We compete for who can launch farthest from the highest arc of the swing, then tussle together and dust off.
“I win,” I screech for all the universe to hear. “I’m going to be Colored.” I spin around until I’m so dizzy the sky is turning around me. I fall on my back with my arms and legs scrambled. Jeff stands over me, then sits gently on my legs until I quiet down, and we walk home together, shoulder-bumping, to our neighboring apartments in the Bronx.
Anne, my Colored nanny, waits for me. My mother gives private piano lessons to other people. She was happy to have Anne mind me every day. I’m always happy to see Anne. I’m certain I’m going to be Colored too, like her.
Jeff reminds me that last week I was going to be Egyptian, painted gold, with eyes of lapis rimmed in black, seated on a tall stone throne at the entry to the Metropolitan Museum.
“That was last week. This is this week.”
I finally return to the topic that concerns me the most. I pester Jeff about the numbers tattooed on his mother’s wrist.
“Everyone’s got them. So quit asking me.”
“Not everyone’s got them. My parents don’t have them.”
“Then they’re lucky. They got out in time. Mine didn’t.”
I love Anne. She walks me to school every morning then picks me up after, although
PS 28 is only four blocks from our apartment. My mother worries I’ll be stolen or hurt. Wait till she hears my big news, that I’m going to be Colored.
Anne brings the National Enquirer with her and hides it where she knows I’ll find it. She also makes certain I practice the piano for one hour every day until I don’t hear the tic-tic of my metronome because it’s part of my brain. I’m up to the Well-Tempered Clavier Prelude and Fugue #2. My parents have records of Glenn Gould performing all the preludes and fugues. I practice humming like him, just below normal hearing range.
When I walk home from school with Anne in September, I have a new chant: I like Ike, I like Ike, I like Ike. Anne claps her hand over my mouth. So I murmur it under my breath.
“Hasn’t your mother taught you anything? If she heard you right now, she’d fire me.”
“Why you? I’m the one that likes Ike.”
Anne selectively updates my mother every afternoon, while my mother stirs a pitcher of martinis. I’m having a wild afternoon. I ask for a taste of her cocktail. She lets me put my tongue in her icy drink. I make a show of gagging, clutching my neck, collapsing and dying on the linoleum floor.
“She’ll calm down after you leave,” my mother says.
I ask Anne about the numbers on Hazel’s wrist. She tells me to ask my mother. Which means I won’t get a straight answer or any answer at all.
“You don’t need to think about those things,” my mother will say.
I’m fixated on the skin. Like I love Anne’s skin. The color of her skin, the texture, the short soft black curls of hair on her arms. Anne’s arms are soft and smell like almond lotion. I tell Anne I can’t wait to turn Colored. She slowly shakes her head, as if giving up all hope for me.
“Don’t be crazy, child. You’re a white girl. You’re lucky.”
But I know that if I’m good, I’ll wake up one morning and see my Colored face reflected at me in the mirror.
Jeff’s mother’s tattoo and being Colored top my pantheon of great interests. They supplant ancient Egypt, which used to be my favorite. I feel guilty leaving those Egyptians sitting there in the museum. I’d been accustomed to spending Sundays sitting in their cool stone laps. The colossals, as they called them. I hid under their crooks and flails, and the museum guard let me know when it was okay to sit there. Sometimes I wandered in the winding corridors of the reconstructed tombs. I had notebooks filled with the hieroglyphics I copied. Jeff reminded me that I was abandoning them.
During the humid High Holy Days in September, I sit in Temple and stare at rows of tattooed wrists until my mother pokes me on my bare arm with a red manicured fingernail.
“Ow!” I look at her profile and stick out my tongue.
I take matters into my own hands and read about the death camps on the parchment-thin paper of our blue leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannica, the paper that reminds me of Jeff’s mother’s skin.
Every night I listen in on my parents’ conversations, pressed into the new soft gray carpet just outside their door.
“…she should know our history,” my father says.
“Not the part about Hazel locking Jeff in his room every night.”
I don’t know what to make of this, but it scares me. I crawl back to my room and the safety of my bed. It’s years before I work up the nerve to ask Jeff about it.
The world changes when I’m in Junior High. I believe it’s spinning faster. I spend my afternoons at Jeff’s, doing homework. Hazel and Jack own a soda fountain, and the school kids go there after class. Anne works for someone new because I’m old enough to walk to school and back. One afternoon I decide to visit Anne in Harlem instead of doing my homework with Jeff.
