A flurry of phone calls last week from Stalker. I have not answered in months, nor acknowledged the candy and stuffed animals. But still, I might listen to voice mails.
“Coming up! The Bronx HS of Science annual musical performance! You made me miss it last year. It would have been a glorious night. But instead, you humiliated me. Had the police take me out of my home, shoeless and in handcuffs. In front of all my neighbors. Did you really think I was going to kill myself? Over you? You locked me up in the loony bin. You did it, with my two sisters. The three witches. You turned your backs on me and walked out together. I wanted to scream, “Stop! Don’t leave me here!” But I knew if I did that, that would keep me even longer.
“Show up on the steps of our high school on Thursday night, 6:00 pm, and all will be forgiven. I know you have frequent flier miles. Get yourself on a plane and be there. If you don’t feel safe enough to stay with me, fine. You can stay with one of my sisters. They like you better than they like me. They will be happy to have you.”
“I told them five years ago to do West Side Story. No, no. Too hard for high school students. We don’t have that kind of talent here. Well, they have listened to me after all. They will do our songs. Remember? Tonight, tonight. Be there, and walk arm-and-arm with me.”
Friday morning, 3:00 am Portland, Oregon time.
“You bitch. You never loved me, did you? You have five minutes to call me back. Or I will slip a knife into your brother-in-law’s side. He will squeal like a pig. Or, maybe something else. Maybe I should kill you, instead.”
Friday morning, 4:00 am, Portland, Oregon time.
“The time to call me back was six months ago, when you chose your Jew family over me. When you let yourself get snowed in with them, instead of with me. You have five minutes to call me back, or this is definitely over. Over. Except for the settlement. Yes, I will extract a settlement. Call it a divorce settlement. Wait and see. I don’t have anything to lose now, do I?”
* * *
Summer of Love, 2009.
Assignment 3 from Stalker. Now that you told me the good parts, tell me the others. Tell me about sad and stressful things in your childhood.
Do I dare? How far do I go? Isn’t falling in love about risks and sharing? I always held back before. Is that why I have been so lonely? Finally someone asks. He tells you anything you ask about. At least try, try to tell him who you are.
Assignment 3. When I was about seven, my sister and I went to Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum with Daddy. One of the most horrible experiences of my life. Row after row of torture devices. Coffins to punish live people — with huge nails in the covers, complete with mannequins showing pierced, blood-stained corpses. The stuffed five-legged lamb was a particular horror. Daddy didn’t see my upset; he thought we were all having fun. I didn’t know how to say how I felt. I had nightmares for weeks. I should never had been let in there.
Then, to continue the horror, he would read from the book he picked up at the “museum,” “Believe It or Not” stories. For laughs. His laughs. I pleaded with him to stop, but he kept laughing. One anecdote had a man biting off his tongue to throw at someone. Still makes me ill. Always have worried about my tongue, ever since. I hated Daddy for putting me through it. What an insensitive thing to do to such a little girl.
The Twilight Zone was more than I could handle sometimes. I was sent to bed before it aired, but I was so lonely. I longed to be part of the family. Secretly, I would watch from a sheltered corner — they acted as though they didn’t know. They probably really didn’t notice; they would forget about me for long stretches. I regretted watching some nights, I was so scared. The episode of the little girl who fell under her bed, disappearing into a black hole. Her father came after her, but couldn’t find her. The opening between worlds was closing, closing. I couldn’t bear their being lost. Another episode of lost, confused people — who turned out to be dolls tossed into a bin. Or, the episodes where people discovered they were dead. So scary. I could not ask for comfort, because I would be punished for being a sneak and watching. It was my own fault that I was upset. “I hate nothing more than a sneak!,” said my mother repeatedly. I still must avoid horror stories, especially before bedtime, or bad dreams will visit me.
I have always been sensitive — to people yelling (yes, my parents screaming at each other bloody murder). To bright flashing lights. To those scratchy wool snow-suit pants I protested wearing, or that harsh wool blanket I woke up to one morning. Rough wool directly on my skin, it had my body on edge. I was age five or so. Yes, I was hypersensitive physically, psychologically, emotionally. It’s not an easy life, but being overly sensitive also helped me pick up on subtleties that didn’t register for others– and detecting those vibes could keep me safe, if I could sense the danger soon enough.
