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a memoir of kisses
By CLAUDIA STERNBACH
Copyright © 2011 Claudia Sternbach
All right reserved.
Chapter One Lost Photos
It's the middle of the night. My mouth is dry. I can't move my right arm, the bandages are stuck tight. The last thing I remember is Michael kissing me good-bye as I was taken into surgery. Tears are leaking from the corners of my eyes. My eyes that won't stay open. A nurse comes in and turns on a light. But it isn't the cancer that's making me cry. Not right now.
Can I get you anything? she asks.
I try to answer, but no words come out. My tongue feels thick and heavy. I open one eye and see her face. I try once more to speak.
I lost my purse, I tell her in a croaky whisper and begin to cry harder.
Here in the hospital? she wants to know. Did you have it when you came in?
Not that purse, I tell her. An old pursé. It was blue. Leather. I had it years ago when I lived in Berkeley.
I give up trying to keep my eyes open. I can see the purse. Feel the weight of it. It was stolen. Someone stole it. I was shopping on College Ave.
I'm lying here in the hospital. I've just had surgery for breast cancer. I'm crying about a lost purse. A purse I never saw again.
There wasn't much money' in the wallet. But there were pictures. Black-and-white photos of my sisters when they were little. A picture of Sharon from sixth grade. A picture of Babs. The only picture I ever had of Teddy.
And then I am wrapped in sleep. I tall deeper and deeper until there is nothing but silence.
In the morning, breakfast trays rattle. Shoes squeak down the hall. My morphine drip is disconnected.
I wonder if it was a dream.
* * *
"All's we have to do is get on top of the Dumpster, and then we can reach the roof," said Jimmy Z. He was one of the tallest kids in the third grade and if he got up on the roof first could help the rest of us.
"I'll go second," said Curtis. Curtis never would do anything first. But he always had to do whatever ,Jimmy Z. did.
I got to go next. The metal Dumpster was hot. Burning hot to my bare legs. Stupid school rule: gotta wear dresses every day. Stupid. Boys get to see our underpants all the time.
Jimmy and Curtis were lying on the flat rooftop, hanging their arms over the side to help me. I tried to grip the wall with my feet while they pulled me up. I landed on my belly, scraping my elbows on the tarpaper rooftop. It was so hot, it felt like the roof was melting.
Babs came up next. At the last minute, Jimmy let go of her hand and she almost fell.
"Hey," she yelled at him, "you almost dropped me. Stupid!"
And then she flopped down next to me.
It was too hot to play foursquare. It was too hot to play tetherball. The bars were too hot to climb. To hang from. We had finished lunch and tossed our garbage in the Dumpster, and that was when Jimmy figured out that we could climb up on the roof. There was nothing else to do until the bell rang and we would have to go back to Mrs. Waverly's class. She always read to us after lunch. She was in the middle of The Borrowers. I loved that story. The family of tiny people living in the walls of, the house. I loved how the dad would go out at night and find surprises for the mom and the little girl. A thimble they would use for a sink. A spool for a table. We had no dad at our house. But we still had tables and chairs.
"So now what?" asked Babs. Babs was cranky today. When I met her on the corner before school, she was mad 'cause her sister had told her mom Babs had been snooping in her stuff. Babs's sister was in junior high and had really interesting stuff. Babs and I snooped in it all the time. I wanted to read her diary, but it had a lock and so far we couldn't find the key. Babs had been trying on her sister's bras. And she had been stuffing them with toilet paper. When she got tired of looking at herself in the mirror, she put everything back in the drawer, but she forgot to take out the toilet paper. So she got caught. Babs can stay cranky all day, sometimes. I've seen her.
I liked looking at the school yard from up here. I could see Mrs. Lawrence, the yard-duty teacher. I'd never seen her from the top before. I could see the part in her brown hair. It was crooked.
Curtis leaned over the side and spit. It just missed Cindy. She turned around when she heard him laugh, but she didn't look tip, so we were safe.
