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The Cherry in the Martini
By Rona Jaffe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 Rona Jaffe
All rights reserved.
A Case History
There must be such a thing as mental hypochondria as well as physical—when hearing of the symptoms of a certain aberration one immediately begins to feel them in himself—and so I hesitate to write this story. And yet, mental hypochondria is not my pleasure. I can immediately conjure up symptoms of ulcers, heart failure, anything you want to detail, but like most people I like to keep my mind special. If anyone else is eccentric, I certainly don't want to be. And yet ...
It was the end of last summer, in the country, where the nights were cold and bright with stars, the days still swimming-pool days. We were in the dining room of my large old country house, six or eight of us, all good friends. There was a fire in the grate of the dining room, which hadn't seen a fire in twenty years. A fire in both the living room and the dining room! It was like an English novel, we all felt, since we had grown up in clean homes with artificial fireplaces and wax fruit and maids who washed ashtrays as soon as you used them, so you wondered if you had ever really been there at all. We were all in our late twenties and early thirties, which is important to what follows.
Looking around the warm, fire-lit room, at the friends who loved one another, at the wine—very dry, vin du jour, in delicate glasses meant for holidays (there were no other kind in that house)—one of my friends said, "This is the first time we have ever been all alone in a house with no grownups!"
No one said, "But we are grownups." No one said anything; we all smiled happily and agreed. A house with no grownups ... is this what one waits for until one realizes with dismay that everyone else is very young and the "grownups" are old and haven't been frightening for years? What of the years between? Where have they gone? Where were we ... or rather, who were we? Or is this all life is?
Then someone began talking about schizophrenic children. He had a relative who had a schizophrenic child—a child so good, so obedient, so anxious to please, that the parents had finally taken her to a doctor because it did not seem natural. And it turned out this was not natural. Then he began describing symptoms. I sat there, at first only interested, then disturbed. The behavior of the child ... I don't remember my own behavior very well, only that all through my childhood my parents told me I was very bad, and then years later my mother told me she had always worried because I was so good. But the dream life! That held me. It was as if he were telling me, like some frightening mind reader, of the dream life I had had. "Some children grow out of it naturally at puberty," he said. "It seems to be a combination of a glandular change and a more social environment. The doctors now try to get the schizophrenic child to relate to other children, to have real-life friends instead of the friends of his imagination." But if no one tries ...?
For years, when my friends were reading Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, I read psychology books. They were all over the house. My mother was a psychology major at college, my uncle a frustrated would-be doctor. No one but the school librarian told me what I must not read, and from the school library I simply stole the forbidden books. Words children do not understand are no problem. If the sentence makes sense, the words fall into place in some part of the mind that needs no words. I have been reading psychology books ever since, because to me, case histories are more interesting than the plot of any novel. So I think I am right. How strange that no one ever wrote about this, or perhaps, that no one remembers having been through it. I know that I had a special dream world as a child, that I grew out of it; and I remember it all as clearly as others remember playing baseball or dolls with their friends or fooling grownups or being in love.
I don't know why it began. There are always theories: loneliness, lack of love, lack of communication with parents. I only remember that there was a world I invented that was more real than the world I had to live in day by day, that I protected my secret world as silently and naturally as a nun says her prayers, and that it was the only world that mattered. I do not remember food, or smells, or going to new places, although I ate everything I could and went to many places, including the World's Fair, camp, and various towns where my family rented summer houses. I remember few books I read and very little of what I learned in school, although I was an A student. To this day I add on my fingers and often make mistakes. I do not remember the day I discovered sex or little boys, except as it happened in high school. I know I had what was called "personality," that I led a gang of little boys in the neighborhood, that I was afraid of competition, of games, and of being left out, and that whenever there was a chance that I might not be chosen for a game, I would hide behind a green wooden playhouse and no one knew I was there. When we had to pair off to walk in line—for grade school children are always made to walk in pairs, it seems, for a semblance of order—I hid. I was afraid to ask anyone to be my partner, and I was sure no one would ask me. I had a few fights with bigger girls, when forced; I was always terrified and always fought so fiercely that I won a measure of respect that lasted for at least the rest of that year. Once, in camp, a girl who always hit me finally drew me out of the secret world I preferred, and although she was two years older, I knocked her down and dragged her for fifty feet along the dirt by her hair. Afterward, for the rest of that horrible summer, she followed me about abjectly, saying, "What can I do for you, Master?" I could not understand this, was seldom more than partially aware of her company, and was only glad she no longer hit me.
