blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Hourglass I
     you are the music
     while the music lasts.
          —T.S. Eliot

There is danger in the epiphany that you are old enough to have a history. It is a danger like no other, except perhaps the danger of that primeval epiphany: You have a body. Have? Are? No one is sure, not even Descartes, but he will serve as whipping boy for all our accusations of embodiment. Bodies severed from the slipknot of consciousness. Scarecrow bodies. Tin Man bodies. Bodies scrutinized by their selfsame bodies. Bodies sending chain letters to themselves. Hyperactive bodies. Catatonic bodies. Bodies with feet in ruby shoes. Bodies that rest while their minds wander. Minds that rest while their bodies wander. (Somnambulist bodies are among the most compelling bodies.) Dreaming bodies. Dying bodies. Bodies remodeled like eat-in kitchens. Bodies refurbished like easy chairs. Somehow, we suspect, Descartes had a hand in it—hand or mind. Do I think therefore I am, or am I therefore I think? This is not unlike the Prince’s question to Cinderella at the ball: Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you? The idea of a beautiful body. The idea of a not-so-beautiful body. Other ideas apart from the body but in which the body is implicated, charged: Anonymous sex. Astral projection. DNA testing. Test-tube conception. Fingerprints lifted from a glass. A face dissolving in a photograph—when faces were still captured on film. The astronaut with his tether, beyond gravity now: nothing but a fleck in the darkness. The interstellar body is a stellar body indeed. Starlight: sweet heavenly body.


You have a history, and a body. You are a history, and a body. Your body has (is) a history, too.


There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).


You have a family, which is a constellation of bodies. The image of their bodies is preserved in the photograph album. This is a hard truth for your small self to grasp: that you are of them; derivative, not duplicate; flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone. (No one claims mind of their mind, soul of their soul.) It is like the words you repeat in church, the words about Jesus who is of God, Jesus who is also part Father and part Ghost—though he is triplicate, like the white copy you keep, the pink copy you tear, the yellow you stow in the drawer.

Jesus, who is onion skin and white light and wafer. Jesus, who once had a body, was stripped of a body, transcended a body, only to float and swirl like ether above you. A hypothetical substance now, disembodied, imagined by the ancients to occupy the upper regions of the sky. Ether Jesus. It is hard to picture him without his body, without his shepherd’s clothes and tousled hair, his trim beard and surprisingly feminine features which you have passed time admiring in the Sunday school portrait. Now Androgynous Jesus has been replaced by this colorless, highly volatile, flammable Jesus—solvent, inhalant, anesthetic—the one you are told to ask into your heart, the one you are told must reside there.


The members of my family are not beautiful the way Embodied Jesus is beautiful. My grandmother, who has such a kind face, points to a picture of a woman with dark, tight curls. She says, “There I am. See? That was your grandmother”—tapping with her fingernail—“before she was even your grandmother. What do you think of that?” I study the photograph, frightened. I see nothing that unites her past and present bodies. How did she become someone else altogether? How did she lose all resemblance to herself?

“Would you like to see your grandfather?” she asks. He has been dead a long time, longer than I have been alive. This is no barrier to love, I know, because he comes to me animate in stories, draws close to me in the ether of my dreams, watching over. Grandpa John—like a second beneficent Jesus—who was made of the same stuff of which I am made. His face in the photograph startles me. I love him, and yet he is not beautiful. How can this be? How can my love not make him beautiful? The wide-set eyes, the sallow cheeks, the lips set awkwardly over his teeth. There is nothing of Androgynous Jesus about him, nothing of the chiseled movie star jaw validated by my father, venerated by my mother.

“I thought he would look like Rock Hudson,” I murmur.

Grandma laughs at me. “Why would he look like Rock Hudson, dear, when none of the rest of us do?”

This is another hard truth: we are not a constellation of movie stars. The most beautiful among us is my aunt Linda, and I have heard my mother say it more than once—“Her beauty is beginning to fade,” like a photograph left out in the sun. This is just what happens. Beauty can’t last. It was made to be ephemeral, a word I clasp like a locket, which I will open someday when I find the right picture to place inside. For now, I hear no distinction between ephemeral and ethereal. They are angel words. They are beyond the realm of human comprehension.


I ask my father, “Who is the most beautiful woman who has ever lived?” He tells me the answer is subjective, which means nothing yet—which means only that he is stalling. Finally: “Grace Kelly. Princess Grace.” I want to see her, and so we look together at the early scenes of a movie called Rear Window. The man does not look like a movie star to me, which might explain why he is always hiding behind a camera. When he wakes, there is a woman bending over him. She is the way I picture Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, too. Though I have never seen her before, she is familiar. I want to know how it is I know she is beautiful, but this is given, the way the names of things are given. God asked Adam to write the dictionary. He put words to things, and he invented their synonyms and their antonyms, and it is my (first) great sadness in life that I was not asked, that I was not even consulted. I want to call out the names of things and make the things they are appear. Names—and their corollary bodies.

