, the eyes on the squinty side, pinpricks of light. What threw me at first was the dark, sheenless hair, which I soon realized was dyed.
“You were the one in the play, right?”
Jerome nodded. With slitty eyes glinting he said, “A thespian, eh? Just like you. Right, sis?”
“My brother has a lot of problems,” the Object said.
“Hey, since you gals are into the thee-a-tah, maybe you want to be in my next film.” He looked at me. “I’m making a vampire movie. You’d make a great vampire.”
“Let me see your teeth.”
I didn’t oblige, taking my cue from the Object not to be too friendly.
“Jerome is into monster movies,” she said.
“Horror films,” he corrected, still directing his words to me. “Not monster movies. My sister, as usual, belittles my chosen medium. Want to know the title?”
“No,” said the Object.
“Vampires in Prep School. It’s about this vampire, played bymoi , who gets sent off to prep school because his affluent but terribly unhappy parents are going through a divorce. Anyway, he doesn’t get along too well out there at boarding school. He doesn’t wear the right clothes. He doesn’t have the right haircut. But then one day after this kegger he takes a walk across campus and gets attacked by a vampire. And—here’s the kicker—the vampire is smoking a pipe. He’s wearing a Harris tweed. It’s the fucking headmaster, man! So the next morning, our hero wakes up and goes right out and buys a blue blazer and some Top-Siders and—presto—he’s a total prep!”
“Will you move, you’re blocking my sun.”
“It’s a metaphor for the whole boarding school experience,” Jerome said. “Each generation puts the bite on the next, turning them into the living dead.”
“Jerome has been kicked out of two boarding schools.”
“And I shall have my revenge upon them!” Jerome proclaimed in a hoary voice, shaking his fist in the air. Then without another word he ran to the pool and jumped. As he did, he spun around so he was facing us. There Jerome hung, skinny, sunken-chested, as white as a saltine, his face scrunched up and one hand clutching his nuts. He held that pose all the way down.
I was too young to ask myself what was behind our sudden intimacy. In the days and weeks that followed, I didn’t consider the Object’s own motivations, her love vacuum. Her mother had engagements all day long. Her father left for the office at six forty-five. Jerome was a brother and therefore useless. The Object didn’t like being alone. She had never learned to amuse herself. And so one evening at her house, as I was about to get on my bike and ride home, she suggested that I sleep over.
“I don’t have my toothbrush.”
“You can use mine.”
“I’ll get you a new toothbrush. We’ve got a box of them. God, you’re such a priss.”
I was only feigning squeamishness. In actuality I wouldn’t have minded sharing the Object’s toothbrush. I wouldn’t have mindedbeing the Object’s toothbrush. I was already well acquainted with the splendors of her mouth. Smoking is good for that. You get a full display of the puckering and the sucking. The tongue often makes an appearance, licking from the lips any stickiness imparted by the filter. Sometimes bits of paper adhere to the bottom lip and the smoker, pulling them away, reveals the candied lower teeth against the pulpy gums. And if the smoker is a blower of smoke rings, you get to see all the way in to the dark velvet of the inner cheeks.
That was how it went with the Obscure Object. A cigarette in bed was the tombstone marking each day’s end and the reed through which she breathed herself back to life each morning. You’ve heard of installation artists? Well, the Object was anexhalation artist. She had a whole repertoire. There was the Sidewinder, where she politely funneled smoke away from the person she was talking to out the corner of her mouth. There was the Geyser when she was angry. There was the Dragon Lady, featuring a plume from each nostril. There was the French Recycle, where she let smoke out her mouth only to inhale it back through her nose. And there was the Swallow. The Swallow was reserved for crisis situations. Once, in the Science Wing bathroom, the Object had just finished taking a long drag when a teacher charged in. My friend had time to flick her cigarette into the toilet bowl and flush. But what about the smoke? Where could it go?
“Who’s been smoking in here?” the teacher asked.
