This is how it starts, my yearning to escape: with a snot-green triangular stamp from Qatar.
Goobie says, ‘Lynda, please can I have the green stamp? Please please please.’ It’s so weird-looking and wonderful that she’ll trade a favourite from her collection: the Polish one with galloping horses and POLSKA spelled out in bold letters, or the one from Romania with the sad-eyed spaniel. She’s even willing to give up the San Marino stamp with the dinosaur floating freestyle through the water.
If she asked for anything else, I would probably give it to her. Her real name is Beverly, but I’ve always called her Goobie. She doesn’t give me Indian burns on my arm, twisting the skin in opposite directions across the bone, the way Sandy, my older sister, does. Goobie’s a year younger than I and will do anything I say. She even spat on the head of a teenage boy walking beneath us when we were up in my favourite tree in front of our house.
But I won’t trade the green stamp with her. Here’s how I got it: coupons from the back of our Archie and Veronica comic books. One hundred stamps for twenty-five cents. We asked Mom for two quarters and taped them to the coupons and sent them off through the mail; a few weeks later, two fat yellow envelopes stuffed with stamps fell through the mail slot. Most of the stamps are boring: drab little squares from places like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the German Democratic Republic. But in one of my packets, that stamp from Qatar appeared like a sparkling jewel.
I pasted it onto the ‘Q’ page of my album, which is otherwise completely empty. I paste all my stamps into my album, licking the little hinges that taste worse than the fluoride treatments the dentist gives us. The extras I keep in an old Antonio y Cleopatra cigar box. Goobie and I like the inside lid of the box because of its sexy picture: Antonio, clad in a Roman-warrior dress, is paying his respects to a reclining and bare-breasted Cleopatra. I pull out my album when Goobie isn’t in our bedroom and examine the Qatari stamp. It has a spouting oil well, palm trees, sand dune; the head of a man with a goatee wearing an Arab headdress bobs atop the gushing oil. Arabic calligraphy squiggles along one side of the triangle.
I go downstairs to where we keep the Encyclopedia Britannica and look up Qatar. There is the Arabian Peninsula, shaped like an elongated, sideways heart; Qatar sticks up in the middle, where the two lobes should meet. I say the capital aloud: Doha. And other places along the coast: Bahrain, Ras al- Khaimah, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain. I roll the names around on my tongue like exotic tastes. Such different, distant worlds; they beckon almost irresistibly. I say aloud: I will go there someday.
Upstairs in my room, I look at the Qatari stamp one last time before carefully putting the album in my closet. Sandy, whose bedroom is next door, collects coins instead of stamps. I think coins are stupid. They’re ugly and heavy and you can’t even spend them in this country. They don’t make me dream of leaving Detroit the way the stamps do. Sandy says they’re better, just because she likes to lord things over me.
Sandy’s two-and-a-half years older, which makes her a pre-teen. A pre-teen Queen. She subscribes to magazines that have articles about how to stop zits and attract boys. She carefully cuts out the pictures of her favourite bands, Herman’s Hermits and the Beatles, and plasters her door and walls with them. She plays their records on her little black-and-white phonograph when Goobie and I are trying to sleep at night. She listens to WKNR (‘Keener 13, Detroit’s Top 40 Radio Station!’), or CKLW, from across the Detroit River in Canada, on her transistor radio.
Sandy says, ‘Bev, who do you love?’
We are all three in the back seat of our black Plymouth. Our father is driving us down the Lodge Freeway to Olympia Stadium. We are going to a matinee concert with the Beatles.
Goobie says, ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, which Beatle do you love?’
‘Love Paul, because I love Paul.’
‘At the concert, you have to shout, “I love you, Paul!”’
Sandy says the same thing to me, but I don’t answer. First of all, I don’t like her to boss me around. Second, I’m not all that happy about going to this concert. I don’t even like the Beatles that much. It’s a muggy August day. We don’t have air conditioning, so the windows are rolled down and my hair is whipping around my head. The backs of my thighs stick to the black-and-gray plastic seat covers. They make a little ripping sound when I lift them up: first the left, rrrrip; then the right, rrrrip; then the left. Sandy is bouncing in place, her head almost touching the overhead light. This is the biggest day of her life.
The traffic backs up on Grand River Avenue and stops. It takes forever for Dad to get to the front of Olympia, a big reddish brick building where the Detroit Red Wings hockey team plays. He says: ‘Be sure to hold hands and stick together.’ There are about a million kids pressing through the doors. Goobie hangs on to my arm so tightly her nails dig into my skin; Sandy’s got my other arm. She’s looking at our tickets and pulling us along. I can barely breathe, there are so many people. She somehow finds the entrance ramp; an usher escorts us to our chairs on the floor of the stadium, where the ice rink usually is. Around us, rows of seats rise almost to the ceiling.