Grace Kelly is a synonym for beauty, the way that princess is a synonym for beauty. In a picture dictionary, you would see BEAUTY and then the funny marks beside it—in case you couldn’t count its syllables or make the necessary sounds—and then you would see Princess Grace with her dark red lips and her bright white pearls resting across the perfect symmetry of her collarbones. Even her name is beautiful, I muse, though GRACE, by definition, has two meanings. Adam’s meaning is poise, elegance, like a princess or a ballerina or a lady movie star. It is unclear to me whether men can have grace or whether the word belongs to women only, like tea cups and geraniums. Many years after Adam, Jesus came, and he added another entry to the dictionary. Jesus always writes in red. Grace became undeserved favor. I have been granted this grace, but not the first grace, not the Grace Kelly grace—which is also the Kim Novak grace and the Eva Marie Saint grace, her name showing likewise her undeserved favor. I am not sure how I know, but I understand implicitly that I will not grow into a graceful woman. Thankfully, though, I will be saved by grace through faith alone.


(A small pondering: If beauty is not required to receive God’s grace, then why are angels always beautiful?)


My grandmother was one of nine children. She had six brothers and two sisters. One is my great-aunt Ruth, who lives in Canada and smuggles chocolates and fruits under her hat when she comes to visit us in these United States. She is thin as a rod, as a flagpole, a flat body like a boy’s body, even though she always wears a dress. Aunt Ruth is gentle and wise, and though to be thin I am learning is a kind of beauty, she is not graceful. Her hair on her head like a dollop of frosting. Her laugh that bursts forth, too big for her body. When Ruth is here, the sisters drink coffee and play cards. They reminisce about the old days, when everyone lived in Canada and their mother cooked with real fire. They take out the photograph albums, because memory is slippery like a fish on a line. There are fishes that have fallen back in the water.

“This was your great-aunt Ethel,” my grandmother says, sliding a photograph toward me.

“She’s been gone such a long time,” Ruth laments. “What was it—1924, ’25?”

The picture is not quite black and white, not quite color. The woman’s lips are bowed, her brows dark and arched, her hair blond, and her skin unblemished. She is pink and white in all the right places. She wears pearls that dip down into the soft flesh below her collarbones. “Was she a movie star?” I demand. “Did we have a movie star in our family?”

“Well, Ethel moved to New York City in the 1920s. She lived with Oscar, her husband, in a brownstone the way people do there. She wanted to be a dancer and a singer on Broadway.”

Was she?” I am holding my breath and only just discover it, gulping the air fast and sudden into my lungs.

They exchange knowing glances, the way grown-ups do. “She tried,” my grandmother sighs. “She had a beautiful voice and a beautiful face. Perhaps if she had gone to Hollywood instead. Perhaps she could have found her place in the pictures. As it was, though . . . ” Her voice trails off, and they both sip their coffee in silence.

“What happened to Great-Aunt Ethel?” I persist.

“She died young,” Ruth says. “It was a tragic thing. Hers was a body for the sixties, not the twenties.” Her long, slender fingers unwrap Hershey’s Kisses, one by one. The little balls of foil form an ellipsis out to the saucer’s edge.

“I don’t understand,” a phrase that spills from my lips like a song’s relentless chorus. “What does that mean?”

My grandmother pats my hand. “It’s strange the way standards of beauty change. In the twenties, it was the flapper look—thin girls without hips or chests—thin girls with bobbed hair and long beads.”

I turn to Aunt Ruth and smile. “Were you a flapper?” She laughs like I have said the silliest thing, though a light blush crests over her cheeks.

“In the sixties, it was Marilyn Monroe. Your aunt Ethel was built like that—the classic hourglass.”

Now Marilyn Monroe I know. I have thought before how she is beautiful, but sad in her beauty—different from the graceful blond movie stars who appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s films. In Seaside each summer: her likeness imprinted on lunchboxes and wall clocks of the novelty shops, her face for sale in the galleries, framed or unframed, photographed or painted.

“Did she—did Marilyn—” her sadness makes me feel closer to her, like I don’t have to use her last name—“die young?”

More knowing glances, and then my grandmother replies: “That’s a story for another time.”


My first diary is not a journal. My thoughts do not flow freely like a Hollywood starlet’s hair gleaming in sun as some man drives her above the sea in a powder blue convertible. I like this image, but I cannot write the way this image feels. Instead, I make inventories the way a scientist would. I am becoming scientific in my studies of beauty and the body.

For instance, my mother has a scar on her left hand. This is not the hand she writes with; it is the hand where her wedding ring adorns her finger.

“What happened there?” I inquire.

We are kneeling in the soft earth of our garden. My mother has taken off her gloves and rests a moment on her heels, which is rare. My mother’s body is a body in motion, like a cosmic body, her heart a frantic comet that orbits the earth and sometimes, without warning, veers off-course, plunging toward the sun. Comets, I will later learn, have been observed by thinkers since ancient times and have traditionally been considered bad omens.