The Object shrugged, keeping her mouth closed. The teacher leaned toward her, sniffing. And the Object swallowed. No smoke came out. Not a wisp. Not a puff. A little moistness in her eyes the only sign of the Chernobyl in her lungs.
I accepted the Object’s invitation to sleep over. Mrs. Object called Tessie to see if it was all right and, by eleven o’clock, my friend and I went up to bed together. She gave me a T-shirt to wear. It said “Fessenden” on the front. I put it on and the Object snickered.
“That’s Jerome’s T-shirt. Does it reek?”
“Why’d you give me his shirt?” I said, going stiff, shrinking from the cotton’s touch while still wearing it.
“Mine are too small. You want one of Daddy’s? They smell like cologne.”
“Your dad wears cologne?”
“He lived in Paris after the war. He’s got all kinds of fruity habits.” She was climbing up onto the big bed now. “Plus he slept with about a million French prostitutes.”
“He told you that?”
“Not exactly. But whenever Daddy talks about France he acts all horny. He was in the Army there. He was like in charge of running Paris after the war. And Mummy gets really pissed when he talks about it.” She imitated her mother now. “ ‘That’s enough Francophilia for one evening, dear.’ ” As usual, when she did something dramatic, her IQ suddenly soared. Then she flopped onto her stomach. “He killed people, too.”
“Yeah,” said the Object, adding by way of explanation, “Nazis.”
I climbed into the big bed. At home I had one pillow. Here there were six.
“Back rub,” the Object called out cheerily.
“I’ll do you if you do me.”
I sat astride her, on the saddle of her hips, and started with her shoulders. Her hair was in the way, so I moved it. We were quiet for a while, me rubbing, and then I asked, “Have you ever been to a gynecologist?”
The Object nodded into her pillow.
“What’s it like?”
“It’s torture. I hate it.”
“What do they do?”
“First they make you strip and put this little gown on. It’s made of paper and all this cold air gets in. You freeze. Then they make you lie on this table, spread-eagled.”
“Yep. You have to put your legs in these metal things. Then the gyno gives you a pelvic exam,which kills .”
“What do you mean, pelvic exam?”
“I thought you were supposed to be the sex expert.”
“A pelvic exam is, you know,inside . They shove this little doohickey in you to spread you all open and everything.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“It kills. And it’s freezing. Plus you’ve got the gyno making lame jokes while he’s nosing around in there. But the worst is what he does with his hands.”
“Basically he reaches in until he can tickle your tonsils.”
Now I was mute. Absolutely paralyzed with shock and fear.
“Who are you going to?” the Object asked.
“Someone named Dr. Bauer.”
“Dr. Bauer! That’s Renee’s dad. He’s a total perv!”
“What do you mean?”
“I went swimming over at Renee’s one time. They have a pool. Dr. Bauer came out and stood there, watching. Then he goes, ‘Your legs have perfect proportions. Absolutely perfect proportions.’ God, what a perv! Dr. Bauer. I pity you.”
She raised her stomach in order to free her shirt. I massaged her lower back, reaching under the shirt to knead her shoulder blades.
The Object got quiet after that. So did I. I kept my mind off gynecology by losing myself in the back rub. It wasn’t hard. Her honey- or apricot-colored back tapered at the waist in a way mine didn’t. There were white spots here and there, anti-freckles. Wherever I rubbed, her skin flushed. I was aware of the blood underneath, coursing and draining. Her underarms were rough like a cat’s tongue. Below them the sides of her breasts swelled out, flattened against the mattress.
“Okay,” I said, after a long while, “my turn.”
But that night was like all the others. She was asleep.
It was never my turn with the Object.
They come back to me, the scattered days of that summer with the Object, each encased in a souvenir snow globe. Let me shake them up again. Watch the flakes float down:
We are lying in bed together on a Saturday morning. The Object is on her back. I’m fulcrumed on one elbow, leaning over to inspect her face.
“You know what sleep is?” I say.
“It is not.”
“Itis . It’s mucus. It’s snot that comes out your eyes.”