What was I MOST scared of? My mother’s rages. Her coming after me, after anything I loved, to destroy and wreak havoc. Slapping me, chasing me around the room to spank me. Not a calm, measured punishment. No, out of control. Smashing the doll carriage she had bought me just days before. (Knew that grand of a present was too good to be true!) Throwing out the cake I had baked the night before; gone before I could eat a bite. A special present. “After you get your tonsils out, we will get you a new toy; a toy bake-set.” Excited, I went to the refrigerator, to get my little cake — it was a pound cake, a miniature loaf. My heart sank. Not there! “Where is my cake, Mommy?”
“I threw it out.” Matter of fact. Eyeball to eyeball. My mind reeled. Why? What had happened? Had I done something wrong? I couldn’t remember anything. My heart ached for that adorable cake. The fun was out of the bake-set now. She is trying to hurt me and I don’t know why. I won’t let her she hurt me. Silent, expressionless, I turned my back and walked out of the room. She won’t see me cry, not if I can help it.
Or, her locking me out of the apartment as a seven-year old – humiliated, feeling half-naked in my pajamas. I banged and pleaded on that apartment door to be let back in. (Stupid me, I should have just kept going.) I felt a great deal of satisfaction when neighbors came by to see if all was okay, and I saw she was embarrassed. I hoped it humiliated her as she had humiliated me.
Her taking away my diary when I was in second grade. (My father intervened on that one; the diary was his gift to me. I got a red one, my sister a blue.)
Her ripping the film out of my Brownie after my afternoon documenting the Sedgwick projects and my friends, in preparation for our moving from the neighborhood. That was sixth grade. “You could have had a great memory of the day, but now you won’t!” Rip! Drama! Action! Film dangled, exposed, irretrievable. She was so frustrated I wouldn’t leave the apartment to go shopping for her. How could I tell her I was too afraid to leave? Too frightened to go to the store and be overwhelmed by the mob, pushed and shoved, waiting forever to be heard by the man behind the counter? She didn’t ask why I wouldn’t go, and I didn’t know how to tell her. She thought I simply wouldn’t help her; it was all about her, she was sure. But I didn’t know yet how to speak up in a store, or how to be seen in a crowd of towering adults, and I couldn’t tolerate the pain of it. Having failed at being a part of things, I had become too good at being separate. (Oh, how I wish I had those photos!)
Later I found myself in this book – The Highly Sensitive Child. Unfortunately, it was published years after my childhood; my parents never knew of it. Not that they read that kind of thing. They didn’t have a clue who I was, or their effect on me. I was a mystery to them, and them to me. End of Assignment 3.
Turns out, Stalker had Twilight Zone tales to share, too! “Did you see the one with Jack Klugman and the trumpet? Do you know that one?”
* * *
Scene 13, Kiss Me Kate
Our summer of love, 2009.
“I am almost 60 years old,” said Stalker. “This is not high school, with our whole lives ahead of us. Take the plunge with me; we will jump off the cliff holding hands. What are you waiting for? Kiss Me Kate. We will be married o’Sunday. Come to me. Surrender to me. I will look after you. You will die in my arms. I will be there for you; when you are 85 years old, I will cradle you in my arms as you say good-bye to this world.
“Now here are your lines, Kate. You must study them and say them to me on our wedding day. You will wear a Ginger Rogers white dress, feathers flying.
. . . Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
Where they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
. . . place your hands below your husband’s foot,
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.
“Now, Baby, say after me. ‘I am ashamed that women are so simple.”
You are ashamed that women are so . . .
“No, no, Baby. Say, ‘I am ashamed . . .”
You are ashamed . . .
Stalker so funny!
“You’re not one of those women libbers, are you? Tell me you’re not one of those feminists, please! What have I signed up for? Thirty more years of this! Oh, heaven help me! My father said, Stalker, one thing. Just remember one thing. Never get married! I should have listened to him, but no, Stalker has to fall in love with the biggest bitch of Pelham Parkway!
“Did I tell you my father was as good as Fred Astaire? If he hadn’t been a drunk he could have been someone. He could have been a real contender. Now give Daddy a big kiss into the phone and say good-night. It’s a school night and you must get your rest, Baby. Tomorrow you must write me the next essay. Tell me about each boyfriend you had, starting with kindergarten. All the details, you must not hold back. And now I must eat some spinach to be ready for the next round with you! This week your training begins! Kiss me goodnight, Kate! Mwaaah!”
I never knew who Stalker was one minute to the next. Which voice was real? Which story line was play? Which threats and promises were theater; which could be counted on? Were we in a play within a play, within a play? Or not? Oh, what fun. Novelty! Entertainment! Mysteries! I was never bored for a moment. We were in heaven, Stalker and Baby — dancing cheek to cheek.
