Finalist Glimmer Train
I am a girl just awakening in my new canopy bed on Sunday morning. I lay listening as the March wind whistles around the air-conditioner my father decided to install in the window behind my headboard. When doing this, he had no idea that he’d blocked all chances for me to spy on Philip Birnberg ─ the quiet boy, next door, for whom I carried a curious fascination. No matter how often I waved to him over the years, Philip never once waved back. Instead, he would peer outside his window as if he were looking into a vacant lot. I was a tree to Philip Birnberg, nothing more. I always wondered whose privacy he was protecting each time he yanked the plaid shade down, keeping me from studying all the sharp angles of his very serious face while he sat at his desk hunched over his microscope. Was he studying amoebas, I wondered, or had he deliberately stabbed his finger with a dart to make a slide of his own blood?
A cold draft pushes through the wooden slats of my headboard, and I slip lower beneath my covers. In a few weeks, I will turn sixteen. I am crazy excited by this, so excited that it is difficult for me to think of anything else. As soon as this occurs, I know the world will become a better place. I am certain my period will finally arrive so I’ll no longer feel like a freak of nature (the doctor has promised this), and Jonathan Tanner, who I have a much better chance of attracting than Philip B., will wake up and realize: I am the woman of his dreams. He will take me to a dance, his senior prom, and as the lights start to dim Jonathan will slip his black onyx Bar Mitzvah ring on my finger and ask me to go steady. By professing his devotion, Jonathan will relieve all my fears of becoming an old maid like my wickedly mean gym teacher, Miss Postelneck, who forces me to swing upside down on the parallel bars, even though she knows that makes me dizzy. Rumors have just begun to surface that Miss P. has moved in with Miss Brenner, our school nurse.
Today, as a treat for my upcoming birthday, Aunt Shirl, Uncle Ray, and my cousin Franny are driving me to New York City for a matinee performance of “My Fair Lady”─ my first Broadway show. In a minute or two, I will drag myself out of this comfy bed and step onto the frigid linoleum floor, and head to the bathroom where the worst shower in America awaits me. It will take forever for the water to warm before I can enter the torture chamber where the water pressure is like our lawn sprinkler. For days my hair will be coated in a residue of sudsy shampoo; the sheen, dull and mousy, not at all like the beautiful Breck girls, who I’ve grown to admire.
My pink clock-radio reads 10 a.m., and I strain to hear the usual sounds of Sunday morning in my house: my father's scratchy Mantovani records, burnt butter sizzling in the frying pan, my mother's furry mules scuffing along the kitchen tile. But this morning I hear none of these things. What I hear is the sound of shattering glass, maybe a lamp breaking. This is followed by my mother's shouting. I sit up in bed like a cadet obeying a command. More shouting. I run down the hallway to peek inside my younger brothers' bedroom. I’m greeted by the sulfurous smell of the cap guns they fire at one another all hours of the night. But now they are sound asleep on the Castro convertible they share, corduroy pillows creating a shaky barricade between them. I move towards them looking for blood, afraid that maybe, this time, they went too far in their sparring.
Standing at the top of the stairs, I am afraid to breathe. If my mother is not shouting at my brothers, a common occurrence, then she must be shouting at my father, something I've never once witnessed. I grip the wooden railing and tiptoe halfway down the staircase hoping to hear a bit better.
"I don't believe you, Nate!" My mother screams.
"I didn't do anything, just one lousy dinner, I swear. Lenny's a liar. Maybe Lenny slept with her, but I didn't. I can't believe you'd believe him over me. He just wants to start trouble 'cause his marriage is in trouble," my father yells back.
"Liar, liar — don't you dare touch me." There’s metal flying, probably the stainless flatware from our breakfast table. My father's voice sounds like he’s coming closer, so I pivot on the staircase, nearly tripping over the hem of my flannel nightgown. I walk sideways up the stairs and fly under the covers, my heart dancing in my chest like a trapped bunny. I stay under the lump of blankets until I hear my father again.
"Sande, Sande, are you awake?" He calls out my name in a voice so unfamiliar I'm afraid there’s a robber lurking at the foot of my bed.
"Daddy, what is it?" I sit up tall, pressing into the headboard. I wish my bed would travel backwards into the wall, through the air conditioner, and out into the March wind. Without hesitating, my father throws himself face down on my bed and begins to sob. I watch him, this tall handsome man of flannel hats and pin-striped suits. He looks ridiculous surrounded by all this pink─ a color I will refuse to wear again until I'm very old.\I watch his spine move up and down to the rhythm of his sobs, and I am terrified. But I do not cry. Not even a whimper. My arm lifts. One hand stretches out in slow motion, as if testing heat on the stove. My fingers rest on the crown of his head, and for the first time ever, I comfort him. My father. With nothing more than my touch. Not the way he has always comforted me, with clever words pointing to swift solutions.
Later that afternoon, I sit slouched in the darkened theatre with cousin Franny and her parents listening to Eliza Doolittle sing: "Wouldn’t It Be Luver-ly." A crazy thought weaves in and out of my mind. I imagine myself running onto the stage and disrupting the entire production─ me, taking over Eliza’s role. Maybe if I do, I might stop worrying about my parents. I think, yes, yes, wouldn’t that be luver-ly?
When I’m dropped off that evening, I run from my uncle’s car, giving no one the chance to escort me to my door. I’d casually mentioned that my mother had a bad cold.
Somehow I know that what I heard in my house this morning is nobody’s business. While this leaves me feeling like bricks are pressing against my chest, I know it is part of acting mature¾ what it means to be a girl of sixteen.
The front door has been left open for me, and when I enter I’m surprised to find my father reading the newspaper in the living room. Except when there's company, no one sits on the plastic slip-covered couch in our living room. My father doesn't look at me, the paper shielding his eyes from the intensity of my gaze.
"How was the show?" he asks in a dull monotone.
"Great, really great, so where's Mom?" I'm out of breath, have to pee really badly but am holding it in. I don’t want to miss anything.
"Mira, she’s home," he yells down the hall towards the bedroom. I can hear my brothers' feet stomping upstairs, above my head. A sound so normal I almost burst outcrying. My mother opens the door to her bedroom and steps into the mauve light of the hallway. She is dressed in a pink, silky robe, and her hair is brushed back behind her ears. Her face is flushed, and her bow lips look full and puffy, as if from too much kissing.
"Good?" she asks.
"Yes, very." I answer without coming closer. I glance over my shoulder to my father, who lowers his newspaper to look at my mother while she addresses me.
"Hungry?” she asks, smiling.
I shake my head no, look back at her, then at Dad, once again¾ playing some strange new version of "Monkey in the Middle." I am hardly sixteen. I am more like a desperate child hoping to catch a look, something, to tell me I should not worry, that everything will be okay.
Later that night, wrapped in a cocoon of covers, I cry for what seems like hours. No matter how hard I try, I can’t fall asleep. Finally, I stand up on the bed and gaze towards Philip Birnberg’s bedroom window, but thanks to Dad’s patchwork carpentry all I see are splinters of orange light. That’s when I decide to ask God to make a visit to my room. I give him what I believe is a very nice choice. He can either rest on the edge of my new canopy bed or take a seat at my small wooden desk. The one my parents painted, together, last summer, in the softest shade of seashell pink.