Judith Skillman’s poems and collaborative translations have appeared in Poetry, FIELD, The Southern Review, Ezra, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, The Pedestal Magazine, and numerous other journals. She’s the recipient of an award from the Academy of American Poets for her book Storm (Blue Begonia Press.) Two of her twelve full-length collections of poems (Red Town and Prisoner of the Swifts) have been finalists for the Washington State Book Award. Visit www.judithskillman.com or see her blog on techno-bling: abricabrac.com
Me and Claire Marie
Theresa Vadio is one year and three months older, but she likes to hang out with me because, as she says, “You’re cool for a ten year old.” I’m cool because I’m growing breasts, and Theresa already has them, but no one has breasts the size of her older sister, Claire Marie—not even the pin-up girls her father keeps under the phone books, on the night table beside the bed.
“Not there, here—put it on top of the other one, Eva, in the same order,” Theresa says. Order is important when storing her father’s Playboys.
“August hasn’t come yet, silly. It doesn’t come ’til the end of July,” Theresa says, bossy because she knows more than me. She doesn’t want me to ask questions about the women posing naked on the shiny pages. They stand with their hands on their hips, and sometimes their backsides face us as if there were nothing to be ashamed of. Twisting her head around to pout at the camera, one of them looks barely older than Claire Marie.
“This model is like your sister,” I say.
“Yeah, just look at her expression; she’s sulking over something,” Theresa says.
The centerfold, Miss July, lies on her side, propping herself up on one elbow. Her see-through pink nightgown has fallen open but she doesn’t seem to care. She should be embarrassed, lying there naked, but she smiles and winks at us as if she knows some secret she’s not going to tell.
Our townhouses in Maryland—converted barracks built during World War I—have the same floor plan: living areas on the bottom floor, three small bedrooms and a bath upstairs.
In our house the third bedroom is my father’s study, where he peers at columns of numbers from behind thick tortoise shell glasses all night long. The numbers have something to do with the age of the sun. They run across the pages, quick and mysterious, like the roaches that come out from hiding places at night to eat crumbs.
The third bedroom in Theresa’s house, barely larger than a closet, belongs to Claire Marie. Sometimes her mother, a plain, quiet woman, walks upstairs and stands in front of the closed door. She stands there for a long time, on the verge of going in to talk to Claire Marie, who spends, in her mother’s words “too much time alone in her room.”
I give her all my love…
That’s all I do–oo.
And if you saw my love
You’d love her too–oo.
Theresa puts the needle in the groove for the twentieth time. It’s easier to slow dance than to do the twist in the heat. Our arms make circles in humid air, exactly the right amount of space a boy would take up. The air conditioner, a brown dinosaur, set into the casement window at the top of the stairs and held there by metal clamps, makes a ruckus, but does nothing to cool us down.
We have to sit out “Love Me Do,” flapping the newspaper fans we’ve folded painstakingly in half-inch strips. The ink has rubbed off on our fingers, and our palms are gray. We love to discuss which Beatle is our personal favorite. Theresa’s stuck on George.
“George is the genius behind John,” she says. “John’s name may be on more songs, but the songs belong to George. Come on, Eva, you have to love him. Besides, he’s so skinny. He has brainpower. OOOOOOhhh.”
It scares me when she squeals. I worry she’ll faint in the heat and I’ll have to revive her. For weeks I have been trying to talk her over to Paul, but he’s the popular one and she steers away from the in-crowd. Maybe because she’s kind of fat and looks drab in her school uniform. She’s not the sort of girl that boys would look at secretly or ask out. Maybe because she’s so smart.
Once, while we were in the kitchen making root beer floats, I overheard Theresa’s father. He called Claire Marie a bimbo, and said she would only be good at staying home and having babies. I asked my friend what a ‘bimbo’ was. She thought it meant that Claire Marie was failing ninth grade.
The flowers on Theresa’s living room sofa are so large and dark they look like stains. I like her house because of its different smells and tastes. The odor of schmaltz doesn’t exist here, with its cloying richness, but in its place is something I like better: bacon. The slabs are flat and pink when Theresa’s mother lifts them from plastic; then they crumple and twist on the frying pan. The house is full of the sound of their sizzling. Even though I promised my father I wouldn’t, I take the slice that’s offered.
I live for the TV dinners Mrs. Vadio serves on Saturday evenings, when we each get our own folding metal “TV table” and sit together in front of the color TV watching Walt Disney. With the lights darkened, the square of the TV screen hovers in the corner, the color of coral, emitting those mysterious waves my father warned me about. After the show, on summer nights when it stays light until 9, we open the drapes. Even the way evening falls is strange–on account of the word “catholic,” which I heard my father use while talking to my mother after dinner one evening, just before he switched to Yiddish. They use Yiddish when they don’t want me to understand them. It works.
“I’m worried about Eva, spending so much time with that goy family.”
He thought I had gone upstairs to my room, the one that faces Theresa’s across the playground circle. But I was hovering on the bottom step, within earshot.
“Shhh…she has big ears,” my mother said.
“So her ears are radar dishes. We need to discuss this.”
