I heard my mother and grandmother speaking in low hushed tones, "She is developing early, too early, poor dear. Very soon we’ll have to get her a bra."
"It won’t be very long before she gets her …."
I couldn’t bear to hear any more. The truth was I didn’t need them to tell me anything. I could just look at myself and figure it out; going on eleven, I was developing early. Ugh!
Well, no matter, I thought as I tried to put it out of my mind, spring is here.
Once again, my friends and I were outdoors, roller skating, jumping rope and playing stoopball. We played hopscotch and hit the penny for hours. I had become proficient at these games, but there was one thing I had not been able to master. For Christmas, my family had surprised me with a shiny, new Schwinn bicycle. As the snow melted and the weather warmed, Grandpa attempted to teach me how to ride. It was before the invention of training wheels, so you had to learn to balance, steer and brake on your own, usually with some patient, hearty soul running along beside you. Try as I might I couldn’t get the hang of it, and Grandpa was growing weary running up and down holding the rear of the seat. He couldn’t bear to see the scraped on scraped knees and elbows that were hurting his precious granddaughter. He was the first to give up. "Maybe I’ll try another time."
"But Grandpa, I want to learn now!"
I was determined to succeed. I envied my friends who were whizzing past me, up and down the streets in my neighborhood. Was my life going to be limited to my short block? When would I be able to explore the outer reaches?
Good luck was literally around the corner, in the form of a boy. We were sort of friends but didn’t "play" together, mainly because he was a boy and one grade ahead of me. I was sitting on my stoop one afternoon when he ambled over.
"Having some trouble learning to ride your bike? I can teach you."
"I’ll make a deal with you." He pointed to my chest. "You show me your…with your blouse off, and I promise I will teach you."
"No way." I began to retreat up the stairs.
"You want to ride your bike, don’t you?"
My heart pounding, I ran into my house and slammed the door. I don’t recall (perhaps I don’t wish to) what went on in that pre-adolescent mind of mine that night. The next morning at school I made my way toward Richard.
"I’ll do it."
"This afternoon, at my house."
There was no way I could do this thing in my house, but there was a freestanding garage in the back yard. Just behind the garage was a narrow space, maybe three feet in width, that backed up to another garage. Up until then. it had been a great place to scurry during hide and seek.
We squeezed in and faced each other. I raised my blouse and then some sort of camisole. Fortunately the "bra-thing" had not yet taken effect. I stared straight over his head; I guess he stared straight at me, but I couldn’t be sure. It was over in an instant—out from behind the garage and into the sunlight.
True to his word, Richard taught me how to balance and ride my bike. I knew I had gotten the better half of the bargain. For a moment of "sin" I won the freedom to whiz up and down streets all over the neighborhood. The blue Schwinn and I became best friends. Strangest of all, those few seconds behind the garage were not so bad. Not so bad at all—in fact they were kind of exciting.
This is a warning.
It is a word of caution to all women who risk their good judgment when walking through the aisles of a perfume or cosmetics section in an upscale department store.
I’ve learned, over the years, to develop a certain demeanor when I come upon this area in Bloomingdales. It’s similar to the "subway stance." Walk straight ahead, try not to make eye contact with anyone for more than a split second and be aware of anyone who wishes to engage in some sort of conversation.
I usually succeed in fending off all those beautiful people who wish to spritz and spray, or lure me into a makeover. Don’t misunderstand; I love cosmetics and smelly stuff. I have a cabinet filled with creams, moisturizers, lipsticks and gloss. I enjoy perfume on women and men. I joyfully accept the tote bags and makeup cases when there is an offer form Estee Lauder or Lancôme, but I never succumbed to a makeover until last week.
I was eager to purchase a great eye shadow that was recommended to me by a friend. Feeling good that I succeeded in my usual way, by staring straight ahead, looking neither left or right, I reached the Borghese counter unscathed.
"Oh, yes, my dear, we have that very shade for you. - perfect with your beautiful eyes. But let me show you a few tricks."
As it happens, fate was really against me. I was caught like a helpless fish on a giant hook. It was one of those rare afternoons when I had time to spare.
"I’m Tanya!" She announced her name as if it were in capitals and neon lights – TANYA. "Do I look sixty?"
"Oh no, not at all," I meekly replied.
"That’s because I make sure my skin is drinking, drinking, drinking all the time. Your face is not drinking enough. Come sweetie, let me help that face."
Somehow, I found myself perched on one of those high stools — the kind you see other people on - and she was removing the makeup from my face.
Sixty-year-old Tanya gave me a magnifying mirror to hold and began attacking the right side of my face with creams and liquids. (One was the water from Montecatini.) She assessed the lines under and around my eyes and patted, smoothed and toned with her many products.