“That’s so gross!”
“You’ve got a little sleep in your eyes, my dear,” I say in a fake deep voice. With my finger I flick the crust from the Object’s eyelashes.
“I can’t believe I’m letting you do this,” she says. “You’re touching my snot.”
We look at each other a moment.
“I’m touching your snot!” I scream. And we writhe around, throwing pillows and screaming some more.
On another day, the Object is taking a bath. She has her own bathroom. I’m on the bed, reading a gossip magazine.
“You can tell Jane Fonda isn’t really naked in that movie,” I say.
“She’s got a body stocking on. You can see it.”
I go into the bathroom to show her. In the claw-footed tub, under a layer of whipped cream, the Object lolls, pumicing one heel.
She looks at the photograph and says, “You’re never naked, either.”
I am frozen, speechless.
“Do you have some kind of complex?”
“No, I don’t have a complex.”
“What are you afraid of, then?”
“I’m not afraid.”
The Object knows this isn’t true. But her intentions aren’t malicious. She isn’t trying to catch me out, only to put me at ease. My modesty baffles her.
“I don’t know what you’re so worried about,” she says. “You’re my best friend.”
I pretend to be engrossed in the magazine. I can’t get myself to look away. Inside, however, I’m bursting with happiness. I’m erupting with joy, but I keep staring at the magazine as though I’m mad at it.
It’s late. We’ve stayed up watching TV. The Object is brushing her teeth when I come into the bathroom. I pull down my underpants and sit on the toilet. I do this sometimes as a compensatory tactic. The T-shirt is long enough to cover my lap. I pee while the Object brushes.
It’s then I smell smoke. Looking up, I see, besides a toothbrush in the Object’s mouth, a cigarette.
“You even smokewhile you brush your teeth?”
She looks at me sideways. “Menthol,” she says.
The thing about those souvenirs, though: the glitter falls fast.
A reminder taped to our refrigerator brought me back to reality: “Dr. Bauer, July 22, 2P.M. ”
I was filled with dread. Dread of the perverted gynecologist and his inquisitorial instruments. Dread of the metal things that would spread my legs and of the doohickey that would spread something else. And dread of what all this spreading might reveal.
It was in this state, this emotional foxhole, that I started going to church again. One Sunday in early July my mother and I dressed up (Tessie in heels, me not) and drove down to Assumption. Tessie was suffering, too. It had been six months since Chapter Eleven had sped away from Middlesex on his motorcycle, and since that time he hadn’t been back. Worse, in April he had broken the news that he was dropping out of college. He was planning to move to the Upper Peninsula with some friends and, as he put it, live off the land. “You don’t think he’d do something crazy like run off and marry that Meg, do you?” Tessie asked Milton. “Let’s hope not,” he answered. Tessie worried that Chapter Eleven wasn’t taking care of himself, either. He wasn’t going to the dentist regularly. His vegetarianism made him pale. And he was losing his hair. At the age of twenty. This made Tessie feel suddenly old.
United in anxiety, seeking solace for differing complaints (Tessie wanting to get rid of her pains while I wanted mine to begin), we entered the church. As far as I could tell, what happened every Sunday at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church was that the priests got together and read the Bible out loud. They started with Genesis and kept going straight through Numbers and Deuteronomy. Then on through Psalms and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, all the way up to the New Testament. Then they read that. Given the length of our services, I saw no other possibility.
They chanted as the church slowly filled up. Finally the central chandelier flicked on and Father Mike, like a life-size puppet, sprang through the icon screen. The transformation my uncle went through every Sunday always amazed me. At church Father Mike appeared and disappeared with the capriciousness of a divinity. One minute he was up on the balcony, singing in his tender, tone-deaf voice. The next minute he was back on ground level, swinging his censer. Glittering, bejeweled, as overdone in his vestments as a Fabergé egg, he promenaded around the church, giving us God’s blessing. Sometimes his censer produced so much smoke it seemed that Father Mike had the ability to cloak himself in a mist. When the mist dispersed, however, later that afternoon in our living room, he was once again a short, shy man, in black, polyester-blend clothes and a plastic collar.
