A. Y. Tanaka / Fiction
I'm Learning To Drink Coffee
Evening breeze on the merry-go-round on the boardwalk (thanks). I pop out my thumb, dribble on the front of my dress (you know damn well we don't do those things on purpose), ask Ma can I ride, and down from the smoke of her twenty-eighth-whatever cigarette: "Okay, okay, go."
I go pick the horse that's like the real one I want, mount him (mount him, good, good) and he snorts, he hooves the earth, he rears up, he trots, he gallops -- over prairies and hills and beaches, splashing right back at the ocean. The organ's breath in the loudspeaker isn't sour yet.
The organ cranks down too soon; the horses get heavy, stop, stare, don't flinch, won't give us away. The girls dismount. Welcome home. Boys, too.
"Let's move it, Inez."
"Okay, Ma . . ."
And I slip on the ice cream cone in the sand.
Let's see what else -- My chin's in my hand, my elbows on my knees, like this, I'm sitting on the curb next to the bag with the groceries Ma sent me for. Quote: "Fourteen-year-old girls shouldn't sit on the curb like that. ANYbody can look right up your dress." Unquote. (Do I have to say "quote-unquote" every time?)
It's almost evening -- fall, spring, how do you tell? It's in the air, something exciting, something sad. Sad, because the exciting's not going to happen again. Max won't happen again. Quote: "Fourteen-year-old girls don't have imaginary companions." Unquote. He wasn't imaginary three, four, six months ago (was it spring or fall?). Now, it's hard to tell. He came and left, like a breeze. Before, there was just noise.
Noise. There's my kid brother. For all I know he's my own flesh and blood but I hate him with a hate that pickles my guts. His name's Nicholas, so why don't people call him Nick or Nicky? No, it's Nooky. This old guy I know has it, it's some old Bible name's nickname. It's also a cute word for sex. You hear the Italian fruit guys slip it into their pitch: "Here lady, fresh nooky, right off the tree." This kid told me it. Jewish butchers just as bad: "So, lady, anything else? A little nooky on the side? For you, half-off." The same kid told me. I've heard it all and it's not cute, because it means kid brother.
Almost evening, like today (I mean this day I'm talking about) and Ma pushed two dollars in my hand and told me business-like, "You're taking Nooky to the movies."
"Why, Ma?" (It was a booby prize, not a present.)
"Because you two are getting on my nerves."
"Okay, Ma . . ."
I crunched the two dollars into my purse and took Nooky's hand, the good little boy who wasn't. Nooky couldn't see passing for one, and took his hand back. Out in the street -- concrete walls whichever way you go -- we trudged (sludged? slugged? drudged?) on to the movies. When we got to the first corner he stopped and looked at me with eyes deader than a kid's eyes ought to be.
"Inez, you've got two dollars. Give me one."
I gave him one.
"See you later," and he was gone.
"Thank God," I whispered, never so free. (It's America, Ike's President.) Then -- fifteen minutes? half an hour? -- never so alone. Jelly, who's got the sangria in her room, wasn't home, so I went up on her roof to wait and try to think about things. And I tried, and it didn't help.
Then Max. I don't know how or from where. He was a stranger on that roof, he was a stranger everywhere. Sad eyes sadder than mine, sad voice new to saying what he feels, telling me how he crawled under barbed wire, hid from the secret police, death on the run. And his plans. And mine. Never knew I had plans before. We shut out the world.
"Fourteen-year-old girls shouldn't -- "
That was months ago. Now he's a shadow that watches me and talks to me, but the guy I touched and held and all that, that's gone, I don't know where. Maybe somebody in Jelly's building knew, must have known. I was afraid to ask around.
I read what the bastards do there, the kids finking on their parents, the midnight roustings, the questions, all the questions there's no answers to, people non-existing anymore.
"Thank God he escaped," I whisper.
"It was time," he said. "One does not breathe in such a place."
I don't mean to embarrass you or anything, but it didn't hurt. Ma and Aunt Cleo say it hurts like hell the first time, and just as bad the next and the next and the next. That's what Aunt Cleo's always telling me and my cousin Dolly, and always throws in: "Don't ever let him forget it."
There, I said it. Truth is, I'm not even sure -- Oh the groceries. Ma wants those eggs, those peas, those franks, those buns. Wants it. Move it.
Stand up, move it, try not to sigh, not if it hurts. Like when they came and dragged me out of Jelly's room after just one lonely toe-touch lonely sip of sangria. Teased my soul like nothing ever . . . couldn't breathe. Could, didn't want to.
I stand up, sort of. My joints creak, or I'm dreaming a little rheumatism to make me respectable, an old lady free to complain about everything, nobody telling her she'd better shut up. I creak, and mask-18 rolls across my face (touch it, like a lizard), slinks up behind my neck and won't let go. They cut your sip, just when it's doing you (oh God) the most good, they get mask-18, deserve 37.