“I don’t remember,” my mother says, her hand limp as a fish against her thigh, the scar a dark crescent rising over her knuckle. “It was probably a kitchen knife, but it could have been a trowel like this one.” We regard the trowel a moment, its steel spider legs wedged in the soil.

“Will it go away?” I want to know. This is important bordering on urgent. “How long will it take to go away?”

“Oh, I doubt it ever will,” she replies. Her tone is casual, indifferent. “It might fade some more over time, but that’s as much as this cut is ever going to heal.”

Her knees snap as she rises to standing.


My mother turns to me, perplexed. “But what?”

“Doesn’t it make you sad?” My heart a minor planet still, but spinning, spinning, fast as a plate on a magician’s stick.

“Of course not. Why should it? It’s not like the scar is on my face.”


Memo: My mother’s hands are not beautiful. This strikes me as a tragic thing. It seems like a mother’s hands should be beautiful, small and smooth. But her fingers are large and wrinkled at the joints, and her palms are dry as sandpaper, as a paint swatch laid out on the kitchen counter. At first I thought it was only the scar. Then I realized, even without the scar, her hands still wouldn’t be beautiful.


There’s a hierarchy to beauty, I am learning. At first, face takes precedence over other places. I sit at the wicker vanity in my bedroom, the lights dim, the record needle scratching against the last tune: “Send in the Clowns.” Cautiously, I peer into the mirror. My face is round, my skin is tan, my lips are cracked from where I bite them and they bleed. My eyes are big and blue, but one is larger than the other. This is because only one is good for seeing while the other serves as mostly decoration. My hair is brown and shoulder-length and curly with home permanent. My mother has mentioned before that my eyelashes are too short for a girl and says she looks forward to the day when I can start wearing mascara.

It is hard to know what to say about my face, let alone what to write in my notations. If I were beautiful, I think I would have discovered so by now—would have felt the beauty coming into me like a magical power. As yet, I couldn’t levitate. As yet, I couldn’t turn myself into a cloud. And if I were ugly, I assume I would have been told this also. With my glasses on, of course, I am ugly. I have learned this much, but glasses are easy to remove. The lawyers on television would call them circumstantial, which means inadmissible as evidence. My glasses could not be slipped into a Ziploc bag and assigned a number in the court. My glasses could not be referenced as proof of ugliness. Yet it is my (second) great sadness in life that perhaps I have no features that distinguish me at all. If it cannot be stated conclusively that I am beautiful or ugly—what am I? Ordinary? Inconsequential? I hear a gavel in these words. Am I that treacherous phrase my mother has been known to mutter?

“Grandma, do you think I’m a plain Jane?” I stand beside the table where she plays solitaire.

“Of course not, dear. You’re a perfectly lovely Julie. Whatever gave you that idea?”

“I don’t know. Except—there doesn’t seem to be anything special about my face.”

She lays down her cards and presses the pad of her finger to the top of my lip. “Right there. What about that? I’d say that’s a bona fide beauty mark.”


Memo: Grandma says the black freckle under my nose is actually a beauty mark. Many beautiful women have had them, including the supermodel Cindy Crawford and even the movie star Marilyn Monroe. Grandma says a long time ago women who wanted to appear less ordinary (more beautiful?) applied false beauty marks to their faces. This was common in those times, the way I might wear a sticker on my hand at a carnival or have my cheeks painted by one of the clowns.


I notice my father never says much about bodies. At least, he never volunteers. But there is a Sports Illustrated calendar dangling from a pin on his wall and a picture book beside his desk called Bathing Beauties. I assume he finds these women beautiful, their bodies sleek and long, shimmery with water or lightly dusted with sand. Often, though, it is hard to make out their faces, and harder still to distinguish one smooth, smiling face from another.

My mother is taking so long putting on her makeup that we wander—slowly but deliberately—the two scant blocks from our motor lodge to the stunning Oregon shore. “I like that they call it a body of water,” I say, to break the ice that doesn’t usually need breaking.

My father is quiet today because during the night, he has asked my mother to do something that she has refused to do. I heard in his hushed, urgent tones a version of my voice and sensed his own planet heart was spinning round too hard. I wasn’t sure what it was he had wanted from her, but I knew married bodies were different somehow—the way the pastor said (and lingered on the words), “Now the two shall become one; the man shall cleave to his wife, and the wife shall cleave to her husband.”

“What does cleave mean?” I ask my father. We spread our towels over the soft, packed sand, stretch out on our backs in the sun.

“That’s a strange word,” he says. “It means to bind together, but also to break apart.”

“But—how is that possible? How can a word be its own antonym?” That Adam. That rascal. How I hated him!