Aunt Zoë’s authority went in the opposite direction. At church she was meek. The round gray hat she wore looked like the head of a screw fastening her to her pew. She was constantly pinching her sons to keep them awake. I could barely connect the anxious person hunched down every week in front of us to the funny woman who, under the inspiration of wine, launched into comedy routines in our kitchen. “You men stay out!” she’d shout, dancing with my mother. “We’ve got knives in here.”
So startling was the contrast between churchgoing Zoë and wine-drinking Zoë that I always made a point of watching her closely during the liturgy. On most Sundays, when my mother tapped her on the shoulder in greeting, Aunt Zo responded only with a weak smile. Her large nose looked swollen with grief. Then she turned back, crossed herself, and settled in for the duration.
And so: Assumption Church that July morning. Incense rising with the pungency of irrational hope. Closer in (it had been drizzling out), the smell of wet wool. The dripping of umbrellas stashed under pews. The rivulets from these umbrellas flowing down the uneven floor of our poorly built church, pooling in spots. The smell of hairspray and perfume, of cheap cigars, and the slow ticking of watches. The grumbling of more and more stomachs. And the yawning. The nodding off and the snoring and the being elbowed awake.
Our liturgy, endless; my own body immune to the laws of time. And right in front of me, Zoë Antoniou, on whom time had also been doing a number.
The life of a priest’s wife had been even worse than Aunt Zo had expected. She had hated her years in the Peloponnese. They had lived in a small, unheated stone house. Outside, the village women spread blankets under olive trees, beating the branches until the olives fell. “Can’t they stop that damn racket!” Zoë had complained. In five years, to the incessant sound of trees being clubbed to death, she bore four children. She sent letters to my mother detailing her hardships: no washing machine, no car, no television, a backyard full of boulders and goats. She signed her letters, “St. Zoë, Church martyr.”
Father Mike had liked Greece better. His years there represented the best period of his priesthood. In that tiny Peloponnesian village the old superstitions survived. People still believed in the evil eye. Nobody pitied him for being a priest, whereas later on in America his parishioners always treated him with a slight but unmistakable condescension, like a crazy person whose delusions had to be humored. The humiliation of being a priest in a market economy didn’t plague Father Mike while he was in Greece. In Greece he could forget about my mother, who had jilted him, and he could escape comparison with my father, who made so much more money. His wife’s nagging complaints hadn’t begun to make Father Mike think about leaving the priesthood yet, and hadn’t led him to his desperate act . . .
In 1956 Father Mike was reappointed stateside to a church in Cleveland. In 1958 he became a priest at Assumption. Zoë was happy to be back home, but she never got used to her position aspresvytera . She didn’t like being a role model. She found it difficult to keep her children looking neat and well dressed. “On what money?” she shouted at her husband. “Maybe if they paid you halfway decent the kids would look better.” My cousins—Aristotle, Socrates, Cleopatra, and Plato—had the thwarted, overbrushed look of ministers’ children. The boys wore cheap, garishly colored double-breasted suits. They had Afros. Cleo, who was as beautiful and almond-eyed as her namesake, made do with dresses from Montgomery Ward. She rarely spoke, and played cat’s cradle with Plato during the service.
I always liked Aunt Zo. I liked her big, grandstanding voice. I liked her sense of humor. She was louder than most men; she could make my mother laugh like nobody else.
That Sunday, for instance, during one of the many lulls, Aunt Zo turned around and dared to joke. “Ihave to be here, Tessie. What’s your excuse?”
“Callie and I just felt like coming to church,” my mother answered.
Plato, who was small like his father, sang out with mock censure, “Shame on you, Callie. What did you do?” He rubbed his right index finger repeatedly over his left.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Hey, Soc,” Plato whispered to his brother. “Is cousin Callie blushing?”
“She must have done something she doesn’t want to tell us.”