“All I want, Daddy, is someone to watch over me.” My little girl voice. Yes, I do voices, too.
“Ah, I love that sweet voice. I’ll watch over you, little lamb.”
Good night, Daddy.
“Good night, Baby.”
* * *
When he talked about Deborah, that was the true voice; the original person speaking –underneath the personas and the false selves. That much I knew. His natural voice was East Bronx, tinged with lyrical, working-class Irish cradling the diphthongs and punctuating the stops; no more theatrical accents, no more voice acting.
The next night, he told me more about the murder. “I am a bad man,” Stalker began.
* * *
Scene 14, Hair the Musical
The Fall of Our Love. Stalker and Baby attend Hair the Musical, our first date to a Broadway show. September 2009.
The irony could not have been keener for me. What had been my first date to a Broadway show, ever? September 1969. Hair. I went with Dave, my high school boyfriend; his family gave him tickets as a birthday present. Dave was friends with a cat who became –Stalker. You can’t make this stuff up.
September 1969. Actors naked on stage, long hair, rock ‘n roll. Freaks not on a protest march, not attending a concert in Central Park, the Fillmore East or Woodstock, but on a Broadway stage — infiltrating straight society. Outrageous in 1969, nostalgic in 2009. Now, Stalker and I were in seats overlooking the stage, surrounded by theater goers young enough to be our children. “Yes,” we bragged. “We attended the original decades ago.”
“Wow,” said the theater goers in awe of us. “Wow. My mother went to that.”
Now Stalker’s 1969 luxurious black, curly pony-tail was gone; a cap hid whatever hair was left on his scalp. My own 1969 hair had been shoulder-length, thick, dark chocolate-brown and too curly for the fashion. I wore it parted severely down the middle. Now it flowed more gently, falling far down my back; now mostly white, but disguised with auburn red color. Today he still could wear his high school narrow jeans and white shirt sizes; I had long outgrown shopping in the Alexander’s boys department for flannel shirts — outgrown both in style and size. Today I wore a red jersey wrap-around dress with heels. I had aged enough to have lost an ill-afforded inch from my meager 5’3″ stature; my neck had to stretch extra when I reached up to meet his kiss. But we were at Hair; we were still alive and dancing and rockin’.
This time, unlike 1969, after the last curtain call I was out of the audience and onto the stage. I had arrived at my life’s goal — to get out of the passive sidelines and into the central action of my life. Stalker and I ran down the rickety, windy stairs, and jumped to the center of the stage that was rapidly filling with audience members. A be-in, a love-in of sorts, a final group dance by The People. I was in heaven. How I loved that Stalker loved the stage and knew no fear, no embarrassment, no hesitation to live. With Stalker, I wouldn’t have to be Baby in the corner anymore; I could be onstage with “Johnny,” dirty dancing in the Catskills.
Stalker twirled me around him, as we switched from couples-based Swing moves to free-form dancing-alone-but-together in Hippie style, and back again. We might have been at a Grateful Dead concert — dancing with abandon, unself-consciously, as though we were 17 years old again. We held the promise of Hair, the symbol of our youthful rebellion — being long-haired in a short-haired world; resisting our naivety becoming an embarrassment. What did Yoko Ono later say about her and John Lennon’s bed-in, peace campaign? A little naive to think the war could be over if we just wish it enough? Yes, just a little.
“You are my Yoko, I am your John,” said Stalker as we rode back to the Bronx on the Broadway Local subway. “Always think, before you act, is that what Yoko would do?”
“Another assignment,” said Stalker. “You know what’s coming. Dave. Dave Rich. I need to know every detail. How you met– was it at high school, at Bronx Science? What did he tell you about me, in high school? What did you do together? When did you break up? How did you break up? You must write me another essay, as soon as you return to Portland. Do you understand what I need to know, Baby?”
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
“Good. That’s a good girl.”
But where do I start? With Hair. That is a good place. With what Dave’s mother told me the last time I saw her. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, 2001.
“When we bought the Hair tickets, the birthday present tickets for Dave and you,” she said. “Dave said it could not be a Saturday matinée. That’s when we understood what your situation was. We told him he couldn’t marry you. You can understand, can’t you? It would not have been good for him. You understand, don’t you?”
Well, now I do, I thought to myself. Now. Thirty years later.