One of my very few memories of the nine years I spent at various camps was the year I was in a bunk with girls of all ages up to seventeen; I was eleven. It was rather like a women's house of detention. One girl, named Mimi (I thought this was glamorous), who lived in White Plains (where was White Plains? Undoubtedly more glamorous), who came on the train wearing a starched white organdy dress and had more striped T-shirts than I had ever seen outside a store, was the ringleader. One night she encouraged the other girls to tie me up and lock me in a closet with a pillowcase over my head. Later, one afternoon, I was alone with this Mimi. I told her that none of the other girls really liked her, that her best friend (the only one who had not participated in my midnight hazing) liked her least of all. To my surprise she started to cry. She cried until the hollow where her knee was folded under her was filled with tears, like a little pool. I looked at this pool of tears, wondered what sorrow and disappointment were, what made people cry, and why I had been able to attain this power over her. Most of all I marveled at the sight of so much water. She never bothered me again.
Reality was ugly and strange; also it had a simplicity that was like a riddle. At the right words dragons became mice, hurt was inflicted no more, the coward was queen. I did not understand this, nor try to. My private world made sense. It was to my private world with its own people that I retreated. Perhaps it was this that made me a victim, although I suspect children are always looking for a victim and the youngest makes the most logical one. I was always the youngest. I graduated from eighth grade at eleven. But my mother told me that the girls at camp (the year of the closet and pillowcase) did not like me because I read a comic book on the train going up to camp instead of making friends with them. Perhaps she was right; certainly I never doubted her until now.
But about my world.... The doctors say this dream world of the strange child is more real than reality, that all the senses are involved in it instead of real life. In other words, food is eaten but not really tasted, the child speaks, responds, and acts as much as possible like a normal child—sometimes even more because he tries so hard to deceive—but without any idea of what human feelings are like. He seldom loses his temper. His gratification urges, which in a small child are many and primitive, are all in the fantasy world; thus, toilet training is simple ("You learned right away," my mother said), thumb sucking ("You never sucked your thumb") and touching himself in forbidden places (never mentioned, never happened) are no problems for the parents. All sex, sensation, pleasure, in fact all of life itself, occurs in the fantasy world. In the real world the child watches as an outsider, tries his best to imitate what is expected of him, and often deceives the parents so successfully they never know he really isn't there.
My dream world, which I remember clearly, consisted of two things. One was my five girls. I think there were five. The Quints were receiving much publicity at the time, and the real world sometimes comes in to reinforce the fantasy one. But my five were different. They were all the same age, but each was different: one dark, one blonde, one medium, and so on. They were dressed identically, by me, at the start of each day, each in the same dress and hat but in a different color. Each had a name. One was named, I now think, for my mother. But not realistically for my mother; named by a diminutive for her name, which I invented. Of course, I had no idea it was my mother, for I worshiped her, and the nickname I gave my imaginary girl was one no one in the family used. This girl was blonde (my mother is dark) and the leader of the others. She was the bad one, the independent one, and of course the one I had to torture (or punish) the most. Perhaps there were not five, but only four. I really cannot remember. My mother was one of four sisters; I had three doting aunts. I wish I could remember the names of my other imaginary subjects, for they might give a clue as to who they really were.
Each morning I awoke, vomited (this never bothered anyone in the family very much after a while, for they were used to it; they left a paper bag beside my bed), and began my fantasy. I told my girls what to wear. One always wore blue, one always green, one always yellow, and my leader (who I now think was my mother) wore red, to show that she was the most important one. She had a red dress and a red beret on her bright blonde hair. My girls were with me all through the day. I told them what to do, they protested of course, and then I had to beat them. Since beating them gave me great sexual pleasure, I usually saved that for nighttime when I was alone in my dark room. Of course they were all afraid of me, adored me, and begged me constantly to love and forgive them. I forgave them after I beat them—but only for a while.
