Our summer of love, 2009. Stalker wanted to know everything about me. I could share those stories that I had hoped, in my most self-indulgent daydreams, to find an audience for. “From your first skinned knee to your first pet, from your first kiss to the last tear that fell upon on your cheek. I want to know and you will tell me.”
Stalker’s assignments arrived in my daily morning email. Right after work each evening, I tackled the assignment. I worked hard, so my essays would be waiting for Stalker when he got home from his late night gig. The cross-country time difference worked to our advantage. As he made himself dinner at NY midnight, I would put my cell phone on speaker, and set it down a few feet from my pillow. Closing my eyes, cuddled in the covers, I listened to his sonorous baritone penetrating the dark stillness. It seemed like another person was in the room with me, and my loneliness began to evaporate. Stalker told me his life stories and sang me to sleep.
Nothing had ever felt so sweet and intimate.
The essay assignments from Stalker started out pretty easy for me.
1. What was the first doll or stuffed animal that you had? What did it look like? What name did you give it? 2. What other dolls or stuffed animals did you have over the years? Tell me about them.
When my sister caught the chicken pox, my mother purposely exposed me, so we could both “get it over with.” What a nightmare. The runny, messy, pink Calamine lotion; quite useless. I itched all over my little body. Ugh. I was about three years old; my sister, six or seven.
As a consolation prize for our being so sick, my father bought us gifts. Sister got a beautiful doll in a gorgeous case. I got a . . . a flimsy, miniature aluminum tea set?! What did I want with that?? I wanted a doll! Give me that doll!
Later, Sister and I got Ginny Dolls. Mine came dressed as a nurse, with an elegant navy velveteen cape, a cap sporting a red cross, and the classic white uniform. (I kept that cape to use as an apron for other dolls, long after Nurse met her tragic fate.) Sister and I had so few toys, we were careful with the ones we did have. We treasured them and they always looked brand new.
Only once did we leave our toys at risk. My father’s voice teacher visited our Grant Avenue apartment in the Bronx, to give my father a singing lesson. (What an extravagance, I realize now. But, at the time, I didn’t see other possibilities for us two little girls with our hand-me-down wardrobes and the paltry toy collection.)
The teacher brought his children with him. To escape the booming operatic voices in the small apartment, my mother took us girls out during the lesson. Later, we were shocked to find our dolls, board games, cards, potato heads, Spaldings and pick-up sticks out of the toy box and strewn all over the apartment. Where was Daddy, while the teacher’s feral children dismantled our cherished Ginny dolls? Didn’t he care about us at all? The Ginny dolls were as good as dead. I grieved; Nurse was my best friend.
With a heavy, guilty heart, Daddy took us and our injured dolls straight to the toy store. But alas, the deed could not be undone. “We don’t carry those anymore.”
Sister and I settled for new baby dolls instead. Pink plastic, maybe ten inches long. Not even. But, a bonus! They peed after you fed them with a water bottle. Loved that doll! Mine came in a pink, flowered flannel one-piece sleeper. Sister’s came in a blue one. (She always had blue things; I would get red or pink.) I think I named the doll . . . Doris? (After Doris Day) Later I called her Beth. After I read Little Women, I used the name Beth a lot — after the shy, sickly sister.
A few years later, Sister and I each got a Barbie doll. I got a Ken, too. At first I longed for the gorgeous ready-made outfits that were not in our budget. But, turned out I enjoyed commandeering other items as makeshift clothing for the dolls. Creating something out of nothing was fun and challenging. I contrived living quarters for the dolls, on top of the tall chest of drawers in our bedroom. I stood on a chair to reach, and entertained myself for hours making sleeping and sitting rooms for Barbie and Ken. I used shoebox tops for beds, covering them with my handmade quilts and pillows. I bent cardboard into furniture, lay scraps of leftover material for rugs. Right after finishing a layout, I would tear it up and start over. Making it was more fun than having it.