* * *
Scene 15, Dave and Baby Part 1
Stalker’s Essay Assignment 11
Dave and I met at the Bronx HS of Science. I was 15, a junior; he was 17. We were madly in love and would spend our lives together, we were sure. I wore his heavy senior ring, featuring a black stone on its front, temporarily sized with band-aid wraps for my own finger. I was so petite back then, just over 100 lbs. Under my jeans I sported a white-gold ankle bracelet with black pearls; our names engraved on the wings and 2-2-1969 inscribed on the back of the hearts. “I love you. Will you go steady with me?” he said on 2-2-1969, as our Lexington Avenue train pulled out of 59th Street. (The ring was legal, but whenever we went to his house, I carefully removed the ankle bracelet so his parents would not ask how he had afforded it.) He was six-foot tall, classic dark, stereotypical New York Jewish looks and a big, friendly smile. He was growing his head hair longer, pushing against his parents’ length limit. His chest hair already curled over the neckline of his crewneck t-shirts, and his face showed a shadow by the afternoon.
He was too good for me, I knew. He seemed so cool, so good-looking, so smart. Me? I was searching the library shelves for the answer to myself. Freud, Adler, Jung. Dave seemed to have few such self-doubts. He played lead guitar in his band, and loved the attention. He had so many friends, knew his way around the city, moved through the world with confidence. My parents allowed me to go anywhere if I were with him, no questions asked. Now I had male protection out in the dangerous world, they thought. With him, I discovered Manhattan, holding his hand for dear life. My landscape now included new parks, subway lines and theaters, and was inhabited by B. B. King, Clapton, Joplin, Hendrix and the Dead — with a new wardrobe of jeans, workshirts, peasant blouses, black turtlenecks, pea-coats and drug-paraphernalia inspired accessories. He taught me how to cut school and do what the cool ones did, while maintaining an enviable grade point average and proper appearances at home. I fell into it easily; I was used to living double and triple lives.
That summer, on another subway trip to Manhattan, he said, “I love you. Will you marry me? We can live in my parents’ basement until I get a job and support us.” My future stretched before me in love and security.
His family lived in a beautiful private house in a still pastoral section of the north Bronx, replete with a flower garden in back. Everyone had his own room (Dave’s with one black wall, his parents’ compromise with his demand for four black ones), and all of them were uncluttered and clean. I was grateful that Dave was tolerant of my circumstances: my struggling stressed-out family, overcrowded in a dingy public housing project apartment; schedule restrictions placed by my obsessive-compulsive, Shabbos-obeserving father; the expectations placed on Dave by my admiring but desperate and depressed mother; my own allegiance to my virginity, a safeguard against an eternity in hell (for surely I otherwise deserved that). 1969 was the best summer ever. At its end, Dave took me to see Hair on Broadway; he got the tickets for his 18th birthday.
But the disparities between my two lives were growing, as well as the stakes. I was breaking under the strain. My anxiety and panic attacks were multiplying, but I could not see why.
I believed in G-d, so I still wanted to observe the Jewish Sabbath, eat only kosher food and be a virgin when I married. I loved Dave and being cool, the excitement of all-night rock concerts, mini-acid-festivals at his friend’s house, be-ins at Central Park, and hanging with people on the edge. Of belonging. As time went on my resolve to lead both lives weakened; living the life of my peers became worth breaking the Sabbath for, at least in secret away from my parents’ awareness. Maybe getting on a bus or subway on Saturday, or wearing pants on a Jewish holiday, or doing homework on the Sabbath . . . maybe I could do all that without increasing my chances of a sentencing to hell?
Surely this would all work out?
September, he started college. He still lived at home in the Bronx, so each morning we traveled together on the Number 12 bus as far as Fordham and the Concourse. Then I went up the Concourse to Science, while he caught the D train down to CCNY in Manhattan. The distance between us gradually grew in all ways. He became tired of living his own two lives. He wanted to give up school, then go on the road and become a rock star, certain that would cure his depression. In his eyes, I was an obstacle; I became something that was tying him down to a life he didn’t want to lead.
As I graduated high school, June 6, 1970, the phone call came.
“Give me my ring back. Give it to one of my friends — Simon, Chris or Savage, any of them. You won’t see me again.”
I saw Chris at school the next day; he looked sad, but he wasn’t surprised when I handed him the ring. I didn’t have my own senior ring, because I had been wearing Dave’s. Now I had none, nothing.
I couldn’t eat. When I dropped to 88 lbs., I was scared. I needed a plan to put myself back together. I would get away. Yes, I would find a way that my parents would accept, and get away.
I was not prepared for the Summer of 1970. I made a big mistake.
Also see Stalker, the Music
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.