The other part of my fantasy consisted of ghosts. I knew there were ghosts, that they hovered above my window at night and waited to kill me if ever I should show them that I doubted they existed. So every night when I was in bed, I said softly, "I do believe in you, dear ghosts, I do." They hovered above the window in the white curtains, waiting for me to show a sign of heresy, but every night I fooled them. "I don't believe in ghosts," I would tell myself, hiding under the covers, and then, peeking out quickly, I would whisper, "I didn't mean it. I do believe in you, dear ghosts."
Were the ghosts grownups? I wonder. A child has to say, in essence, "I do believe in you, dear grownups." Grownups hate not being respected; they seek vengeance for being tricked. But I knew, on the reality level, that the grownups did not believe in ghosts. My parents told me belief in ghosts was silly. I knew better. I saw the ghosts; the adults did not.
I cured myself of the ghosts when I was about ten. I said, "I don't believe in ghosts," waited, waited for the ghosts to kill me. My heart nearly stopped from panic. But the ghosts did not kill me. "I don't believe in you," I said, perhaps aloud, perhaps in my mind—for aloud and in my mind were the same in those days. Nothing happened. The ghosts hovered, I waited in cold terror, and the ghosts turned into window curtains. I repeated this heresy for several nights and finally discovered that I had won.
My victory over my imaginary satellites was more complicated. Now I know that it had a perfect psychological basis in fact, that the cure I forced on myself came from much the same reasoning enlightened psychotherapists are now using to deal with schizophrenic children in hospitals ... but of course I did not know any of that at the time, only that it was time to live a different life.
I have to go back for a moment to explain that during those years, starting as far back as I can remember and ending just before puberty, I seemed to be a normally extroverted child. Like many children, I was good at home and naughty in school. You have to be naughty somewhere. But I always did it with such style that no one could really be angry for long. The strange child is abnormally clever. Also, I had the advantage of going to a progressive school where individuality was encouraged and a high IQ went a long way. When I was bad, I was bad with style. When I was in the sixth grade and made to stay after school to do extra homework, and instead left on my desk a caricature of the teacher, Mrs. Piske—her face and the body of a pig—with the caption "Pig Piske," the face was so recognizable that even the stern educator had to laugh. She has kept it to this day. How could a nine-year-old make a recognizable caricature? A child with a secret life can rise to the heights of genius to protect himself in his rare moments of realistic rebellion.
When I was ten and made "cream cheese and jelly sandwiches" out of saltines, library paste, and red ink, they were so real looking that one girl ate three, washed down with milk, until someone told her what I had done. Having fought vehemently for her right to devour as many as she wanted, the girl then ran to the phone to call her mother. Her mother called the principal. "That brat gave my Barbara paste and ink sandwiches, and her braces are sticking together!" The principal called me to her office. No one was ever called to the principal's office, except for the most cardinal sins. I was not afraid; I was simply calm, numb, aloof. This was no longer happening ... my prank in the classroom had been a freak, one of those things I sometimes did to prove I was alive, and now it did not exist. But the other kids were very afraid.
The principal looked at me. She had gray hair and rimless glasses. God bless her, for she is dead now, and she was a good and exceptional woman. "If Barbara had eaten only one, I could punish you," she said. "But three ...!" Greed, I learned that day, was even worse than a practical joke. When I returned upstairs, the entire seventh grade cheered. Eurydice returning from Hades. Two of the boys kissed me, my first kisses. I hardly noticed.
So I was sometimes naughty, but never in real trouble. I did not, for example, do sloppy homework, or fail tests, or talk back. I did what I was told. I kissed grownups if I sensed they would like it. So I was considered affectionate. I played with the little girls my mother told me were the nice little girls to play with. My tantrums were private, behind the shut door of my bedroom, so I emerged cheerful and extroverted again. The grownups said, "Don't let her lose that love of life." What love of life? I did not know what life was. I had my five little girls, in their different color dresses, to be tormented and forgiven, and that was my life. I never dreamed of going to a party, a dance, or on a date. No one wanted me to, for I was a child, so all was well.
Excerpted from The Cherry in the Martini by Rona Jaffe. Copyright © 1966 Rona Jaffe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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