Miami Beach Christmas, 1955
I sit in the April promise of sunlight on my back porch and remember my father, the heliotrope, turning brown in the crowded rows of lounge chairs on the sun deck of the old Beau Rivage Hotel on Collins Avenue in North Miami Beach every Christmas in the late 1950's. He was Horizontal Charlie, a garment center mogul with a thick Hungarian accent who spoke to the Cuban refugee waiters, once surgeons and scholars, as if they were his brothers. And every Christmas - what a surprise! what a coincidence! - who else should be there, at the same hotel, but the booming, raven-haired Irene Bloom from the Bronx, who just happened to work as the general manager of Ardor of Paris, my father's buttons and bows factory on West 38th Street.
After Irene's appearance, my father moved to her room, since I talked in my sleep, he said. At breakfast, when I was allowed the special treat of ordering bacon and a double orange juice, I said, "I talked in my sleep? What did I say?" and he said, "'Why do the room rates go up in the winter, when every room is taken, and then go down again in the summertime, when no one's here?' Smart girl! Good question! And here's my answer: capitalism!"
"Um, I don't get it," I said. Back in New York, I saw him only one weekend a month at his bachelor apartment with the sunken living room; we'd have dinner and a gin game, and on Sunday mornings, his famous scrambled eggs that he stirred with a spoon. He was getting old, since he was almost 50 when I was born, so I thought he'd forgotten that I was only eight. I didn't get his explanation, and I didn't believe that I was talking in my sleep about room rates. I only knew that something was going on, and it had to do with Irene.
"Well," he said, "we charge more for the things that everyone wants, since who wants to pay for the things that no one wants?"
"I'll tell you what capitalism is," Irene said. "It's when you get on the phone and say, 'Give me room service, and charge it!' That's capitalism in action."
"Out of the horse's mouth!" my father said, which was only funny if you could make heads or tails of it.
On Christmas Eve, my father gave me a gold charm bracelet with my first little charm, a heart-shaped disk with letters on each side that didn't make sense until you made the heart spin, flicking it gently, over and over, so the letters came together in "a secret message," as Irene said. So I spun the little heart very fast and the words came together to say, "I love you." "Thank you so much, Daddy," I said, and he said, "Irene picked it out. Isn't she clever?" I wore the bracelet all the time, even to bed, spinning the little heart until it made me dizzy.
My father loved the Beau Rivage because you never had to leave it, but Irene said we needed to get out more often, to have a little fun, so for her sake, we devoted a day to seeing the sights, driving a rented Chevy Impala convertible with the top down, Irene wearing Jean Nate eau de toilette, nylon shorts over her bathing suit, a pair of what she called mules, and an orange rayon scarf looped under her neck and knotted at the back like a movie star. What Irene meant by having fun was to go and visit the monkeys, the snakes, and the crocodiles that crept and crawled right there, so close to our feet, under little wooden pedestrian bridges that trembled as we crossed them. Then to top it all off, she posed for a professional Polaroid photograph taken at the Parrot Jungle with a row of colored parakeets all down her arms and a white cockatoo on her head. She couldn't stop laughing because she loved the word cockatoo. After she married my father, she introduced me to her baby, Puffy, my new little sister, also raven-haired but with four legs and a tail. Irene kept calling her a cockapoo, which threw her into hysterics.
On our way back to the hotel, Irene snuggled up close to me on the front seat, put her arm over my shoulder, and I thought she wanted me to like her; I thought she was going to say she loved me, or that her day with the animals was all the fun she had hoped for, but she leaned in close to my ear and whispered, "I'm a virgin, you know, the Virgin Queen Irene."
I tilted my head away from hers, inching closer to my father.
"My father's the Pope," she said. "It's a secret, so don't tell anyone, least of all Charlie, and if anyone asks you, I never said a word. I see the holy father every night, when I kiss his ring, and he blesses me and keeps me. He anoints me with his scepter, and one day, he'll canonize me with his cannon. When I die, he's going to make me a saint, he promised, and I will be a wonder unto all mankind."
"I…I…" I began, turning to my father and pulling on his sleeve.
"What are you girls whispering about?" my father said.
Irene sat up straight again, retying her scarf and knotting it tightly under her chin.
"Oh, just girl talk," she said. "You wouldn't understand it."
"I'm sure I wouldn't," he said, and neither did I.
From then on, I watched her very closely. She wore bright red lipstick, painted way up over her thin lips, and whenever she finished telling a story, she said, "Do you read me?" Once I said, "Do I read you what?" and she said, "Do you read the signs and symbols? Everything means." "Everything means what?" I said, and she said, "Why, something else, of course."
My father didn't seem to notice how strange Irene was, or the stranger she was, the more he seemed to love her. "She was interesting then, and I was interested," as he later explained it, "before the dark times came." She never ate anything green, but then again, neither did I, so that wasn't as strange as it might have been. She made funny faces, to make my father laugh. "Isn't she a riot?" he'd say. "Isn't she a scream?" I didn't think so, but I was also the only person I knew who didn't like "I Love Lucy," so you couldn't judge by me.
