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Teddy Hecht must learn how to reconcile her parent's divorce and must also learn to accept her new stepmother.
If I had a penny for every time Karen-Bunny-Aurora-Elspeth looks in the mirror, I'd be rich. My mother says it's a stage she's going through, but I'm two years older than Karen and I don't remember going through that stage. In fact, I avoid mirrors whenever I can. Now and then I get caught, though, when I'm walking by one, or I have to look to comb my hair or wash my face, and there I am. Hair-colored hair, matching eyes, a nose-shaped nose. Nothing special and nothing new, except for something horrible that pops out on my skin every month. Karen's skin is nice, "smooth and flawless," as they say in the cold-cream ads, but she doesn't get her period yet. She's still only a kid and maybe that's why she pretends so much. Once in a while she's Aurora, a perfect little housewife, chattering about recipes and helpful household hints. Sometimes she's Bunny, acting as sweet and cuddly as the name. And sometimes she calls herself Elspeth and talks with a phony British accent. It's hard to keep up with her.
One Sunday, when Daddy came to get us, he listened to her for a while, raising his eyebrows and smiling at me. Then he started talking like Cary Grant, but Karen-Elspeth was so busy being British she didn't notice.
When we came home Mother was waiting at our window on the fifth floor. The minute we walked in the door she said, "Did you have a good time? Where did you go?" and I thought how lonely she must have been all day without us. Karen dropped her accent then and started acting like a baby instead, sitting in Mother's lap and fooling around.
Sometimes it's very cheerful in the apartment with just the three of us, and sometimes it's awful and we all go around moping and thinking of Daddy and the old times.
In my heart of hearts I always thought he would come back someday, as soon as he "got over it," as if he had a sickness instead of being in love with Shelley. That's the expression everyone used when they tried to cheer Mother up. "He'll come back," they said. "Don't worry, Jean, he'll get over it."
Just before I went to sleep at night, I would pretend that it was true. I imagined Daddy coming up in the elevator (it was never out of order in my dreams), with presents in his arms for all of us, but especially for Mother, his own true love. That's what he called her in the letters he used to send when he was in the army, before they got married. She always kept the letters in the back of her closet in an old shoebox that said BRN SUDE PMPS 7½B on the outside. Inside, there was all this mushy stuff about how he missed his "own true love," the girl of his dreams. "Sleep tight," he begged her, "and dream of me, darling."
There's a light in the closet that goes on automatically when you open the door, and the day I discovered the shoebox I stayed on the floor of the closet for a long time, leaving the door open a little for air and so the light would stay on. I read all of the letters with the hems of Mother's dresses brushing against my face.
I felt guilty afterward. My mother makes a big thing about privacy. She wouldn't even open a chain letter or an advertisement that's addressed to Karen or me. But I couldn't help it. It was back in those days when I thought he would come back someday, and reading the letters gave me a lot of hope. I promised myself that I wouldn't ever look at them again, but a few days later I did. I sat on the floor of the closet and daydreamed about the way it would be when Daddy came back to live with us. It would be different, I decided. There wouldn't be any quarrels, and we wouldn't have any of those awful times when Mother and Daddy didn't speak to each other at all. It would be more like the way it used to be when I was little, like those mornings when Karen and I climbed into the big bed and lay down between them in that warm place.
I never showed the letters to Karen. There was some stuff in them that was too mature for her, and besides, she didn't seem to care as much as I did. She liked Shelley right from the beginning, as if she were only an old friend of the family. Karen thinks Shelley is glamorous, and I guess she is, compared to Mother, who never does anything much about herself. Mother tends to be a little overweight too. I used to wonder if Daddy would come back if she fixed herself up, if she lost a few pounds or wore eye makeup or had her hair done in the latest style. Of course I was younger then and pretty dumb.
One Saturday the Avon lady came to the apartment when we were in the middle of the Weekly Cleaning. Karen likes to dust and polish and look at herself in every shiny surface. Mother does the horrible jobs like cleaning the bathroom and the oven. I do the vacuuming, moving that fat, noisy thing across the floor while it swallows everything in sight: dust, pennies, lint; and once in a while a sock gets stuck in the hose and has to be pulled out with the end of a knitting needle.
The doorbell rang, not musical chimes like in the television commercial, but the ordinary loud buzz. The Avon lady was just beautiful, though, and I could practically smell her perfume through the peephole.
"Hello!" she said. "I'm from Avon and I'd like to show you some exciting new things."
I was a little disappointed that she hadn't said, "Avon calling!" but I opened the door quickly and asked her to come in.
Mother yelled from the bathroom, where she was washing the floor. "Who is it? Don't open the door, Teddy!"
I smiled at the Avon lady, as if I couldn't hear what Mother was saying. I took her into the living room and she sat on the edge of the sofa with her sample case in front of her.