"Fourteen-year-old girls shouldn't -- "
Like I said, shut up.
Time to go home. Whether I like it or not, whether *they* like it or not, is where the heart is, no matter how humble, where they have to take you in -- *Sure, too lazy to think up her own words*. If I thought up my own --
He's there, walking me home, but he's not the real Max. Not the false Max either. The false Max? Don't get me started. It's from all the books they let you pick and choose around here. I read how back before photos or fingerprints or blood types or things like that, there'd pop up a false John or a false Heathcliff or a false Whoever who was supposed to be the real prince, the one the midwife lost, or the real king, the one that wasn't really dead or locked up. And they'd get up an army of victims of the bad guys, and march on Moscow or Paris or New York or Chicago to get justice. They all lost.
Strange, no false queens or princesses, all winners, Snow White and Cinderella and the one with all the mattresses.
Max with me, his shadow walking --
"Fourteen-year-olds don't have --"
Three more blocks. We have to step down from the curb three times, step up again three times, have to pass kids playing in the street like they enjoyed being kids, people choosing their flavors for them, have to pass stores and shops where grown-ups waste their time. *Grown-ups*, a kid's word.
We get there, a big brown square mountain with six floors and who knows how many apartments. And don't bother counting the windows. I tried once when I had nothing else to do and wasn't too bright, and got maybe half-way up and lost count and had to start all over, and lost count and had to start all over, and lost count -- Sure, instead of counting one-two- three I could have multiplied, but who knew?
We climb up the front steps, not saying anything, just nodding, to the women sitting there. The best thing's not to say it, and don't give them a chance to say it back. God knows what they let loose about me and Ma behind our backs.
I figured they had nothing to say about Nooky.
No really bad smells in the foyer or the stairway, but a dead depressing thing that crawls through my nose and hides in my hard skull's Tootsie-Pop center, back of my eyes. The eyes are still safe. "Thank God and a bucket of saints you don't need glasses yet," Aunt Cleo says. "A woman's got it tough enough."
We climb up to the second floor, breathe, climb up to the third floor, breathe. Two to go. "How weary it must be to live among high society." That's Aunt Cleo's running joke, no telling how much of a put-down it's meant to be.
Six floors, every day. No need, God, to rub it in. I don't have the nerve yet, or the brains yet, to stop and tell them -- on the second floor, maybe, or halfway between floors: *Okay folks, we're here, all out*. Like Sugar Ray told the guy, Say you won and call it quits.
The sixth floor. Breathe. Knock on the door, our door, her door. Ma thinks I'm not responsible enough for a key. She doesn't know how responsible I am, but I won't argue. You can hear inside the apartment wooden clogs clump across the floor, like a thundering herd of . . . cows. Her voice snaps: "Who is it?" Before I can answer (no room to squeeze the words in) she aborts her own caution and opens the door. Through the cigarette smoke I see her glasses, the lenses are on fire, might as well be.
"What took so long?"
"Not my fault, Ma. It was crowded, just this one guy working there."
"Okay, but next time you're getting it."
Safe for a while.
We're in the kitchen, Ma fishes stuff out of the bag: coffee, sugar, franks, buns, eggs, beans.
She holds up the can of beans like she'll throw it.
"*Peas*, I said. Plan to spend all day on the john? Franks doesn't mean beans too. Peas, dumbbell, next time."
Next time. Safe for a while. Then:
"*My cigarettes*," she screams like the sky's falling. She almost drops the one she's working on and digs frantic into the bag, digs deep. It's bottomless, no hope -- till she finds the two packs and breathes again. She's safe for a while.
"Thank God, dear precious God. Your ass is purple, little girl, if you ever forget." She gobbles up the air. "Go to your room --" (inhale, exhale) "-- and don't come out --" (inhale, exhale) "-- not for anything."
"Okay, Ma . . ."
I'm in my room, my head hurts and I don't know why. It's not the beans, which would have hit between my eyes if Ma had thrown it. Maybe the rays from Ma's glasses. Maybe the smoke. I lie down, it hurts. I turn my head and body all the ways it's worked before, it still hurts. My eyelids can't shut it out, crying won't help, I cry harder.
Max sighs like before, tries to say the words, tries to kiss my burning eyes, can't, he's not the real Max.
Let's see what else -- the clouds grumble and cry, the streets glisten, enough wind, the way it ought to be. The rain's washed the gossips off the front steps. The wind, if it comes from behind, moves me, makes the long walk easy. If it blows against my face and breasts (wow!), it gives me a challenge my size. I've got two new records inside my raincoat, pop music, very pop, top-forty stuff. Aunt Cleo (Pa's older sister, the friendlier side) loves what the kids groove on these days, the music of "today! -- makes me move, shake, shimmy, goose the lions at the courthouse. Ever see a statue jump? The past is past, rest in peace -- in pieces."