For our recreational pleasure during the daylight hours, the Beau Rivage offered us their social directress, always the same woman, a perky redhead whose name was Mitzi one year and Doris the next. Mitzi organized indoor games of backgammon, and chess for the whiz kids, pushing lessons in the cha cha and mambo, which she called playtime for the sun-shy. In the hotel driveway, there was a gaudy plaster Italianate fountain that was crumbling even then, although you couldn't see the damage when they lit it up at night in Christmassy red and green.
One morning early, I met a boy named Benny Schneiderman, a nine-year-old spitball-wizard and fly-by kisser from West 93rd Street, which meant, thank God, that I'd never run into him when we all got back to the city since I was living with my mother then on 82nd and York. Benny was a shining star on the shuffleboard court - such a hotshot! all the ladies said - but he cheated with his foot when he thought no one could see him, and one day he told me that if I didn't show him my beaver, he'd tell my father that I was a bad girl who wanted to touch his weeny.
I didn't have a beaver, and I didn't want to touch anything that belonged to Benny Schneiderman. Just hearing what he said made me deeply ashamed, and the more I tried to forget his words, the more I remembered them and hated him for saying them. And besides, I didn't want to be a bad girl then, not until much later, when I was at least 14.
Well, I'll tell your father that you're a cheater, and I hate you, I thought. And I'll tell my father that Irene…that Irene…but I couldn't tell him anything. How could I ever repeat what Benny or Irene had said to me? (My father thought Benny was a sweetheart. They did math problems together, such as, If there are 9 coins totaling 91 cents in your grandmother's wallet, how many dimes do you have? "None," Benny answered, falling forever into my father's good graces. "If it's my grandma's money, I would leave it alone.") How could I ever say the words beaver or weeny out loud? And I didn't know who the Pope was. On the day after Christmas, I asked Mitzi if the Pope ever came to Miami Beach for his Christmas vacation, and she said, "That'll be the day! The Pope in Miami; now I've heard everything!"
After dinner every night until my bedtime, we played three-handed knock-knock Canasta for matchsticks, but the hotel had a noisy nightlife, and Irene wanted to have more fun, so she dragged Charlie to the lounge every night, saving me the folding paper umbrellas from her Kon Tiki punch. On New Year's Eve, I went along, yawning and cringing in my blue chiffon party dress, to the Cotillion Room, where Charlie and Irene blew their little tooting horns and danced to the braying of the live orchestra of tired old men, with Mitzi leading the countdown that everyone was waiting so impatiently to hear so they could all shout Happy New Year! and then go up to bed.
And maybe I was dreaming, and maybe I wasn't, but I remember waking up in the middle of the night; I was all alone in the room, but I felt something moving about me in the darkness, maybe a bird, maybe an angel. She pulled the covers over me; then I felt a spray of warmth on my cheek, very fine, as if someone had kissed me.
"Who's there?" I said, but no one answered. I wanted to tell my father, but there was nothing real to tell him. He'd never have believed me, and besides, it was a secret, and it wasn't scary and I didn't mind it if she wanted to kiss me and tuck me in.
I lived in the pool. From time to time, before Irene went upstairs for her afternoon nap, quickly followed by my father, who was all of a sudden always sleepy in the middle of the day, he would let me dive for pennies at the deep end. Whatever he threw down to me, I brought back up to him, and he called me his trained seal, his dolphin. On the last day of our vacation, everyone said it was sure to rain - "It always rains in Florida when you're on vacation!" - and when the skies darkened and the rain finally came, they all scurried inside for shelter, running past the scrawny palm trees, clutching their soggy copies of The Fountainhead and Peyton Place, flapping in their flip flops.
"You're all a bunch of powder puffs!" I shouted in a whisper, and even though Irene warned me that I'd be hit by lightning if I stayed in the water, still she let me stay. She wanted me to stay there. She crouched down near the edge and said, "Don't worry, little one. If you die, I'll come and get you. I'll wrap you in tissue paper, and send you up to Heaven. I'll offer you to God, as my gift. And oh, how He will love you." Then she stood up and ran away with the others, shouting loud enough for everyone back in New York to hear her, "I'm coming, Charlie. Wait for me!"
I didn't get out of the pool and I was never going to leave it, its surface now steaming, misty and warm as hot milk and honey, having it all to myself, for once and forever, cleaving to the bottom, my back pushed hard against the faux Mediterranean tiles, looking up to watch the silver-mercury droplets fall. The world was upside down. Under water, I heard a rumbling, very close, like the rushing sound your body makes when you press your palms up tight against your ears. I watched and listened. The rain poured down into the water, the winds blew the surface all shimmery. Then I took the deepest breath of my life and held it, pushing down against the urge to rise up, my heart spinning, my legs spinning like the tiny jets of the pearly nautilus to help me stay under while I turned into a seashell, a starfish, a mermaid, letting the precious bubbles out of my mouth one by one.