My father isn’t interested in language the way I am. Words are all function for him—like pointing a finger at something you want, a gesture made by the tongue. But for me they are form, they are sound, they are sacred somehow. They have colors and textures, even flavors sometimes, or a fragrance once in a while. Words, for me, are embodied, and like anything that has (is) a body, a word can be beautiful, or graceful, or ugly in a way that makes you wish you could close your ears.

One of the ugliest words I know is stomach, its taste and texture one in the same—the paste of unsalted crackers stuck to the roof of the mouth. STUM-ick. STUM-ick. There is no nice way to say it, and I am not pleased with any of its synonyms: tummy, belly, abdomen, mid-section. My father tugs his shirt over his head, the way all men do, and hands me the suntan lotion. “Have I told you about the time my father fell asleep on this beach?” He has, but I don’t interrupt him. “He forgot his sunblock and was burned from his neck all the way to his toes. His stomach turned red as a lobster, and he couldn’t drive a car for two weeks.” This was before my grandmother had a license of her own, so the family was stranded at the shore. “It seems wrong to say,” my father sighs, “but those were two of the happiest weeks of my life.”

I kneel in the sand behind my father, rubbing the lotion over his shoulders and down the length of his spine. He loves reminiscing about his childhood—this beach, those waves. I love my father, so I listen. I study the map of his flesh, which is perhaps less of a map and more of a code in need of cracking: the deep creases in his pale skin, the small islands of black hair, the chaos of freckles that lack a shape and certain resolution. Less organized than ellipses, they appear as interpuncts, dotting his body’s landscape like old-fashioned multiplication signs.

Then, my mother comes, and they lay side by side in the sun, not speaking or touching. My mother doesn’t love the beach the way my father does. She would rather read her book or work her crossword page than gaze out past the pink and green umbrellas at the wild spectacle of the waves. Under her breath: “I’ll never understand,” she says, “how people can pass whole days like this,” which means not only I find the beach boring but also I want to hurt you very much, Bill, and I am hoping Julie will take after me. This is the way language is like skin: there are layers to it, and eventually, no matter what you say, you are bound to strike blood or bone.


Memo: My father has a mangled toe from where, as a child, he stubbed it hard on a rock in the surf. My mother has purple fireworks that light up the flesh of her thighs. These, she says, are a consequence of giving birth. What happened to my father happened before I was born, so it is not my fault. But what happened to my mother is something I have caused—like her stomach that won’t lay flat from where the muscles were stretched, the skin broken. She has shown me before, explained her sacrifice. It is my (third) great sadness in life that I have made my mother less beautiful just by being born.


A few times a year, we pack our bags and pile into the car and drive to a place outside the city called Black Diamond. It has not escaped my noticing that these words—black and diamond—when paired together form an oxymoron. They are like Romeo’s sweet sorrow. I am also aware that the words correspond to a picture I have seen, marking treacherous ski slopes at Crystal Mountain. I am not yet experienced enough to take advanced runs indicated by the black diamond. So far only my mother and her sister Sharon can. But I am making progress. Just a year ago, I was following the green circles, and now, suddenly, I have found a new level of control. Even my teacher remarked I am becoming more coordinated and skillful in my movements. Now I belong with the blue squares that signal intermediate.

Here in Black Diamond, the paths are narrow, the visibility low. You never know what to expect when you turn a corner. My mother’s parents live in one house; my mother’s sister, her husband, and daughter live in the house next door. They are the mirror image of us—a tall father who tells jokes; an angry mother who compares herself to others; a lonely only child. Sometimes, it is more like a funhouse mirror. My uncle Thor is diabetic, which means that his body has been known to deceive him. He carries candies that we aren’t allowed to pilfer in his pockets and the glove box of his car. Once, he was driving when the thick insulin fog began to roll over him, but he was out of Life Savers, which is ironic on its own. Thor turned into the 7-Eleven in search of a quick sugar fix, but he blacked out before he could put the car in park and barreled through the big glass windows.

The clerk assumed he was drunk. The bystanders continued to stand by and stare. When the medics came, Thor remembered everything that had happened. He knew Reagan in the White House, his birthday in May, but they couldn’t release him until he remembered his wife’s name. “We need her to come down here and get you,” they said. He saw her face in his mind, all her features, but he couldn’t, for the life of him, make his lips contort in the right way.

My aunt Sharon is hard to describe, but I don’t see how you could forget her. She didn’t like to dress up the way my mother did, or wear much makeup, or style her hair. I think she only cared about beauty vicariously—a story she wrote through her daughter. Sometimes for days on end, I saw her drink nothing but coffee and only from the thermos she carried. It was long with an industrial strap and a light blue cup that doubled as the lid. She wore sweatshirts and jeans and big boots with deep treads. She walked hard like a soldier and was very fond of shaking her head.


“Your mother looks so different in these pictures,” I say to my cousin Blythe. “You can still tell it’s her, but everything about her demeanor has changed.”

Demeanor?” Blythe is a year younger, and her vocabulary is not as advanced as mine. In language, I have reached the double black diamond.