A bunch of groups I don’t know perform first: The Ronettes, The Cyrkle, The Remains, Bobby Herb. I am bored, bored, bored. It feels like they’re playing for hours. I’m thirsty and have to pee. Sandy says: ‘You have to hold it. And don’t go in your seat. ‘
The Olympia emcee appears on stage. He says the Beatles are having technical difficulties and will be on in a few minutes. People groan. And then suddenly, everyone begins to scream. The Beatles, in striped suits and big paisley ties, walk on to the raised podium and begin to play ‘Rock and Roll Music’. The audience goes crazy. You can hardly hear the band for all the screaming: girls are pulling at their hair, some crying. It’s like the Fourth of July with all the flashbulbs popping everywhere in the dark stadium.
I know most of the songs from Sandy playing them on her phonograph: ‘Day Tripper;’ ‘Baby’s in Black;’ ‘Yesterday’. But the music is drowned out by the screaming. Which continues even when Paul and John are talking, so I can’t hear what they say. It’s the one part of the concert that might have interested me. This summer I’ve been speaking – or trying to – with a British accent. I think it makes me intriguing. At least I don’t sound like I’m from Detroit. It drives Sandy nuts. She says there is no way I could have acquired a British accent; I’ve never even been out of the country except to Canada. And that was just across the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor, Ontario. I tell her I don’t know how it happened; I simply woke up one morning speaking like this.
Last summer, it was a Brooklyn accent.
Sandy is standing on her chair when the Beatles sing, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. Goobie too is on her chair, screaming. ‘I love you, Paul. I love you.’ She tugs at Sandy’s sleeve. ‘How’s that?’
‘Great. Keep going.’
Sandy looks down at me expectantly. I stick my fingers in my ears. ‘I have a headache,’ I shout. ‘I’d rather be reading a book!’
Afterwards, in the car on the way home, Sandy says, ‘Do you always have to be such a spaz?’
In our family, the children all have definitions, like a vocabulary quiz in school.
Sandy: Pretty and Artistic.
Beverly: Beautiful and Athletic.
I’m the only one who doesn’t have an ‘and’. Ida, who was born last year, is just The Baby. But that doesn’t count; she hasn’t had time to establish herself yet.
Sandy calls me ‘ibid’ because I use big words and am argumentative like Dad, who’s a lawyer. She hires me with her allowance money to try to talk Mom or Dad out of punishments. When I get mad and turn my words against her, Sandy says: You’re just like Dad.
Everyone in our family says that sort of thing. But it means different things. My grandmother Bubbe says it in an accusing tone. She usually follows with: You make your mother work too hard; she’s going to get sick. Bubbe is from the Old Country. She wears dentures that don’t fit very well and clicks them like castanets. So what she says sounds like this: ‘You just like your fadder,’ click, click, click. ‘You make your mudder sick,’ click, click, click.
Bubbe is Mom’s mom. Mom had rheumatic fever twice when she was a kid and almost died. The doctor says that she is just fine, but Bubbe worries that Mom is always on the verge of dying. She worries that Mom will drop dead from carrying bags of groceries or doing laundry. Zaide, my grandfather, stays quiet. He smells of Listerine and boiled cabbage. Little tufts of grey fur sprout from his ears. At our Passover Seder, after Zaide has a few shots of whisky, he whips off his glasses to show me the scar above his left eyebrow he got from a saber wound when he was a soldier in the Tsar’s army. When Bubbe has been clicking away too long with her worries about Mom, he leans over and says in his thick Russian/Yiddish accent: You talk too much, they lock you up.
Dad is the oldest child of Nanny, my other grandmother, so you’d think it would be a compliment when she says I’m just like him. Nanny and Papa are American. Their house smells better than Bubbe’s and Zaide’s, and Nanny’s food is better. She makes scrambled eggs with ketchup on top that she calls ‘rock ‘n roll eggs’, in honour of the Beatles. Papa lets me sit on his lap and take little sips from his beer mug. He gives me a piggyback ride to inspect the branches of the Queen Anne cherry tree in the backyard.
Nanny is digging in her garden, her big breasts squeezed together in a tube top, little droplets of sweat popped out above her upper lip. She says, ‘Aren’t you getting too big to be riding on Papa’s back?’
I say, ‘Sssh! I’m admiring the lushness of the Rwanda Highlands!’
‘Smart aleck. You’ll grow up to be a lawyer just like your father.’
Actually, Nanny’s very proud of the fact that Dad’s a lawyer. She’s proud of her other two sons, too: Uncle Todd, a professor of molecular biology; and Uncle Eugene, who’s studying for his doctorate in art history in London. She says mean things about Mom, who didn’t go to college. She thinks Mom isn’t very capable or smart. It makes me mad; I don’t like her criticizing my mother.
