“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Grace. “I just don’t like it.”
“I don’t think she’s a good influence.”
“Don’t think? Who? Influence?” asked my father, looking up from his lamb chop sitting in splendor surrounded by peas on a blue dinner plate.
“Monique,” I said. “she’s my new friend. She’s the first person in that school to show any interest in me. She’s very nice, she’s in the advanced Latin class…”
“A little vulgar,” said Grace. “she pronounces her final ‘T’s’.”
“What?” I said.
“Like that,” Grace imitated me. “Whatt-d. It’s a vulgar New Jersey accent.”
“But we live in New Jersey. You were born here, daddy was born here.” I shot a look at my brothers who were playing knock hockey with a shoe under the table. “In fact, I’m the only person in this goddamn house who wasn’t born in New Jersey because I was born in goddamn Albuquerque although no one will ever tell me anything…”
“Watch your language, Miss,” snapped Grace.
“Who are her parents?” asked my father.
“Whose?” Grace’s head and mine shot up together.
“This girl Rania wants to visit…”
“Monique,” said Grace. His father is that French dermatologist, you know the one. Her mother? Oh somebody…I see her around town, overdressed for grocery shopping, her hair all dyed blonde and teased.”
“Then I don’t see any reason why Rania can’t go visit with this friend,” said my father.
“Stop that! “ yelped Grace, as one of my brothers inadvertently hit her in the shin. And then wearily to me: “I guess you can go.”
Grace drove me to Monique’s the next Saturday evening. The window wipers squeaked in the pouring rain. I traced the path of one droplet with my fingertip on the inside of the glass. Unlike snowflakes, drops of rain were all the same. Rain made me lonesome. Even that one drop of water was going somewhere, to merge with other drops, become a stream, a river, the ocean. I smelled the smell of rain that had been rain for so long it had lost its shape. And I smelled the damp upholstery of the Oldsmobile.
Grace was right. Monique’s house was vulgar even from the outside. The white columns flanking the door were oversized, even for Tara. Inside was worse. Monique’s mother answered the door dressed in a black and gold pantsuit. The scent of Tabu filled the air. A diamond necklace picked up the glint of the rock on her finger. Her hair was a bleached blonde and stood out stiffly. Even her nail polish was frosted. Beside me, Grace stiffened inside her nice blue dress and cardigan. Monique’s mother waved us in vaguely. Besides Tabu, I smelled bourbon. The gold wall-to-wall carpeting extended out of sight. Crystals seemed to hang from every lamp. The couch was rose velvet, crushed, with a dozen needlepointed pillows that stitched out famous works of art–Picasso, Mondrian, Matisse–in bright wool. I could feel Grace’s gaze linger on these–the most vulgar touch of all, reducing art to decoration.
Monique came down the stairs. She wore a denim micro-mini skirt, white lipstick, black boots. Somehow in this get-up she still managed to look like a fairy princess imprisoned in a suburban family: beautiful, sullen, slightly dangerous.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I echoed.
“Well,” said Grace.
“Oh yes…” said Monique’s mother.
“Allo” said the tall man, who was obviously Monique’s father. He had a crooked smile.
“My father,” said Monique.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“Monique has told me so much about you. I’m sure she has told you a lot about me. She is so proud of her father.”
“Sure, yeah, I mean, yes,” I stammered. Monique had barely said a word to me about either of her parents.
“Come on now,” said Monique’s mother. “We’ve got reservations, we’ll be late, nice to meet you.” And she struggled into the seal coat that looked half a size too small, or maybe she was half a size too big.
“Good night,” said Grace, and shot me one of her piercing looks.
“Bye,” I said.
“Thank God,” said Monique, as the front door closed behind the three of them. “I’m starving. Who can eat when you have to eat with them? It just turns my stomach. What a relief that they went out to dinner…”
She led me into the kitchen and over to the avocado green refrigerator. Monique began to display its contents: pickled green beans, Schwepps bitter lemon, cold chicken, pasta salad, salami, leftover chili, cherry tomatoes, kosher dill pickles, herring in sour cream, lemon jello, diet coffee soda, cherry yogurt, half-sour tomatoes, black olives, olives stuffed with pimento, olives stuffed with almonds, diet black raspberry soda, tonic, V8 juice, cream cheese with chives, onion bagels, pumpernickel bread, clam dip, horseradish, baked potatoes, apple juice, and two kinds of mustard.Suddenly I was starving too, and piled roast beef on dill rye bread, with a side of cranberry sauce and a glass of instant iced tea. We munched in a thoughtful silence, as if preparing to eat our way through the entire refrigerator.