A policeman stops me when I get off the El and asks if I’m lost.
“No. I know where I am. Harlem.”
“I bet your mom doesn’t know where you are, and I’m going to drive you home before anything bad happens.”
“Like anything, like who knows? I’m not going to test it.”
Because I’m not Colored yet, I let him drive me home, but I call Anne every night to talk about my day until I muster the nerve to return to Harlem. I miss her. She listened to me no matter how weird my current belief was.
My parents are excited to watch a man named Castro on the television. He’s staying in a hotel in Harlem. He’s not Colored, just dark-skinned. Why can he be in Harlem and not me?
My family watches hearings on our television. They read the New York Times. I know enough to sit silently while the voices on the television rise and fall in anger. I’m subjected to the McCarthy hearings, and then my parents get caught up in the trial of Adolf Eichmann. He looks like my uncle Samuel, like a little old Jewish man. I get the backstory from the questions they ask him. So much for looking like my uncle.
I listen to my parents’ outrage at the Rosenberg’s verdict. They were spies.
“They were spies. Why are you so upset?”
“Yes, but they weren’t spies for us.”
My parents believe everyone is Jewish – FDR, Adlai Stevenson, Truman. They hate the Kennedys, who are Irish. The Rosenbergs were Jewish. My mother had a book that listed every Jewish celebrity.
I think everyone’s lost their minds.
When the television trials are over, I feel like I’ve been let off a leash. But then comes the Cuban missile crisis. I’m certain that a bomb has my name on it, and no-take cover drill will save me.
I’m taking an advanced science class as part of my school’s enriched program. I love chemistry and physics. I know that depending on how close I am to ground zero, whether I’m flesh or glass or brick, will determine whether I turn into flurries of ash, liquefy or incinerate.
To the extent it’s possible, I understand entropy. I’m certain the world is turning faster than it was a couple of years ago, and everything is in disarray.
Then there were the years of assassinations – JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X. There are Civil Rights marches and sit-ins. And the war in Viet Nam. Young men are leaving for Canada to keep from being maimed in a senseless war. Jeff’s apartment is soothing to me with all of this going on.
He takes and tends the kittens and puppies I rescue from the streets. I take them home, and then when they run circles around the rooms or climb the expensive curtains or pull the dining room table cloth down to the floor, my mother gets hysterical and says, “That’s it. They’ve got to go. Find them another home.” It’s a typical puppy or kitten behavior, but my mother likes her stuff just so. I cry and beg to keep the helpless creatures, but my mother is a tough woman. So I call Jeff, and he comes and takes them home with him. When we do our homework together in his apartment, I get to see my pets.
“You know, you can come over here anytime to play with the kids.” That’s what he calls our pets. Our kids. He knows me well enough to know how much I love these creatures.
So we finish our homework and play with the kids.
And then he wants to talk about sex.
Jeff’s been begging me to touch him after we finish homework.
“Only if you answer a question.”
“What do you want to know now?”
“Does your mother lock you in your room when you go to bed?”
“She’s afraid someone will take me. I had a brother and a sister. They were killed by the Nazis.”
“Exactly like Eichmann.”
“But what if you have to pee?”
“I knock on the wall, and they let me out.”
I’m good to my word. I stroke him lightly where he’s hard. I’m caught between fear and fascination. He puts his hand on mine and shows me how to hold on. He moans and springs a leak. I pull my hand away. Then he touches me, puts his fingers under my pink cotton panties. I’m slippery down there. He strokes something that sets off firecrackers through my belly and down my thighs. Then he kisses me, my soft sweet lips against his. We’re both damp and panting and sit still until we’re quiet.
When I leave, I hear him double lock the front door behind me.
“Go practice,” my mother says when I walk in. She doesn’t turn around to see that something is different about me, that my world has changed. The Well-Tempered Clavier is the last thing on my mind. “Stop tickling the ivories,” she calls out anytime she imagines I’m not concentrating on the keys.
When the world changes again, I hold on for dear life as it flies apart.
Anne dies of lung cancer. I learn how grief feels, how it changes who I am. Now sadness lives inside me; grief fills the shape of my heart. She was my childhood’s moral compass, and my memory of her is of a woman I love and don’t want to forget. I can’t accept I will never be Colored, and I will never see Anne again. My family attends her funeral. I hang on to Roy, her husband, who looks lost but puts his arms around me. I leave the front of his shirt wet from my weeping. I believe this will be the last time I hug a Colored man. I cry so hard during the service that we don’t go to the cemetery. I can’t bear the thought of watching her lowered into the earth.