There were good things about being on the roof. Sounds were different. Floaty. And I liked watching people who didn't know I was watching. I could see the baby kindergarteners over in their yard. They had their own playground with a fence around it. Sometimes we made fun of them. Told them they were in a cage like the monkeys in the zoo. But only when their teacher, Mrs. Day, wasn't around. But really I liked 'em. They were so little. And cried so easy.
But a bad thing about the roof was there was no shade. And it was getting hot on my legs. And little rocks were digging into my palms. And they were hot. I was just thinking of' climbing down when somebody shoved me. I was right by the edge, trying to see the kindergarteners better. And I fell.
Mrs. Waverly got there first. I remember she rolled me over. I saw my arm. It was twisted. And my head was bleeding. But at first it didn't hurt. I didn't feel anything.
"Get down from there, all of you," said Mrs. Waverly. But they were already climbing down.
"Jimmy pushed her," Curtis said. "I saw him do it."
I kept looking at my bent-backward arm.
"You broke it," I cried. "You broke my arm, Jimmy."
Now Principal Lundahl was there. He was putting his hands under my armpits. That was when everything started to hurt. He lifted me up and my arm hung down. My hand wasn't going the right way, and I couldn't make it turn around. Jimmy was crying. Babs was really crying.
"I only pushed her 'cause she tried to push me off," said Jimmy.
"Claudia didn't try to push you," said Curtis. Now he was crying too. "Babs did. Babs pushed you."
And then Babs really cried.
Mr. Lundahl was kind of running with me. I remember bouncing. And the bouncing hurt. And l couldn't open one of my eyes.
I remember the nurse's office and the scratchy gray blanket on the cot and Mr. Lundahl calling my mom at her work where now she had to go every day. And then the nurse, Mrs. Hannagan, put two pieces of wood on my arm and wrapped it up tight. And she put wet paper towels, the brown kind, on my head. And I wondered why brown paper when it's wet smells different. And then we waited for my mom. I wanted my dad too. Only he didn't live with us anymore. And when I told Mr. Lundahl I wanted my daddy, he asked me what his phone number was. I didn't know. He asked me where he worked. I only knew he had an office.
"Maybe your mother can call him," he said.
Mr. Lundahl carried me outside to wait for my mom. So he could put me right in the car when she got there.
My mom had a station wagon. I kept looking down the street. No cars were coming. We sat on the steps in the shade.
Then there she was. I knew my mom's car. I saw it when it came around the corner. Mr. Lundahl picked me up and put me in the front seat by my mom and we drove away.
My mom carried me into the hospital. She smelled like perfume. Like my mom. There were bright lights and doctors and they took me to a room and changed my clothes right over my arm in the wood.
"Can you get Daddy?" I asked my mom.
She said she would call. A nurse was with me. And then a doctor. And then my mom was gone.
She came back and told me he was on his way. But it might lake a little while.
Then they wheeled my bed, and a doctor said he was going to make me fall asleep. And when I woke up my arm would be in a cast and I would feel much better.
But I wanted to see my dad first. I wanted to see my dad.
My mom came in and told me we could wait just a little while. She waited with me. We watched the door.
She looked at my head where it was hurt. She kissed it.
And then they made me go to sleep.
When I woke up I had a patch over my eye. I had a cast on my arm. And there was a new stuffed lamb in bed with me. My daddy had brought it.
I still have it.
* * *
I didn't know who the heck Trader Vic was, maybe a friend of my dad's, but that was where we were going for dinner. For my tenth birthday dinner. We were going to Trader Vic's.
But first I had to go to school. Right on my birthday, which I didn't think was fair. Birthdays should be school holidays. Except people do make a big deal about you and you get to open presents in the morning before school, at least I do, and then if you get something new to wear, you can because it's your birthday. You are the BIRTHDAY GIRL!
I got this new red cardigan sweater with ribbon trim. So I'm wearing it today. It goes perfectly with my favorite skirt and blouse, which used to belong to my cousin Sandy. The blouse has a pin you can wear with red plastic cherries with green leaves. And with the sweater on, you can't even tell I am missing the belt that goes with the skirt. I like the skirt 'cause it is quilted. I like how that feels when I sit in class and rub my hand over it when we are listening to stories. If I thought nobody would notice, I'd suck my thumb. I don't care if I am ten today. I just would.