Karen came in from the bedroom and stared.
"It's the Avon lady," I said. "This is my sister, Karen." I poked Karen with my elbow because she wouldn't stop staring. "Get Mommy," I whispered, and Karen disappeared. In a few minutes she and Mother came into the living room.
The Avon lady looked the way actresses always look in Technicolor movies. Very pink and white and powdery. My mother's face was shiny and flushed. The Avon lady's hair was blond, almost silver, and it fell to her shoulders in soft waves. My mother's hair was all over the place. She cuts it herself and sometimes she doesn't get it even. Well, I could go on and on, but it wouldn't be fair. I knew that if the Avon lady was busy cleaning her toilet, she wouldn't be wearing pink suede boots and that lacy blouse, but it was hard to picture her in Mother's old blue flowered bathrobe, with the button missing right in the middle. Mother was embarrassed and she patted her hair and pinched the robe together where it gaped open. "My goodness," she said. "You'll have to excuse me. I was just ..." She fluttered her hands, but the Avon lady only smiled, showing us her gorgeous teeth. "Of course," she said. "Just don't catch me on Thursdays! Now I'd like to show you our exciting new line," she continued, and she unlocked her sample case. Karen nearly fell over trying to peek inside.
Before we knew it, there was a lot of stuff arranged in front of us on the coffee table. There were bottles and jars and tubes and darling soaps shaped like animals and fruits. We all smelled terrific from something the Avon lady had sprayed on us. "And we have a whole line of men's toiletries as well," she said.
Nobody said anything for a moment and then Mother cleared her throat and said, "Maybe that would make a good gift for Father's Day from you girls."
In the end Mother bought a few things, but she kept making jokes. She said nobody would recognize her at the bank Monday morning. Everyone would beg her to take a screen test and then we'd all be in Hollywood.
Karen got that faraway look in her eyes that she gets when she daydreams about a talent scout discovering her and in a few minutes she was Karen-Bunny talking in her cute little-girl voice.
I couldn't help thinking that this might be the beginning of something important. Mother was buying makeup, even if she was making jokes about it. Later on she might go on a diet or even buy an exercise machine, like the ones they have in reducing salons. She would look younger and prettier in no time at all. Maybe not as pretty as Shelley, but more attractive, the way she seemed in old photographs. I tried to remember how she looked two years ago, when the divorce happened, but I couldn't. She's my mother and I guess she's always looked the same to me. When you're very close to someone, changes seem to take place when you're not paying attention. When did they stop loving each other? That was something that happened slowly too, I suppose. It wasn't all that lovey-dovey one day and those terrible quarrels the next. Yet that's the way I remembered it. The good times, all of us sitting at the table together, Daddy leaning over to whisper something in Mother's ear, making her laugh. Karen complaining about secrets not being allowed at the table. Then everybody laughing, the soft clinking sounds of the dishes and silverware. Or all of us driving somewhere together in the car, singing rounds of "Down by the Old Mill Stream" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" until we were hoarse and out of breath.
Then the bad times. Doors slamming. Shouting. Silent meals. Daddy just playing with the food on his plate, even when it was his favorite. Glum, quiet rides in the car with everyone looking out the windows at the dumb, boring highway, half-listening to the car radio, the static, the news, the music. Awful, I thought. It was all so awful.
Karen was jabbing her finger in my ribs. "Well, what do you think, Teddy?"
"Stop daydreaming," Karen said. "What do you think we ought to get for Daddy? You know, for Father's Day."
Even though he didn't live with us any more, he was still our father, someone to make an ashtray for in Arts and Crafts, someone to buy a gift for on Father's Day.
I looked at the things spread out across the coffee table and finally we decided on a little glass car model filled with after-shave lotion.
When the Avon lady left, Karen and I begged Mother to try on her new makeup. We followed her into the bathroom, where the floor was still a little damp, and she tried to use the shadow and eyeliner, but she didn't really know how to put them on. She ended up looking like those little girls who get into their mother's makeup, sort of funny and sad at the same time. I felt like crying, and I wasn't sure why. I didn't expect miracles, did I?
Mother kept fooling around, saying, "Hollywood! Come and get me!" She put her hands on her hips and she dipped around the room in an exaggerated glamorous walk.
"My deah! I wouldn't know you!" said Karen-Elspeth. "You are ab-so-lute-ly chahming!"
"You're not so bad yourself, kid," Mother said. "Maybe they can find you a walk-on part in my next picture."
I felt terrible, as if my heart were growing too big for my chest. Why did she always make fun of important things?
Karen and Mother bowed to one another. Mother's eyes looked lopsided. "Chahmed!" they said. "De-light-ed!"