“Shush up now, you,” said Aunt Zo. For Father Mike was approaching with the censer. My cousins turned around. My mother bowed her head to pray. I did, too. Tessie prayed for Chapter Eleven to come to his senses. And me? That’s easy. I prayed for my period to come. I prayed to receive the womanly stigmata.
Summer sped on. Milton brought our suitcases up from the basement and told my mother and me to start packing. I tanned with the Object at the Little Club. Dr. Bauer haunted my mind, judging the proportions of my legs. The appointment was a week away, then half a week, then two days . . .
And so we come to the preceding Saturday night, July 20, 1974. A night full of departures and secret plans. In the early hours of Sunday morning (which was still Saturday night back in Michigan), Turkish jets took off from bases on the mainland. They headed southeast over the Mediterranean Sea toward the island of Cyprus. In the ancient myths, gods favoring mortals often hid them away. Aphrodite blotted out Paris once, saving him from certain death at the hands of Menelaus. She wrapped Aeneas in a coat to sneak him off the battlefield. Likewise, as the Turkish jets roared over the sea, they were also hidden. That night, Cypriot military personnel reported a mysterious malfunctioning of their radar screens. The screens filled with thousands of white blips: an electromagnetic cloud. Invisible inside this, the Turkish jets reached the island and began dropping their bombs.
Meanwhile, back in Grosse Pointe, Fred and Phyllis Mooney were also leaving home base, heading to Chicago. On the front porch, waving goodbye, stood their children, Woody and Jane, who had secret plans of their own. Flying toward the Mooneys’ house at that moment were the silver bombers of beer kegs and the tight formations of six-packs. Cars full of teenagers were on their way. And so were the Object and I. Powdered and glossed, our hair hot-combed into wings, we had set off for the party ourselves. In thin corduroy skirts and clogs we came up the front lawn. But the Object stopped me on the porch before we went in. She was biting her lip.
“You’re my best friend, right?”
“Okay. Sometimes I think I have bad breath.” She stopped. “The thing is, you can never tell if youhave bad breath or not. So the thing is”—she paused—“I want you to check it for me.”
I didn’t know what to say and so said nothing.
“Is that too disgusting?”
“No,” I said, finally.
“Okay, here goes.” She leaned toward me and huffed a single breath into my face.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“Good. Now you.”
I leaned down and exhaled in her face.
“It’s fine,” she said, decisively. “Okay. Now we can go to the party.”
I’d never been to a party before. I felt for the parents. As we squeezed by the throngs in the throbbing house, I cringed at the destruction under way. Cigarette ashes were dropping on Pierre Deux upholstery. Beer cans were spilling onto heirloom carpets. In the den I saw two laughing boys urinating into a tennis trophy. It was mostly older kids. A few couples climbed the stairs, disappearing into bedrooms.
The Object was trying to act older herself. She was copying the superior, bored expressions of the high school girls. She crossed to the back porch ahead of me and got in the line for the keg.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m getting a beer. What do you think?”
It was fairly dark outside. As in most social situations, I let my hair fall into my face. I was standing behind the Object, looking like Cousin It, when someone put his hands over my eyes.
I pulled his hands off my face and turned around.
“How did you know it was me?”
“The curious smell.”
“Ouch,” said a voice behind Jerome. I looked over and received a shock. Standing with Jerome was Rex Reese, the guy who had driven Carol Henkel to her watery death. Rex Reese, our local Teddy Kennedy. He didn’t look particularly sober now, either. His dark hair covered his ears and he wore a piece of blue coral on a leather thong around his throat. I searched his face for signs of remorse or repentance. Rex wasn’t searching my face, however. He was eyeing the Object, his hair falling into his eyes above the curl of a smile.
Deftly, the two boys moved in between us, turning their backs to each other. I had a final glimpse of the Obscure Object. She had her hands in the back pockets of her corduroy skirt. This looked casual but had the effect of pushing out her chest. She was looking up at Rex and smiling.