We sprawl on our grandmother’s sewing room floor—without her permission—sorting through the pictures in her drawers. “It means the expression on her face and the way she holds herself. Basically, it’s her attitude toward the world.”

“This was their wedding picture,” Blythe says, pointing to her parents when they were both young and blond, her father a full foot taller than her mother the way my father is, too. It’s literal and metaphorical, I think to myself: they have trouble seeing eye to eye. “They got married in Reno, Nevada, which is a place where people go to gamble.”

“Why didn’t they have a big church wedding?” I ask, thinking of my mother’s silky white gown, my father’s glossy black tuxedo.

“They wanted to elope,” she boasts. “They wanted to do something daring.”

“It’s not that daring if you have time to take a picture.” There is something smug about my cousin that I feel compelled to challenge. My mother would call it putting her in her place.

“When you’re in love, you don’t always plan ahead,” Blythe tells me with an air of authority.

“Well, my mother says that real love waits.”

“What does that mean?” She calls my bluff with my own favorite question.

“To tell you the truth,” I concede, “I’m not really sure.” Why would love wait, and for what?


When our grandmother finds us alone with her things, she shouts about our disrespect and calls us trespassers. She says she knows she can’t expect much of me because my father is a permissive parent. But Blythe, she says—Blythe should know better. Grandma Tena, whose name is spelled wrong on purpose, does not have such a kind face as my father’s mother, but she is younger and stands straighter in her body and some would say, without knowing the whole story, that she is the more beautiful one.

Because my grandfather is silent in his chair, silent at the dinner table, and silent before the television screen, my grandmother does all the talking in their house, dispenses all the punishments. My mother and my aunt, in their own houses, also take the lead in these matters. My father, however, does not believe in physical penalties. He argues for time-outs and groundings. He thinks the mind should be chastised, not the body.

This is why I am left behind when my grandmother bends my cousin over the toilet seat with the fluffy pink cover, when my grandmother disciplines her with hand or hairbrush. “When we were children,” my mother says, calm and without wincing, “she used to beat us with wooden spoons. After a while, she only had to rattle the kitchen drawer, and we would stop whatever it was we were doing.”

When I hear a story like this, I want to wrap my arms around my mother’s waist and press my head against the soft pillow of her stomach. Then, I remember how my father says, “If children are hit, they grow up scared, or mean, or both. They grow up knowing that nothing they have—that nothing they are—is ever really their own.” He isn’t sure how to explain the body either. I stand by my mother in the carpeted kitchen, listening as my cousin wails. When I look over at her, I am suddenly taller. We stand at eye level now, but I am growing like a weed and will soon surpass her. It is the (fourth) great sadness of my life that my mother and I will never really see each other again.


Linda and Sharon have a younger brother, Steve. He was a pretty baby with golden curls and long gold lashes. Everyone thought he was a girl. When Steve got older, he cut his hair short and played fast-pitch baseball. Then, he hurt his shoulder and ended up the principal of an elementary school in a farm town called Chehalis. He married our aunt Arlene and had a daughter, Erin. He became silent like his father and angry like his mother and grew a mustache and a round potbelly. But in childhood pictures, he resembles the cherubim. He could have been a Gerber baby.


(A small pondering: Does a fall from beauty correspond to a fall from grace?)


These are the relatives we seldom see, but I am intrigued by the idea that we are related. How can this be when we don’t even know each other, when we are only distant names and indistinct faces in photographs? My father says we carry history in our genes, and scientists are working on a project to map those genes—a giant blueprint of all our human bodies. This is relevant—a word that reminds me of relative—because my uncle Steve and aunt Arlene are having another baby. They have braided their genes together again, and in two months, we will receive the birth announcement of our youngest cousin, Lacey.


“When you have the baby,” I ask Aunt Arlene, “will she have blond hair and blue eyes like Uncle Steve or dark hair and dark eyes like you and Erin?”

“Dark,” she says with certainty.

“How do you know?” We sit on the floor with our legs spread wide like dance class, and Aunt Arlene’s large belly rests between her thighs.

“It has to do with genes,” she replies. “Certain genes are dominant, and others are recessive.” I stare at her blankly. “In other words, certain traits are more likely to be expressed than others. Brown eyes, for instance, mask blue. Black hair masks blond.”


“I think so. You’ll find that, compared to all the people of the world, dark eyes and dark hair are much more common. Blond hair and blue eyes are comparatively rare.”

Since Aunt Arlene is Japanese, I figure she has much more knowledge about the people of the world. After all, she has seen more of them. She is young for a grown-up but also wise, and beautiful in a different way than anyone else I know. Her hair is straight as a board and shiny like polished shoes. She wears a headband the way you would in first grade.

“Would you like to feel the baby kick?” Before I can answer, she places my hand on the hump of her dress. I can tell that her skin is stretched to nearly bursting now, and I am sorry a little thinking of how it will never be perfect again. We wait awhile, but the baby is still.