But sometimes I agree with her.
Here’s Mom’s life: She goes to the hairdresser’s once a week to have her hair washed and curled and sometimes tinted. She shops for groceries. She talks on the phone in Yiddish with Bubbe. She cooks dinner. She does laundry. She orders around the housekeeper – whom Nanny calls ‘the coloured girl’ and Bubbe, ‘die shvartze’ – when she comes to wash the floors and iron the clean clothes.
I want her to be something, someone. So when people say that I’m just like Dad, I take it as a kind of compliment. It means I’m not like Mom.
Here’s Dad’s life: He goes downtown to the Penobscot Building, with the big red flashing ball on the top, to his law office. He travels around the country, selling the prints that Uncle Eugene sends from London. He listens to classical music on the stereo with his headset on, wildly conducting while my sisters and I leap around the living room like demented ballerinas. He talks to me about articles I read in the Detroit News.
Mom says, ‘You’re becoming an intellectual snob, just like your father.’
Dad reads books. Mom doesn’t. Sandy reads “Nancy Drew” mysteries. They’re stupid and boring. Who wants to be a sleuth riding around in a roadster? That isn’t a real profession. For a while, I wanted to be a nurse like Cherry Ames. I read all twenty-five or so of the Cherry Ames books: Cherry Ames Student Nurse, Cherry Ames Senior Nurse, Cherry Ames Army Nurse, and so on.
The Summer of My Brooklyn Accent, when Mom was pregnant with Ida, I decided to do night duty. I took an old white shirt of Dad’s and embroidered ‘RN’ in red thread on the breast pocket. I cut a piece of white cardboard to look like a nurse’s cap, drew a dark blue stripe across the front and glued a piece of elastic across the back. I attached a piece of paper to a clipboard with the hours of the night written in the left-hand margin. Mom was exhausted from the pregnancy and went to bed early. I put on my uniform and set up a plastic TV table in her room with a pitcher of orange juice, a flashlight, a thermometer and my watch. Every hour, I woke her to take her temperature and give her orange juice. She was pretty good-natured about it, especially as she had to read the thermometer for me.
I scribbled down the temperature reading by the dim glow of the flashlight. There was nothing else to do until the next one. Dad came upstairs after I wrote down the 11:00 reading. He said: ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in bed?’
‘I’m the night nurse, and your wife is my patient.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Go to bed.’
‘But I still have all these hours to fill in my chart.’
‘Lynda, I said go to bed.’
Dad has a ferocious temper and sometimes hits us. We’re all scared of him. Nobody tries to stand up to Dad, let alone talk back.
I get tired of Cherry Ames after that. Department Store Nurse and Dude Ranch Nurse don’t hold much promise of a glamorous life. I switch to biographies. I read about Albert Schweitzer; for a while, I’m going to be a medical missionary in Gabon, with a sideline in lowland gorillas. That lasts until I read about Marie Curie. Now I am certain that I have found my calling: scientist. I visit Uncle Todd’s laboratory and am smitten with the vile chemical smell, test tubes, white laboratory coats, Bunsen burners, flasks bubbling with brilliantly coloured liquids.
Inventing seems an equally promising profession. I build a specially modified dumbwaiter for our house: a piece of plywood with holes punched at all four ends, twine threaded through the openings, then gathered together. Dad won’t let me pound nails into the woodwork, so I attach the ends of the twine with Scotch tape to the rail upstairs and gently lower the plywood. It hangs, suspended and twirling, waiting for someone to put something on it to be hoisted up to the second floor.
Scotch tape isn’t very strong. Anything heavier than a piece of tissue makes the thing go crashing down. I get tired of re-taping it and move the dumbwaiter to my favourite tree in the backyard, a Russian olive. I tie it to one of the branches that extends out from the cleft where I sit, load it up with books and haul them up. Goobie’s feelings are hurt that I don’t invite her up. But I like being by myself. It’s tense in our house, with Mom and Dad yelling at each another and at us and Mom sometimes crying. We have to be careful around Dad. One minute he’s great: playing badminton with us or letting us ride on his back when we go swimming through the murk at Kensington Lake. The next minute: he’s snarling like a beast and hitting us with a newspaper like we’re dogs.
In my tree, I hoist up a pile of books on the dumbwaiter and fly away. I’m Amelia Earhart, Florence Nightingale, Sonja Henie. I no longer feel the hard, black tree bark cutting into my thighs where my shorts end. I’m Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Ludwig von Beethoven. I open my stamp book and am in the Central African Republic, fending off nightmarish beetles. In Colombia, where an erupting volcano is spewing life-threatening lava. In Rwanda, amid an elephant-and-water-buffalo stampede. And best of all, in Qatar.
My beacon in the night.
Photo by Kriska