“I start filming tomorrow,” Jerome said.
I looked blank.
“My movie. My vampire movie. You sure you don’t want to be in it?”
“We’re going on vacation this week.”
“That sucks,” said Jerome. “It’s going to be genius.”
We stood silent. After a moment I said, “Real geniuses never think they’re geniuses.”
“Because genius is nine-tenths perspiration. Haven’t you ever heard that? As soon as youthink you’re a genius, you slack off. You think everything you do is so great and everything.”
“I just want to make scary movies,” Jerome replied. “With occasional nudity.”
He was looking at me in a funny way, intense, but also grinning.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Looking at you like what?”
In the dark, Jerome’s resemblance to the Obscure Object was even more pronounced. The tawny eyebrows, the butterscotch complexion—here they were again, in permissible form.
“You’re a lot smarter than most of my sister’s friends.”
“You’re a lot smarter than most of my friends’ brothers.”
He leaned toward me. He was taller than I was. That was the big difference between him and his sister. It was enough to wake me from my trance. I turned away. I circled around him back to the Object. She was still staring up bright-faced at Rex.
“Come on,” I said. “We’ve got to go to that thing.”
“You know. That thing.”
Finally I managed to pull her away. She left trailing smiles and significant looks. As soon as we got off the porch she was frowning at me.
“Where are you taking me?” she said angrily.
“Away from that creep.”
“Can’t you leave me alone for a minute?”
“You want me to leave you alone?” I said. “Okay, I’ll leave you alone.” I didn’t move.
“Can’t I even talk to a boy at a party?” the Object asked.
“I was taking you away before it was too late.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve got bad breath.”
This checked the Object. This struck her to her core. She wilted. “I do?” she asked.
“It’s just a little oniony,” I said.
We were on the back lawn now. Kids were sitting on the stone porch rail, their cigarette tips glowing in the darkness.
“What do you think of Rex?” the Object whispered.
“What? Don’t tell me you like him.”
“I didn’t say I like him.”
I scoped her face, seeking the answer. She noticed this and walked farther away over the lawn. I followed. I said earlier that most of my emotions are hybrids. But not all. Some are pure and unadulterated. Jealousy, for instance.
“Rex is okay,” I said when I had caught up to her. “If you like manslaughterers.”
“That was an accident,” said the Object.
The moon was three-quarters full. It silvered the fat leaves of the trees. The grass was wet. We both kicked off our clogs to stand in it. After a moment, sighing, the Object laid her head on my shoulder.
“It’s good you’re going away,” she said.
“Because this is too weird.” I looked back to see if anyone could see us. No one could. So I put my arm around her.
For the next few minutes we stood under the moon-blanched trees, listening to the music blaring from the house. The cops would come soon. The cops always came. That was something you could depend on in Grosse Pointe.
The next morning, I went to church with Tessie. As usual, Aunt Zo was down in front, setting an example. Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato were wearing their gangster suits. Cleo was sunk into her black mane, about to doze off.
The rear and sides of the church were dark. Icons gloomed from the porticoes or raised stiff fingers in the glinting chapels. Beneath the dome, light fell in a chalky beam. The air was already thick with incense. Moving back and forth, the priests looked like men at a hammam.
Then it was showtime. One priest flicked a switch. The bottom tier of the enormous chandelier blazed on. From behind the iconostasis Father Mike entered. He was wearing a bright turquoise robe with a red heart embroidered on his back. He crossed the solea and came down among the parishioners. The smoke from his censer rose and curled, fragrant with antiquity. “Kyrie eleison,” Father Mike sang. “Kyrie eleison.” And though the words meant nothing to me, or almost nothing, I felt their weight, the deep groove they made in the air of time. Tessie crossed herself, thinking about Chapter Eleven.