“Well,” said Monique. “Time to get ready. Look, it’s finally stopped raining, that’s good luck. The rain is just too, well, you know, the rain just frightens me. I never liked Noah’s ark in the Bible. Hated it, in fact. I know I would just flip right out if I had to stay in some boat all crowded with people…”
“Animals,” I corrected her.
“Huh?” She licked a splotch of relish from the upper right corner of her mouth.
“Animals, not people. Noah’s ark is full of animals. You know, two by two. We had a great Noah’s ark when we were little: a pair of wooden giraffes, a pair of wooden alligators, a pair of lions painted differently from each other, the lioness was all sleek and the lion had a long mane. There was only one dove, though, because the dove comes back with the olive branch and then…”
“Time to go,” said Monique.
“I didn’t know we were going anywhere. The food is great in here and it’s still pretty wet outside. Why are we going anywhere? And do we even have…”
“We’re going to the beach.”
“We’re going to the beach.”
“We’re going down the shore.”
“But how are we going to get there?”
“I’m going to drive us. And stop interrupting. I’ll tell you why we’re going. We’re going to see the gypsies. There are gypsies at the carnival and there’s gypsy fortune teller and she’s going to read our palms and tell us what’s going to happen. Our neighbor told mom she went last week and the gypsy fortune teller not only told her that the cyst on her right ovary wasn’t cancerous–and later the doctors said it wasn’t–but also that she would come into money, and this wasn’t just the usual schtick because right away her aunt Ethel died and the will was in probate but then she got three thousand dollars and one-eighth share in a building in Manhattan. Can you imagine that?”
Monique leaned over and took a big bite of my sandwich. It left a mark, curved like her mouth, and empty space where her teeth had been.
“Monique,” I said.
“Needs mayo,” she said. “Come on. We’re outta here.”
“Monique,” I said, as she led me into the garage and over to an old Ford station wagon, the kind with fake wood angels on the sides. Monique kicked first one front tire, then the next three in turn, as if she were contemplating a purchase.
“Get in,” she said.
“Monique,” I said, “you don’t know how to drive.”
“Oh yes I do.”
“Driver’s Ed isn’t until next year.”
“I’ve been practicing.”
“But you don’t have a license.”
“But you don’t even have a learner’s permit. What if something happens, what if, what if…”
“Nothing is going to happen. Just get in.”
I got in. I knew what Grace would say. She would say: “If Monique told you to jump off the George Washington Bridge, would you jump?” Apparently the answer was yes. I got in, and as an afterthought, buckled my seat belt.
Monique put the car in reverse. It stalled out twice. Then she backed it out of the garage in a series of jerks, and swung it out of the driveway. In the street, she narrowly missed the neighbor’s car parked curbside. Streetlights cast a blue haze into the dusk. Maple leaves hung red and yellow and green. Some things can manage to look pretty even when they are dying.
At the stop sign, Monique hit the brakes with full force. Only my seat belt and guardian angel kept me from hurtling from the death seat and through the windshield. Monique finally released the hand brake when she turned on to the entrance ramp for route 80. The highway was a stream of gigantic trucks, headlights glaring. Monique’s head was barely visible above the steering wheel. She hit first the high beams, then the windshield wipers, and finally the turn signal. When I opened my eyes again we were sailing along in the far right-hand lane, going twenty miles an hour slower than the flow of traffic. Monique was biting her lower lip in satisfaction and fiddling with the AM radio dial. She finally settled on the strains of “Blue, blue, my love is blue.”
“How far are we going?”
“Just down the shore. You’ve been there, haven’t you?”
But I had never been down the shore. Grace thought the Jersey shore was low class. We went to Cape Cod or Rehobeth Beach.
The faster traffic continued to pass us. Monique’s driving did not exactly improve, but she seemed to hit her stride. I could feel wings brushing the side of the car. I was upset that Monique did not like the story of Noah’s ark. It was my favorite thing in the Bible. It made sense to me, all those animals paired together. It felt cozy. The world would not be destroyed, God said, not this time. I thought I smelled vegetable soup, but that was impossible.