My maple, four-drawer nightstand became another favorite toy. I took out the socks and handkerchiefs from the top two drawers; empty, they became perfect square log cabin rooms for me to decorate. I made curtains from scrap material (I had a stash; my mother sewed our clothes!), tables and chairs from stiff cardboard. The possibilities were endless. I liked to study house floor plans in my mother’s magazines – Redbook, Ladies Home Journal — and try out my own cardboard floor plans on the desk I shared with Sister. (I was given my own desk about age 12 – but, what was the problem with sharing one?? I felt kicked out! And I lost my Barbie’s home, when that second desk replaced the chest of drawers. No one asked me first. If only they had asked.) I particularly remember a cardboard split-level house I created on the desk I shared with Sister – before I even knew the term “split-level.” Yes, I fancied myself a future architect. Even to this day, I conjure up houses, complicated floor plans, and exquisite furniture in my night dreams. But, doesn’t everyone?
Stalker, you asked about stuffed animals. Let me take a breath before I tell you about my one stuffed animal. Yes, the one. And before I answer the next questions:
What other toys and games did you like at various ages? Did you like to draw or paint or use coloring books or clay? Did you have a paint set? What did you like to wear at various stages of childhood and early teen years? Frilly dresses? Dungarees? Short pants? What colors? Did you like to try on makeup as a little kid?
Did you and your sister get along well in the early years? Since she was older, did she take you places? If so, where? Did your parents take you out to parks, and to stroll and play? If so, where?
What outdoor games did you like to play as you got older? Did you skip rope? Were you good at it? Did you own a bicycle? Where did you ride? Did you own a pair of outdoor roller skates, or go to the indoor rink at Jerome and Fordham? Did you ever ice skate? If so, where? Did you go sledding in the winter? Where? Did you own a sled of your own?
What were the names of your best friends in various neighborhoods and at various schools? Why did you like them?
Did you like to sing or dance? Did you ever take lessons? Did you ever take other kinds of lessons? Did you ever go horseback riding? Maybe at Pelham Stables?
What music did you like? What type of record player did you or your family have? What music did your sister and parents like? What were the first few records that you owned?
Did you watch much television? What were your favorite shows? Were there any shows that your family watched together? Did you and your sister ever fight over what to watch? What kind of television did you have?
What movie theaters did you go to? I believe there was one on 170th and another on Mt Eden, both just east of Jerome. Did you go there? Who did you go with? Later did you go to the Valentine, the RKO Fordham, and the Paradise? Who did you go with? What movies did you see there? (Maybe Ben Hur at the Paradise. You would’ve been about seven.) Did your dad ever take you to big Manhattan theaters like the Criterion? What were your favorite movies from theaters or tv as a child?
Ah, yes, I had finally met my conversational match. I was in the hands of a master, who could direct the conversation, take command of the situation, and never let the well go dry. I felt relief and became willing to follow his lead — curious about where it would take me, where it would take us. Yes, I’m a sucker for novelty.
I was driven to write my personal history, as long as someone wanted to hear it; eager to record the details of a young life I had assumed forgotten. Yes, his assignments monopolized my time and energy, but I don’t think that was his intention. I could have limited myself to short answers, instead of writing up long anecdotes. But, I wanted to tell the stories.
His own memories were stirred up as well. His Davy Crockett raccoon cap, his toy guitar. His father’s squeezing circus tickets out of the family budget, only to find Stalker with rheumatic fever, too ill to go. “But the next year, he took me to the circus at Madison Square Garden. My father might have been a no-good drunk, but he was fun. You always had a good time with my father. I will never forgive my mother for throwing him out for a year. I was only ten. I needed him. She kept us apart and I never forgave her.”
Yes, it hurt to admit to Stalker all that missed as a child. No ice skating or horseback riding. No bicycle riding, no swimming. No vacations. No, no, no. Maybe he could see why, later, I wanted to say yes to anything that came my way.
Stalker’s questions became tougher to answer, but I wanted to give myself over to the dialogue, to stop holding back. Finally I could be wholly known to someone!
Then Stalker’s next essay assignment arrived. “I have asked about what fun you had as a child. Now write me about sad and stressful things in your childhood.”
Hmmm. But, did I really want to be known, after all? How vulnerable could we be? I had to make some choices. Stalker held nothing back. I could try to match his courage, his openness, his strength. He knew no embarrassment or secrecy. Yes, I resolved. I will challenge myself to open up and share myself.
I knew he wouldn’t settle for anything less. And that made it easier.
. . . to be continued