So tonight, I'm telling my best friend, Babs, my dad is coming over to our house to take us to Trader Vic's for dinner. Me, the twins, my mom, and my dad. And Elite isn't coming. Ellie is my stepmom, who used to be my mom's friend and my dad's secretary. And Ellie's husband, Chuck, was my dad's partner in their business, which is being lawyers.
"So why is he coining and take you all out to dinner?" asked Babs. We were right at the top of the hill where you could see the school. Sometimes Teddy would be at the gate waiting. He lives closer to school and gets there before I do.
"Because I asked. I just asked him when he came up last Saturday. And then he talked to my mom. And I don't care if he talked to Elite. Who cares about her? And now we're going."
We heard the first bell ring. It was the warning bell. It meant we had five minutes to get to class. We ran down the hill. Il always scared me to run down the hill. It was steep. And felt like you could tip over and fall on your face. I could imagine the scrapes. I could imagine my teeth falling out. Even though it had never happened. I could imagine things. I think that made my dad mad. Because I could think about what might go wrong.
Sometimes when he comes to visit on a Saturday he takes Carol and Cheryl and me up into the hills to rent horses. We each get our own. They're poky old things. And dusty. And their tails swat back and forth because of the flies. And we ride on the trails in a single file. And I imagine the horse running away with me and tripping in a hole and then I fly off and land on my face and then the horse steps right on my head. This is what I think about while we ride and my dad is saying, "Hurry him up a bit. Give him a kick."
He can tell I'm scared, and he thinks, What's wrong with her? Doesn't she know I was a marine in the war? I can do anything. And she is my daughter. So she should be brave.
I know this is what he is thinking when we finally get back to the stables and I get to turn in my horse and finally I can smile and maybe even laugh. And then I try to make him laugh.
But one thing we both like is books. I love to read, and so does my dad. And when he takes us all to the bookstore, then I think he does like me. Because I show interest. And I always read the books he buys me. And I don't even care if they're used.
So those are the best Saturdays, when we go to Holmes Book Store downtown.
And tonight he is coming to take us all to dinner.
I don't even remember when he used to live with us. Not really. I don't remember where he sat at our kitchen table. Our table doesn't seem to be missing anybody. I sit by the drawer. The skinny drawer right under the tabletop. I hide my food in there when I don't want to eat it and Ma won't let me leave until my plate is cleaned. Because you know about those starving babies in China. I think I should send them the drawer food.
Babs is right next to me when we get to the school yard. And Teddy is waiting. He has to go to his class too, but he touches my hand really quick before he has to go.
And then the morning just goes on and on.
My mom is in her room for a long time. And when she comes out she smells like perfume. My sisters for once in their lives don't fight about what dresses to wear. My mom just gets out the flowered ones and tells them, "That's it girls. I don't need any arguing."
I put my hair up in a ponytail and then make a bun out of it. I think it looks older. And I am now, double digits. But I leave on the same skirt and blouse and sweater because it is still my favorite.
My dad has the top down on his car when he gets to our house. But he puts it up. It isn't even sunny. It looks like it might rain. And we all go out and get in the car.
By the time we get to Trader Vic's it is raining and we have to park the car and run to the front door of the restaurant. Now I see it is a restaurant. There are tiki torches by the door. I don't know why the fire doesn't go out in the rain.
Inside a man takes my mom's coat. But I want to keep my sweater. Because I don't have a belt. When we are walking to our table I see a case filled with things to buy. There is a fake rose with a little piece of fur around it. A red rose. With real mink, I'm sure. Like Marilyn Monroe would wear in a movie. I ask my dad if I can have it. And he buys it. And I stick it in my hair right by my bun. I sit at our table with a fake rose with mink around it in my hair and feel very beautiful. I cannot wait to tell Babs.
Excerpted from Reading Lips by CLAUDIA STERNBACH Copyright © 2011 by Claudia Sternbach. Excerpted by permission of UNBRIDLED BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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