In my mind, Anne and the tattooed victims of the Holocaust coalesce are all bound together in the book of life.
In high school, I smoke pot, join the sit-ins, and the women’s rights movement. There’s so much going on in the world that it’s hard for me to keep track.
I study advanced music theory at Hunter College, but I’m drawn from the music to the chants of the walls of people who march against the Viet Nam war. I join SDS and walk upfront with the leaders. Young men move to Canada and don’t come back. American college students are shot dead on their campuses by the National Guard. Others die a half-world away. If they come home, they’re haunted by the phantom pieces of themselves. I watch the spectacle of human history march across my field of vision.
My mother is frantic. “What will the mailman think when he sees ‘Students for a Democratic Society’ on your mail?”
What do I care what the mailman will think, I think.
Jeff is a pre-med student at Hofstra. We get home from school at about the same time. I’m pink-cheeked and proud because I was accepted to the Juilliard School. We never revisit that afternoon when I learned so suddenly and unexpectedly, what sex felt like. He asks me every time we’re together. When I get the letter from Juilliard, he kisses me in congratulation. It’s a lingering kiss. I love how his tongue feels in my mouth and on the insides of my lips. I mimic him and learn the moves that feel best.
He likes to come upstairs to the fifth floor and knock on my door. He never calls first. He just arrives, knowing that my mother will be busy teaching or working at my father’s jewelry store. Jeff uses my room to shoot up. He closes my door even though we’re alone. I argue with him, but there’s no reasoning with heroin.
Our ritual is that we make out. I can feel him through his jeans, and his being inside me becomes a regular part of his visits. He likes to talk to me about music, the kids, and sex. These are the main things we share—nothing in it about the future.
“I love to listen to you practice. Didn’t women throw their panties as gifts for Liszt when he performed? You’re practicing Liszt.?”
I keep the windows open when I practice. These days it’s Liszt’s 6th Hungarian Rhapsody. My fingers are formidable, brilliant on the bar after bar of octaves. I’ve given up on our family’s metronome, which tics in three-quarter time. I make my mother listen to it. She laughs hysterically after her second martini. I know my audience, the young man who listens with open windows across the street from me. I hope he’s laughing too.
“I want a pair of your pink cotton panties. I like how they smell.”
I take mine off and hand them over like they’re the queen’s jewels.
Jeff locks my bedroom door, just in case. He takes a spoon, syringe, lighter, and packet of powder from his green canvas book bag. I object, but I watch him prepare, fascinated by this science project. He ties off his thigh with a rubber tourniquet to raise a good vein. Then he injects heroin behind his right knee. He pulls the syringe out before it’s all gone.
“I saved a little for you.”
I’ve read Elie Wiesel. I know that I must ‘never forget.’ But sometimes, to survive, you have to forget for a little while.
The world is spinning out of control. Now I let it go on without me.
Jeff undresses me and then strips off his jeans. He pushes me backward onto my bed, strokes my skin, and touches himself. He kisses me between my thighs. I barely feel the needle prick behind my left knee. Before I go under, I wonder if his mother still locks him in his room at night. And then lying nude on my twin bed with Jeff, nothing else in this godforsaken world matters.
Jeff doesn’t get through medical school. He dies of a heroin overdose instead. I don’t know what to do or think or cry over anymore. Everything inside me feels broken or dead.
I take the kids back to my home and dare my mother to say anything about it.
After a year at the Juilliard, I finish my bachelor’s degree at the City University. After that, I decided to go to medical school. I want to do Jeff’s abandoned work, something for the good of the world, that he couldn’t finish because he died.
I’m admitted to the Albert Einstein Medical School in the Bronx. I take time to think about the things that have brought me here. The perimeters of my world were finite, and now they open for some good to walk through the door. The world isn’t spinning faster. It’s spinning the same as always. It only felt faster, although there are arguments to be made either way.
I feel that something about Jeff is near me. I have regrets. I never told him I loved him.
There are times I can’t breathe for the anxiety I feel. I sit still until I can take a full breath to fill my lungs and move on. Then I fall asleep as much from exhaustion as from letting go of my struggles. When I wake up, I remember what I’m supposed never to forget. Jeff hovers nearby. I don’t know what form he’s in, but he’s there, hanging onto my pink panties and waving them at me.
I never forget.