"Stop it!" I shouted. "Can't you ever be serious? Why do you have to act like a bunch of dumbbells?" Then I knew I was going to cry and I had to run out of the room.CHAPTER 2
Cousin Ezra goes to school at N.Y.U. in the city and he comes to our house at least once a week for supper. Ezra is studying to be a psychologist. His father, our Uncle Eddie, had hoped Ezra would follow in his footsteps and become a dentist. But Ezra says that the human mind is a thousand times more interesting than teeth. I have to agree with that.
Karen and Mother and I are his guinea pigs. He gives us tests to find out our intelligence quotients, our personality disorders, and our aptitudes and interests. Once, when Karen and I asked him how we did on one of those tests, Ezra shrugged and said numbers weren't important, that there was no winning score.
But when my friends and I took a teen-magazine test called "Are You His Dream Girl?" numbers were important. A score of 15 to 20 points meant you were Miss Personality, a score of 10 to 14 points and you were Pretty Pleasin', but with anything below that you were A Wallflower. I was hoping I'd come out as Miss Personality, even if it didn't seem likely, but I only had eleven points and ended up as Pretty Pleasin'. Afterward, I realized I could have cheated a little to get a higher score. After all, I wasn't really sure I wouldn't be a good sport if my Dream Man broke an important date with me to drive his mother to the airport. I didn't even know any boys who were old enough to drive.
On Monday nights Mother makes spaghetti and meatballs, which is everyone's favorite, and Ezra says he follows the good smells all the way from N.Y.U. to our door. One Monday the doorbell rang at six o'clock. I knew it was Ezra—he's always on time—but I had to open the peephole anyway to make sure. "Who goes there?" I asked. "Friend or foe?"
Ezra pressed one of his eyes against his side of the peephole. "Eet is only I, your old friend Cyclops."
"Only eye," I said, opening the door. "That's a good one."
"My wit never fails," Ezra said. "Either you have it or you don't." Ezra is six and a half feet tall and has red hair. Sometimes I think he and Mother both make a lot of jokes because they're afraid people will take them seriously. I guess some of that psychology stuff is rubbing off on me.
Right after dinner he asked for volunteers for some "simple but pleasant tests." I told him I couldn't be a guinea pig that night because my best friend, Maya, was coming up from the third floor to study for a French test with me. He still had Karen and Mother, though, who sat at the kitchen table with paper and pencils in front of them.
Ezra took out his stopwatch. "I'm going to show you some simple designs," he said. "I would like you to draw the same designs on your paper. I will tell you when to begin. Ready?"
His voice was funny, all stiff like a robot's or one of those voices in an automatic elevator that says, 'Welcome to Macy's. Please face the door.' I hoped he wouldn't sound like that when he really became a psychologist.
Maya arrived then. She waved to everyone as we tiptoed past the kitchen, on our way to the bedroom to study. But before we could begin we had to talk. Maya is my closest friend and we tell each other things we wouldn't tell anyone else in the world. I always told her about Daddy and Shelley and how it felt when I went to their apartment; and she would tell me about her parents and how they treated her like a baby and tried to smother her with attention because of what happened to her sister. Sometimes I was completely on her side, especially when her parents called up every two minutes to find out if she'd left the apartment yet, and when her father waited in the hall for her outside their door. After all, Maya is almost fourteen years old! But when I saw her parents in their apartment with baby pictures of Maya's sister on every table, and how sad they both seemed, I started to feel sorry for them. Yet it's not as if Debby is dead or anything like that. It's just that she was a "fast girl" and "had to get married." She lives in a crummy neighborhood. She and her husband, Howie, didn't even finish high school and now they have two babies. Their place always smells like pee and sour milk.
Sometimes when Mrs. Goldstein catches me alone, she tries to tell me about it. "That girl had the world at her feet," she says. "That girl could have had her pick. Did you ever hear her play the piano? Did you ever see the poems she wrote?" She never waits for an answer because she's really talking to herself.
The Goldsteins were always very strict with Maya. They made her wear terribly babyish clothes and they wouldn't let her get her hair cut in the latest style or use any makeup. "If I talk to a boy," Maya said, "my father thinks we're going to take out a marriage license, or worse."
I nodded. I knew what she meant. The funny thing is, boys never talk to us much. We're not popular, like some of the girls we know, or the way Debby used to be when she was in junior high school.
"If a boy calls me up to find out the Social Studies assignment, my father stays in the room listening."
"Maybe he thinks you're talking in code."
"Yeah, the Articles of Confederation is the code for 'Meet me in the park after dark, honey.'"
"And the Congress of Vienna stands for 'I can't live without you, baby.'"
"Oh yeah." Maya lay down on the bed laughing and hugging one of my stuffed animals against her chest.
Excerpted from Out of Love by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 1976 Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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