“The girls are friends. What right have we to separate them? This isn’t Germany. There are no more ghettos.”
His reply was guttural. “Ses passt nischt.” It had an air of finality, and my mother turned back to her dishes, banging the pots and pans with such a vengeance that I was afraid I might not be able to see my friend Theresa anymore.
In Theresa’s house there are statues of Jesus in the dining room, the living room, and bedrooms. Some are porcelain, some plastic. His brown eyes are like a doe’s, and he stares down from pale eggshell walls, bleeding continually from small wounds in his wrists and side. Theresa has a rosary that reminds me of the red beads my grandmother wears around her neck to keep away the evil eye. She shows me how to say the prayers. You hold a bead and say, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Then you move on to the next bead.
“No, Eva, you’re running the words together. You have to pause between each part. Take your time. Otherwise you have to go back and do it all again. Remember the time when Claire Marie went to confession, and she came home crying and stayed in her room for three days and wouldn’t eat? She had to say a hundred Hail Mary’s and fifty Our Father’s. You can bet she took her time over each word.”
“What did she do? ” I ask.
“I have no clue, but it was a mortal sin for sure,” Theresa says.
“Mortal instead of venial?” I am shoring up my knowledge, trying to use the right terms. Theresa likes to explain things to me.
“Yes, definitely mortal. If you have just one mortal sin on your soul when you die, you go to hell.”
“With the venial kind you go to purgatory—”
“You go to purgatory and burn until you have been purged and then you move on up to heaven,” she finishes.
Claire Marie walks into the living room. She has dark smudges around her eyes, and her lips look like she’s just finished eating a cherry Popsicle. She wears short-shorts and a halter-top that criss-crosses.
“Hey punk,” she says, grabbing Theresa by the arm. “Let’s slow dance.”
“Dad told you not to make fun of me and my friends,” Theresa says.
“I’m not making fun,” she says, and starts singing “My boyfriend’s back so we’re gonna have a party, hey la, hey la, my boyfriend’s back,” waltzing Theresa back and forth across the room.
“Claire-Marie. Come here,” Mr. Vadio calls from the kitchen.
“Is Dad home? Jesus, I thought he was at work,” Claire Marie says. She grabs Theresa’s sleeve and wipes the make-up off her eyes and lips. Then she walks slowly into the kitchen.
“What’s this about your boyfriend?” Mr. Vadio asks. “I thought we had an understanding.”
“Dad, that was just a song. It’s number one on the charts,” Claire Marie, says, her voice rising.
“Go to your room. You are too young to have boyfriends. Go to your room and think about what you’ve done, and then we’ll see,” I hear her father say from the Formica table in the next room.
“But Dad, I have to study for summer school,” she pleads.
I hate the sound of supplication in her voice. As if she knows it’s futile to plead but she must beg anyway.
“Claire Marie, you lied to me.”
“Dad, I told the truth, I swear.”
“Don’t swear young lady. Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain,” Mr. Vadio says.
I see Claire Marie standing with her back to me, in the doorway. She clasps her hands behind her back and extends her middle finger. “She’s giving him the finger,” Theresa whispers in my ear.
“What’s that mean?” I say.
“It means she’s still going to have boyfriends.”
Her father opens the fridge and gets himself a beer. It makes a great big pop. We know her mother will be mad when she gets home, and we direct our prayers to the virgin mother to atone for Claire Marie.
While my lips move over the prayers, I sit in my corner by the coffee table. I get a knot in my stomach, and worry that Mr. Vadio will see through my lies as well. I’ve promised not to eat bacon and not to say prayers to Mary or Jesus. I’ve told my parents that Theresa and I go roller-skating, when we really listen to music and say the rosary.
If Claire Marie is going to hell, I must be going there too. There’s nothing I can do about it, nothing anyone can do. The fact that hell also exists in my house, in a different way—as a “conception,” my mother says, “a place as awful as you can imagine,” makes me worry even more, and I get my first pimple—a red dot on my chin.
“Dear God,” I say to the ceiling at night, “Please don’t let Mr. Vadio find out that Theresa and I read his magazines. Anyway we never really read them. We just looked at the pictures.”
My mother is cleaning my room because it’s a pigsty.
“How can you live in such a pigsty?” she asks, her voice rising, but it’s less a question than a statement of fact.
Because I’m a pig, I think to myself.
“What’s this?” She pulls out my prize from under a pile of clothes and shoes, the necklace of glassy red beads Theresa gave me, and holds it away from herself, at arm’s length. The silver cross hangs down, flashing like a mirror. “Oy vey. Oy vey zmere,” she hisses. “A rosary? Your father will have conniptions if he sees this. He’s afraid the Vadio’s will convert you, make you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, of all things. Go and flush it down the toilet.”
To my mother the rosary is a threat only in that it has the power to keep me apart from my friend. She doesn’t believe that I’ll fall for the story of Jesus the Savior of mankind, hook, line and sinker.
She squints at me and says some things in her other language, strange sounds deep in her throat. My rosary. When I drop it in the bowl it coils at the bottom.