During this time, I study my aunt Arlene’s face, trying to commit her to memory. After all, I may never see her again. She lives far away with my uncle Steve on the other side of the mountains, and my mother and her brother no longer speak, even when they stand in the same room.

“Is there a gene for beauty?” I whisper, not wanting the others to hear.

She laughs, and the water in her belly jostles. “It would have to be a lot of genes, I think. Beauty has so many different forms.”


Memo: My parents promise I can be anything I want to be, but so much of who we are and how we are is predetermined. I cannot, for instance, be a figure skater (like the women I love to watch in the Olympics) because I am not graceful and cannot balance on a single, silver blade. I have long, thin fingers, so they tell me to play piano. I am tall and sturdy in my frame, so they tell me to play basketball. But then my aunt Arlene says some genes mask other genes, and I think about those genes in hiding, the ones that are cramped and shy and too afraid to ever express themselves. I think about the ways my own body has learned to operate in disguise.


For hours on the tennis court, Blythe and Erin and I take turns giving birth. We stuff sofa cushions under our shirts, lie down on our backs, and press the soles of our feet together. We breathe as hard as we can and scream and moan like Wally’s wife on The New Leave It to Beaver. We writhe on the ground while the other cousins steady our knees, confer about the grim prognosis—women, we know, can die of childbirth—then drag the thick, scratchy cushion out.

“Your body is never the same after,” I say. I am the oldest, which gives me a certain credibility. “You’ll always be a little fatter than you were before, and bashful about wearing your bathing suit in public.”

But then Blythe, determined to trump everything I say, announces dramatically—“My mother didn’t even give birth. I wasn’t even actually born.”

Erin’s jaw drops, and she shakes her bowl haircut like a bobble doll on the hood of a speeding car. “What?” The word seems to pour from her mouth in slow motion, like she is filling a pitcher with the sound of it.

“That’s not even possible,” I dismiss. “Don’t you know anything about science?”

“No, it is! It is! You should see the scar on her stomach from where they had to stitch her back up.”

Blythe claims our aunt Sharon never lay on her back in a hospital bed, eating ice chips and pushing a baby through the nameless black diamond between her legs. She claims they knocked her mother out—like chloroform over the mouth in Hitchcock films—then sawed open her abdomen and lifted baby Blythe directly into the light.

“There must have been so much blood and guts,” Erin murmurs, making the gross-out face. “You’re lucky you can’t remember it.”

Unconvinced, I resolve to consult my encyclopedia before I weigh in on the matter.


At Blythe’s house, we pile onto the sectional sofa in front of the big screen TV, the dogs like bookmarks between us and the VCR set to play White Christmas. Uncle Thor is in the kitchen making a sandwich. This is where he often stands in my memory, his body so long he is nothing but a pair of trousers when you look back at the pass-through window.

“It’s February, you know,” he calls to us. “Shouldn’t you be watching something for Valentine’s Day?”

“No, Dad!” Blythe shouts, fast-forwarding through the boring parts at the beginning. “And don’t talk with your mouth full.” Her voice sounds older than she is, and suddenly stern. I wonder if Blythe will grow up to be like her mother, and then I wonder if I will grow up to be like my mother, and then I look over at Erin—who is too young to be having deep thoughts like mine but who is already wearing a headband like her mother—and I think Erin, of all of us, is the luckiest one.


Our parents don’t realize, but White Christmas is an educational film. It is the film where we learn to become critics, where we learn to dissect women’s bodies the way we will dissect frogs and fetal pigs in high school. (There is that much concentration involved, that much eye-mind coordination.) It is also the film where I will come to revise my previous hypothesis about beauty. The face still takes precedence over other parts of the body, but the face alone is not enough. We have all heard it said before, dismissively, as a consolation prize: Well, she does have a very pretty face. This is like the comment She had a nice handbag when what you really mean to say is Did you see what a hideous dress?

The body is the dress, and there are genes under it that you never see (mixed in with the blood and guts), and this is because the dress-body is sewn onto the actual body the way the dresses on some dolls are inseparable from the dolls themselves. They don’t come with a change of clothes. The most you can do is accessorize: Add a necklace. Paint the nails. Maybe—if you are really daring—cut the hair.

Blythe begins: “Who would you rather be—Betty or Judy?” She freezes the frame so we can see them standing together, performing their sister act in the turquoise dresses with the enormous, feathered fans.

“Which one is Betty again?” Sometimes Erin has trouble following.

“That’s Rosemary Clooney,” I say, springing up to stand beside the television and using my finger like a pointer. “She’s playing Betty, the older sister. Over here is Vera-Ellen.” I am so enamored of her hyphenated first name I cannot say it without smiling or without wondering how it would sound if I went around as Julie-Marie. “She is playing Judy, the younger sister. Got it now?”

“Got it,” Erin nods. “I pick Judy.”

“Me, too,” Blythe quickly concurs.

