Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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Long Spoons

Ellen remembers the shirt, but I remember the slap.

That day in Brooklyn, 1972, she loved my mother. She says so in her latest post. Her own mother, who’d given her money to spend on clothes but hadn’t come with us, would never have said yes to the shirt. Silky cotton with an eyelet border, it was cut low and tight. A real breast-hugger. My mother told her it looked great on her. She made a big fuss, as though filling out a shirt were a mark of character.

Does Ellen also remember the slap? How it rang out in the train station? The flat of my mother’s hand on the curve of her face. It must have hurt.

We’d shopped hard, and had dressed for a prom that day. Why? Ellen asks, and I imagine her laughing and I shrug, though she can’t see me, and say because that’s what people did then. Fancy clothes and idiotic shoes. Ellen, we recall, was in wedges with a ropey heel. I wore pointy-toed slingbacks. And Faye, my mother, tipped the bad-shoe-choice scale in black patent stilettos. At the end of our day, we tottered down the stairs to catch the train. We heard its rumble but couldn’t tell whether it was coming into the station or pulling out. Nevins Street, Ellen writes. When I admire her memory, she says if only she could find her keys as easily. We descended as fast as we could. I thought we’d never get to the bottom step. I remember I clutched the railing with one hand and my bag with the other. We each had a bag, proof of our success at Mays, Korvettes, and A&S’s. Abraham & Straus, the name no one ever used. None of these department stores, Ellen and I agree in a flurry of text, exists anymore. Downtown Brooklyn. We’d be lost there now.

A lot of things no longer exist, while others have moved on. My mother is still around, but minus the bouffant hairdo, conehead breasts, and fancy footwear. Ellen, who found me last week on Facebook, lives in Hoboken with a husband and two nearly grown kids. I made it all the way to Connecticut, with the requisite offspring and smiling man. She’s still going on about the shirt. She says she’d kill her daughter if she showed up in a shirt like that.

Maybe the slap hadn’t hurt. Maybe it was one of those slaps that only sounds bad.

We’d missed the train. I remember it rattled past just as we made it to the platform. Slowly gathering speed. The faces of riders visible through the windows. The windows open, ceiling fans turning lazily. Those are gone now, too.

Up until then, the day had been great. We’d been laughing, acting silly, trying on clothes. I remember marveling at how the same dress looked completely different on three different people. I hadn’t seen my mother that relaxed in a long time. And I adored Ellen. We’d survived a diary trade. We liked the same music and different boys. We both liked the shirt, but the thing of it was, there had been only the one.

We’d eaten lunch that day at A&S’s, and then we ordered dessert. People who don’t know Brooklyn will not understand this. They think black and whites are those moon-shaped cakes, the ones with bi-colored frosting so hard it cracks. A&S black and whites came in a tall parfait glass. A good two inches of heated chocolate sauce, over which went two scoops of vanilla—not ice cream, but iced cream, which, when swirled with the warm sauce, attained a kind of silk ribbon texture, something between custard and soft-serve. Think Dalí, only edible and sweet. For excavation, a long spoon. If I could have climbed into the glass and swam, that would’ve been the only thing better than eating from it. I remind Ellen. She agrees. Does a quick Google search and shoots back a link to a page of people still dreaming about that dessert.

After, my mother lit a cigarette. Those days are gone, too. Imagine sitting at a soda fountain counter in a department store and burning through a Lark or a Parliament. The after-dessert cigarette was my mother’s fourth of her ten-a-day plan. She smoked Camels. Her limit wasn’t to save money, or make the supply last longer. It was to show how much self-control she had.

“Anyone can smoke a pack a day. Or three packs. Or one a week,” was my mother’s standard opener if the topic came up, as it often did. She liked people to know this about her.

From the station platform, we watched the train’s rear end disappear. My mother put her shopping bag down and dug in her purse. “Time for number five,” she said, pulling out the pack. Ellen and I waited, ready to be enthralled. My mother always made it look like a dance. Her arm rising, the match trembling, the triumphant puff as paper and tobacco took.

Then, right there on the platform, real loud, Ellen said, “There’s a hidden penis.”

I had heard it was a naked woman. When no one was around, I’d spent some time poring over the palms, the pyramids, and the camel, but with no success. Years later someone actually traced the lines for me. Penis. Woman. It was all there. But by then, it didn’ t matter.

“No, there’s not,” my mother told Ellen that day, her face visibly tightening. I figured her feet hurt, or she was worried about what my father would say when he found out how much we’d spent. Or maybe it was the shirt. She’d paid for it, but the question of which of us was going to keep it had not been resolved. We all knew that the original idea, noble though it was, would never work. Two girls could not be expected to share a shirt that looked so much better on one than the other.

Ellen persisted. “Yes, there is,” she said. She made a grab for the pack. The pack got turned upside down. Cigarettes tumbled out and scattered. One, I remember, rolled right to the edge of the platform and hesitated, as if it had to decide about falling. Then came the slap. I can still hear it, from nearly forty years ago. It rang out like a bell, and bounced like a beam of light, from one tiled wall to the next. I hear it.

In the instant it takes to tap a key and thwart my screen saver’s page-dimming feature, my error becomes clear to me. It wasn’t my mother’s hand, but mine. The wide arc of my arm, the twist of my torso, and the feel of Ellen’s face as it met my hand, then yielded. If only she still had the shirt, Ellen writes. I’m sorry, I write back, words destined almost always to be misconstrued.    

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