"Look, just look in the mirror," she instructed. "See the difference. You are dewy and glowing. Do you see the difference – do you?" I immediately said yes.
"Don’t frown, watch those frown lines. Be happy always!" Next she began applying the makeup.
"Hold up the mirror. See what I’m doing? You must do it this way. Now, look. What do you think? Just look at that face, that beautiful face!"
I looked carefully, and I think I saw a "glow" but, of course, the lighting in the Bloomingdales cosmetics department is extremely kind.
"What about the other side of my face?" I asked, afraid she was going to leave me half done.
"My dear, do you think I would leave you this way? I just wanted you to see the difference – the change."
She moved onto the left side of my face, instructing all the time. An hour from the time I had been reeled in, I was handing Tanya my credit card as she packed up my facial products and a few "free" samples in a very small brown Bloomingdales bag. I signed the $268 receipt with a shaking hand.
I knew as I walked through the store, ready to meet my husband for a movie, that in some way I had to return these products, but how? I couldn’t go back to that counter and run the risk of encountering Tanya.
As I approached my husband, a thought crossed my mind. If he exclaimed, "My, you look especially beautiful today!", or some such compliment, I’d keep the jars and tubes. I looked him straight in the face, up close. He didn’t say a word except "Hi, honey, I have the movie tickets." That was it! A return, soon - tomorrow!
The following morning, I took the little brown bag and drove to Riverside Square Mall in New Jersey and marched up to the Borghese counter.
"These are wonderful products. Why are you returning?" the magnificently made-up, younger than Tanya, saleswoman asked.
With a determined voice I answered, "Oh, I realized I have so much at home."
She did not look happy. I wanted to say, "Watch those frown lines!" as she reluctantly credited my account.
I left the store feeling empowered. She hadn’t intimidated or persuaded me to keep anything. The only purchase I kept was the eye shadow I originally set out to buy.
It was an excruciating fall. I went down onto the cold, damp street with a giant flop. My husband, Jerry, was a pace or two ahead of me and didn't realize I was lying in the middle of a busy intersection with the green light turning to yellow. I felt the breath leaving me and, although I made an attempt to speak, no sound came out of my mouth. It must have been only an instant before Jerry realized I was face down, and he quickly came to my side.
"Get up! Get up!" Jerry was attempting to get me on my feet to maneuver me to the curbside. I could not seem to "Get up!" Somehow, he dragged me, as I slithered, to the wet corner.
It was dinner hour, and we had been on our way to a cozy neighborhood restaurant. Both of us, chilled to the bone, had been looking forward to warming up with a glass of wine and a hearty winter meal. The sidewalks on the busy avenue were filled with bundled-up men, women and children rushing to and fro, doing their last-minute errands before settling down for the evening.
Feeling awkward and clumsy, I had an overwhelming desire not to be me at this moment.
"I'm okay, really okay," I think I muttered as I tried to get on my feet—but I couldn't get up! Pedestrians were gathering around and, through the pain and embarrassment, I heard the usual comments:
"Is she all right?"
"Did she break anything?"
"Did she fall over anything?"
And then, "Don't try to get her up. I'm a doctor."
A young women was bending over me, taking my pulse, asking my name, where I lived, the president's name, and who was this person, as she gestured towards my husband. Wow, I thought, they think I'm having a stroke or something serious!
"I'm really all right," I think I said, as the pain in my ankle and knee was overtaking me. That is all I remember until I was placed into an ambulance. My body had protected itself from the sharp pain by allowing me to spiral downward into a dreamy fainting spell.
When I was wheeled into the Emergency Room, a couple of thoughts began racing in my head as I began to revive. I'm not dying, I haven't had a stroke, and I'm going to be fine as soon as this fucking pain subsides. I wanted desperately to convey this to my husband as soon as possible.
Jerry's first wife had been hit quite suddenly with a brain aneurysm that left her incapacitated for over two years until her death. Their life was a series of hospitals, rehab centers and home health aides as her mind and body deteriorated. This was not going to happen to him again—not if I could help it—and I wanted him to know I was going to be okay for now.
There were no broken bones and there was no head injury; there was nothing more than a severe ankle sprain and some knee trauma. The treatment called for a few days on crutches and a series of sessions with a physical therapist. There are no residual effects aside from a slight ache in my ankle, especially on cold days.
My husband and I often talk about the joy we feel having found each other in this later stage of our lives. We talk about living with and loving each other and we talk about death and dying and how the one who is left will survive
That night on the cold ground, as I glimpsed fear and sadness in his eyes, I wanted to tell him that we still had time together, and everything was going to be as it was for a while longer.
Copyright © 2007, 2008 by Carole Chamlin