When Blythe and I watch this movie together—since Erin’s visits are few—we both pick Judy, then squabble over the fact that someone will have to play Betty if we are going to act out the parts. Blythe says since I’m the older cousin, it only makes sense that I should play the older sister, but I protest each time and make us do rock-paper-scissors to decide. This time I take a different approach. “That’s fine with me. I’m going to be Betty. I like Betty.”

“She’s bigger,” Blythe observes, “but you’re bigger too, so . . . ” Her demeanor changes from smug to something else. Pity maybe? I don’t like pity one bit.

“That’s just because I’m growing so fast,” I say. “One day both of you will catch up.”

“No, it’s not taller,” Blythe explains. The sisters are dancing and singing now, twirling around while the two men in the audience gawk and grin. She stands beside the television and gestures to their bodies. “Betty is bigger—wider through the shoulders. Think about the fancy dance numbers, like ‘The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,’ or ‘Mandy.’ Only Judy performs, and that’s because Judy is small, light on her feet.”

All at once, I feel an urgent need to defend Betty. “I think she’s beautiful,” I say. “I like when she sings ‘Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me’ in that black velvet dress with the long white gloves. You can tell Rosemary Clooney’s a great singer—a lot more vocally talented than Vera-Ellen, or at least better trained.” Though I try to keep emotion out of it and simply parrot things my mother has said, I know in my heart I want to be the slender woman with the high blond ponytail, weightless as a bird when Danny Kaye tosses her into the air.

Blythe and I resume our seats on either side of Erin, facing each other more than the television screen. “Rosemary Clooney had an hourglass figure,” Blythe remarks, thinking I won’t know the term. “It was more popular in her time than it is in ours.”

“So what?” I retort.

“Well, I don’t know if you know—” Blythe pauses now for effect—“but she got really fat when she got old. My mom and I saw her on a talk show.”

I try not to react to this news, try not to allow it to alter my impression of her, my second-favorite actress in the film. “What happened to Vera-Ellen then?”

“Oh, I don’t know. But my mother says she was on record as having the smallest waist in Hollywood.”

“What record?”

She shrugs. “I guess they have one.”

The words leap out of my mouth, like oil from a frying pan; I instantly regret them. “Well, I don’t care what you say—Rosemary Clooney has a very pretty face.”

My cousin grins at me. “Oh, definitely.” Her icy blue eyes gleam. “I agree.”


In a little while, Aunt Sharon comes and stands behind the sofa, brushing Blythe’s hair the way she often does. It is long and thick and golden like a fairy tale princess. Blythe has even played Rapunzel in her school play.

“When this is over,” Sharon offers, “I can show you a video of the three of you playing together a couple of years ago. Do you remember when Daddy got his camcorder?”

Blythe leaps to her feet, hair spread around her like a superhero’s cape. “Let’s watch it now!” she pleads.

“But you’re watching White Christmas.”

“We want to see it! We want to see it!” Erin joins in, and not wanting to seem like a spoilsport, I silently nod my head. Inside, though, my stomach tilts on a whirligig, and my heart grows loud in my ears.

“All right, then.” She holds her thermos in one hand and browses the VHS shelf with the other. “I think this was the last time all the cousins were here,” Sharon says, with a casualness I instinctively distrust. She slides the dark tape down the machine’s bright throat. We listen for the click before the grainy image appears.

“There you are,” she announces. “See? It’s muddy, so you’re all on the steps in your Easter dresses.”

Three girls are standing in a row. They wear pastel dresses and patent leather shoes. One dons a bonnet, and another has bows in her hair. But I can’t see it, or believe it, or both. “Which one is me?” I blurt out.

Now Sharon takes a sip of her coffee and points to the screen. “Don’t you recognize yourself?” The tallest girl, the biggest girl, has brown curls fastened with pink barrettes. Her glasses are pink and smudged and sit catawampus on her nose. One of her front teeth is missing, and the other is just pushing through, and her hands fidget with the low pink sash set off to the side on the dress meant to resemble a sunrise.

This is the (fifth) great sadness of my life, and I have no words to express it.

“You look like Little Orphan Annie!” Erin squeals.

“But she had red hair,” Blythe corrects, “and could dance.”


Memo: I have discovered what all beautiful women have in common. They know how to move their bodies in time with music, and even if there was no music at all, they would know how to move their bodies. They are the music. Vera-Ellen is more beautiful than Rosemary Clooney. I don’t want it to be true, but it is. She has a more musical body, less solid and more liquid, so she flows across space instead of clunking through it. I also have a corollary hypothesis that beautiful women are more likely to die young. (This is not a consolation, just a fact.) Vera-Ellen, for instance, is already dead, but Rosemary Clooney is alive and well. I looked them up at the library after school. I think the more beautiful you are, the more tragic your death will be. You have to go out like a shooting star.


It is my last year of lessons at the Fiorini Ski School. My cousin Blythe is in my division now, and unfortunately, she is a prodigy on skis. (See how she trumps me in everything!) I am more cautious by comparison, less sure of my feet, meandering down the mountain in my slow zigzag, while Blythe whizzes past, her body a straight razor slicing between the trees.