First Father Mike did the left side of the church. In blue waves, incense rolled over the gathered heads. It dimmed the circular lights of the chandelier. It aggravated the widows’ lung conditions. It subdued the brightness of my cousins’ suits. As it wrapped me in its dry-ice blanket, I breathed it in and began to pray myself.Please God let Dr. Bauer not find anything wrong with me. And let me be just friends with the Object. And don’t let her forget about me while we’re in Turkey. And help my mother not to be so worried about my brother. And make Chapter Eleven go back to college.
Incense serves a variety of purposes in the Orthodox church. Symbolically, it’s an offering to God. Like the burnt sacrifices in pagan times, the fragrance drifts upward to heaven. Before the days of modern embalming, incense had a practical application. It covered the smell of corpses during funerals. It can also, when inhaled in sufficient amounts, create a lightheadedness that feels like religious reverie. And if you breathe in enough of it, it can make you sick.
“What’s the matter?” Tessie’s voice in my ear. “You look pale.”
I stopped praying and opened my eyes.
“Do you feel okay?”
I began to answer in the affirmative. But then I stopped myself.
“You look really pale, Callie,” Tessie said again. She touched her hand to my forehead.
Sickness, reverie, devotion, deceit—they all came together. If God doesn’t help you, you have to help yourself.
“It’s my stomach,” I said.
“What have you been eating?”
“Or not exactly my stomach. It’s lower down.”
“Do you feel faint?”
Father Mike passed by again. He swung the censer so high it nearly touched the tip of my nose. And I widened my nostrils and breathed in as much smoke as possible to make myself even paler than I already was.
“It’s like somebody’s twisting something inside me,” I hazarded.
Which must have been more or less right. Because Tessie was now smiling. “Oh, honey,” she said. “Oh, thank God.”
“You’re happy I’m sick? Thanks a lot.”
“You’re not sick, honey.”
“Then what am I? I don’t feel good. Ithurts .”
My mother took my hand, still beaming. “Hurry, hurry,” she said. “We don’t want an accident.”
By the time I closed myself into a church bathroom stall, news of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus had reached the United States. When Tessie and I arrived back home, the living room was filled with shouting men.
“Our battleships are sitting off the coast to intimidate the Greeks,” Jimmy Fioretos was yelling.
“Sure they’re sitting off the coast,” Milton now, “what do you expect? The Junta comes in and throws Makarios out. So the Turks are getting anxious. It’s a volatile situation.”
“Yeah, but to help the Turks—“
“The U.S. isn’t helping the Turks,” Milton went on. “They just don’t want the Junta to get out of hand.”
In 1922, while Smyrna burned, American warships sat idly by. Fifty-two years later, off the coast of Cyprus, they also did nothing. At least ostensibly.
“Don’t be so naïve, Milt,” Jimmy Fioretos again. “Who do you think’s jamming the radar? It’s the Americans, Milt. It’s us.”
“How do you know?” my father challenged.
And now Gus Panos through the hole in his throat: “It’s that goddamned—sssss—Kissinger. He must have—ssssss—made a deal with the Turks.”
“Of course he did.” Peter Tatakis nodded, sipping his Pepsi. “Now that the Vietnam crisis is over, Herr Doktor Kissinger can get back to playing Bismarck. He would like to see NATO bases in Turkey? This is his way to get them.”
Were these accusations true? I can’t say for sure. All I know is this: on that morning, somebody jammed the Cypriot radar, guaranteeing the success of the Turkish invasion. Did the Turks possess such technology? No. Did the U.S. warships? Yes. But this isn’t something you can prove . . .
Plus, it didn’t matter to me, anyway. The men cursed, and shook their fingers at the television and pounded the radio, until Aunt Zo unplugged them. Unfortunately, she couldn’t unplug the men. All through dinner the men shouted at each other. Knives and forks waved in the air. The argument over Cyprus lasted for weeks and would finally put an end to those Sunday dinners once and for all. But as for myself, the invasion had only one meaning.
As soon as I could, I excused myself and ran off to call the Object. “Guess what?” I cried out with excitement. “We’re not going on vacation. There’s a war!”
Then I told her I had cramps and that I’d be right over.