Her building has those same front steps mine does, and usually the same women, same eyes, but the rain's been kind, chased them off. I walk up to the sixth floor, again the sixth floor. These stairs don't hurt.
I knock on the door and slap my hand over the peep-hole. There's footsteps inside, there's a click as she lifts the peep-hole lid and can't see who's there, there's: "What the hell -- must be a pervert -- quick, bring him in." The door opens. "Oh damn, I thought it was a pervert." She hugs me anyway, not tight, doesn't want to burn me with her cigarette.
"Hi honey, come on in."
Aunt Cleo's a little chubby. ("Voluptuous, honey. Renoir would've popped his cork to paint my body. With anything he had. Or was it Rubens? Or Mickey Angelo?")
She's good to me. Dolly, almost my age (so she can't smoke yet) is also good to me, grooves on top-forty, top-of-the-pop-chart stuff too, says, "I don't want to live in the past, I've lived enough in the past. Viva the present! Let's hear it for Now!"
Cleo and Dolly. Pa's side, so they care.
The three of us listen to records, play canasta, gin rummy, even poker, with aspirin and Librium for money. We eat cheesecake and even cheesecake cupcakes (this guy, Cleo can't stand him, owns a bakery) and drink coffee. I'll get used to the coffee.
Sometimes the phone rings. "Get it, honey, please," says Cleo, and her daughter goes to answer it on the extension in the bedroom. "And what did you tell him?" Cleo asks when Dolly comes back and picks up her cards or sucks up another cheesecake cupcake.
"I told him: 'My mother is out tonight with a gentleman.' Shoved 'gentleman' right up his ass."
"That's my girl," says Cleo.
"Say Ma, what did he try that time?"
"You need to ask?"
After Cleo's guy -- her real guy -- got killed in the war, Dolly still a baby, Cleo herself just starting to live, she called it quits. She talks about the men still left, alive by mistake, and we laugh at their puny little secrets. It's older than that. Even when she was a kid, Cleo hated her baby brother, my Pa, with the same gut-pickling hate I've got for Nooky. Are we cursed? Aren't the cigarettes enough?
After every subject's done to death, Cleo starts loving me, praising my fine qualities, the ones I got from Granny and Gramp, skipping Pa. (When the qualities skipped, did they skip Cleo? And Dolly got them?)
Cleo: "I've no idea, honey, and I don't care, where your father ran off to. Thank God and a bucket of saints the drunk left you in peace. He was no good, even as a kid."
She smokes, and smokes, and smokes.
Cleo: "*You're* my blood, not him."
But I didn't ask about Pa. I stopped asking years ago. Why does she always "answer" me?
She smokes, and smokes, and smokes. She wants to burn it all down or choke it to death.
Dolly echoes, "You, not him."
I don't need it, want to vomit it back, all over the cards and coffee and aspirin and Librium and cheesecake. Even the cupcakes. But you put up with it, you've got to pay.
Cleo puffs and puffs. Dolly's eyes go: *Wow -- Me too. Maybe cigars*.
Cleo: "Thank God you're not turning out like some women we know. Jesus, sending her kids out to the movies so she can be with her fancy-man. God save us. But you, you'll always be as sweet as you are now, honey. God knows we've got enough whores in the world."
Dolly: "You said it, Ma. We saw two on the Concourse yesterday. Real losers -- dog crap on rye."
"All right. But let's face it -- if it wasn't for women like them, women like us wouldn't be safe."
Dolly: "You said it, not safe at all." She shudders.
I shudder too, because they know. I want to stand and shout, *I'm not a whore*. (We're supposed to shout. How else can people judge us?) They don't know what it's like to be stuck on the wrong planet, and your tank's running out, and he finds you, and pumps you up with all the air you need. I can feel where he kissed me and touched me and wasn't supposed to and I wasn't afraid, even if fourteen-year-old girls don't --
It was evening breezes blowing on the merry-go-round on the boardwalk, and riding, riding, prairies and hills and beaches, splashing --
"Sad but true," Dolly sighs. "Enough whores in this world, right Ma?"
Cleo nods; she can count on Dolly to speak the truth.
I'm trembling. I'm not a whore, can't be. Not a loser, either. His sad eyes weren't the eyes of a guy who forgets.
The horses get heavier, stop, stare, don't flinch, won't give us away. The girls dismount. Welcome home. Boys, too.
"Come on, Inez," says Cleo. "It's your deal. Move it, honey."
I look up. He's there. My eyes burn from the smoke. The tears don't help. "It is time," he says. "One does not breathe in such a place."
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