“Blythe is a good skier,” I tell my Aunt Sharon when we are stuck on the chairlift together.

“I know,” she replies without turning her head.

“I like the way her hair flies out behind her like a magic carpet when she speeds down the mountain. She has really pretty hair.”

I am saying what I think grown-ups want to hear, complimenting them on something impressive that they feel responsible for. After all, my mother always said, teary-eyed as she tucked me into bed: You are my greatest accomplishment.

“Did you have hair like that when you were a kid?” I ask Aunt Sharon.

“I did. I had beautiful golden hair that everyone said looked like sunshine.” Her voice never lilts, and it never wavers. She keeps her eyes trained straight ahead.

“And my mother—did she have—”

No,” Sharon intercedes, a little too quick, a little too certain. “She did not.”

“So, she had dark hair then? I can never seem to find any pictures.”

“Yes. Dark hair. Dark skin. She wasn’t fair the way Steve and I were, and she didn’t like to have her picture taken.” A new intensity creeps into her words, the faintest suggestion that Aunt Sharon is actually enjoying our conversation.

“But what was she like—my mother—overall?”

“She was . . . ” Sharon takes a long pause, exactly the way her daughter would. She slips off her gloves and bends a piece of gum slowly, dramatically, into her mouth. “I would say she was something of a plain Jane.”

The words strike like a match and burn all the way down to the pit of my stomach. The fire pit—where the ugliest feelings are stored.


Later, in Sharon and Thor’s motor home, we gather at the small table and eat goulash.
“Guess what?” Blythe grins. “I’m starting ice-skating lessons.”

“Oh,” I say. “Why?”

“My friend Sabrina’s sister Celeste is an ice-skater, and she’s so good she’s skating in France right now. If I’m good enough, I could go to France, too.”

“We’ll see,” Thor says in his father-voice that means Probably not.

“Julie’s starting at a new dance studio in the fall. She’ll be combining ballet, tap, and jazz with a bit of gymnastics and aerobics.” My mother presses down so hard that her plastic fork snaps. Sharon hands her another from the box.

“Have you ever done gymnastics before?” Blythe asks.

“No. But it’s only a small part of the class.”

“Can you do this?” Blythe moves into the narrow aisle behind the driver’s seat and bends backwards, effortlessly, into a bridge. “It’s fun! See? Are you watching? You can even walk around like this,” and she raises her feet and hands.

When Blythe sits down again, her face is pink as a dog’s tongue from where all the blood has rushed to her head. No one says anything, but Sharon leans over and kisses her daughter’s cheek. It is my (sixth) great sadness in life that I don’t know how to leave a room yet. I always wait for someone to excuse me, someone to tell me I’m done. But I want to stand up right now, more than anything—without apology and without regret—open the door and let the cold air in, not even bother to close it as I step out into the moonlit snow.


Memo: Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose, a real-life Sleeping Beauty who no one could wake up. Grace Kelly lost control of her car and crashed. She was called Her Serene Highness, the Princess of Monaco in all the papers. I hope she at least died on a moonlit mountain road with a beautiful view of the sea. My father thinks it’s unhealthy to spend so much time researching these deaths, and my mother thinks it’s unbecoming to be morbid. (‘Unbecoming’ is another way of saying ‘unbeautiful,’ but nicer, I suppose.) What I think—what I’ve come to believe based on loads of research—I’m going to live a very long time. It’s possible that I may live forever.


There is danger in the epiphany that you are old enough to have a history. It is a danger like no other, except perhaps the danger of that primeval epiphany: You have a body. Have? Are? No one is sure, not even Descartes, but he will serve as whipping boy for all our accusations of embodiment. Bodies discombobulated like buoys on the waves. Betty bodies. Judy bodies. Bodies scrutinized by wide-eyed moviegoers. Bodies bending like willow trees. Motile bodies. Sessile bodies. Bodies with waists that set Hollywood records. Bodies that shimmy while their voices trill. Voices that trill while their bodies shimmy. (Jitterbug bodies are among the most compelling bodies.) Aimless bodies. Automaton bodies. Bodies cleaving to other bodies. Bodies practicing solitaire. Somehow, we suspect, Descartes had a hand in it—hand or mind. Do I think therefore I am, or am I therefore I think? This is not unlike the Prince’s question to Cinderella at the ball: Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you? The idea of a beautiful body. The idea of a not-so-beautiful body. Other ideas apart from the body but in which the body is implicated, charged: Mercury in retrograde. Retrograde amnesia. A gavel’s strike. A grim prognosis. Light as a feather, stiff as a board. A face dissolving in a photograph—when faces were still captured on film. A starlet, a convertible, a mountain road: nothing but a fleck in the darkness. The stellar body is an interstellar body indeed. Starlight: sweet heavenly body.  end  

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