Monique finally pulled off the highway and on to a crisscross of smaller roads. We were in the town of Oceanside. The rich smell of night ocean and salt rolled in. A narrow road led us down to the beach itself. We followed along a line of jetties, the whitecaps shining as they broke in the dark.
The carnival itself did not give off much light: It was a line of booths along the boardwalk. There was no ferris wheel, just a few small rides set up on the backs of trucks. The night had a shabby, festive, air. I rummaged through my purple purse and put on a little bit of frosted lipstick before I got out of the car. The touch of the Swiss army knife reassured me. It was there in case I needed it for anything: to peel an orange, clip my fingernails, or stab a mugger in the heart. The nearness of the sea made me dizzy, that Atlantic smell of so much decay. I licked my lips to taste it, briny and dark.
Monique took off her sneakers, and then in a rush opened her arms and ran towards the water. “It’s warm,” she cried, “it’s warm.”
My shoes made a satisfying thud as I tied them together over my shoulder. We strolled along the tideline.
“Do you ever…wonder?”
“All the time,” said Monique. “I wonder all the time.”
“What do you wonder about most?” I said.
Monique traced her toe in the sand. “Death. I wonder about death. About, if it’s–you know–the end of everything, or if it’s just another place, some place like being alive or some place different, like being on the wrong side of the mirror.”
“You don’t wonder about sex?”
“I know about sex.”
“You do? Aren’t you a virgin?”
“Well, sort if.” She kicked a clamshell into the waves. “What about you?”
“Sort of how? I mean, you’ve made out, haven’t you, been tongue kissed?”
“Oh! Kissed! Sure. Kissed. Definitely.”
We took three sandy steps in silence.
“Ask me a question,” I said. “Ask me anything at all.”
“Okay then. Tell me about your mother.”
“About Grace? What is there to tell? She’s all right, I guess, but she bosses me around all the time.”
“Not Grace. Your real mother.”
“My real mother?”
“The one who died.”
“Oh,” I said. “I don’t remember. She died before I was born, I mean, when I was born. She and my father got married right after high school. I guess they weren’t much older than we are. He got drafted into the Korean war, but got stationed in Albuquerque. That’s in New Mexico.”
“Like Ethel in “I Love Lucy?’ “
“Yeah. He was on the base there. My mom went too. I’ve seen a picture, she looked kind of nice, Armenian looking…my grandparents say I look a lot like her.”
“Dark,” said Monique.
“Yeah. Dark. Anyway, she got pregnant, and they were really happy about it. One day right before I was supposed to be born she went to see the doctor and this crazy person appears in the parking lot and kidnaps her and kills her…”
“Wow,” said Monique.
“You don’t believe me.”
“I believe you.” And Monique took one of my hands in both of hers. My hand was freezing cold; she rubbed it between her warm ones. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“It’s fine. I don’t mind. I don’t know much anyhow. This crazy person was a lady who couldn’t have children or something and so she grabbed my mother and killed her and took me out…”
“Took you out?”
“Cut my mother’s stomach and…”
“Gross,” said Monique.
“If you don’t want to hear I can just stop now.”
“Just don’t make it gross.”
“All right. The crazy lady took me out and claimed I was hers but everyone knew she hadn’t been pregnant and figured it out and so my father got me back right away and they locked her up.”
“They didn’t electrocute her or anything?”
“Too bad. I wonder what happened to her. I wonder if she thinks about you.”
“I bet she thinks about me all the time,” I said
“Come on,” said Monique. “What did we come here for? Let’s go and get our fortunes told.”
I followed Monique as she climbed on to the boardwalk suspended on its rusty scaffolding above the beach. It looked like an island that led nowhere. We hoisted ourselves up where there had once been steps. My tarry feet stuck to the sand. The boardwalk ended at an asphalt lot that came down to the beach. The amusement park was one of those little carnivals that gypsies up and down the east coast, going to Florida for the winter and up to New England for the summer.
The crowd was small but cheerful, as if they didn’t know that summer was over. It was mostly locals, mothers with lots of little kids and some old retired couples. A gang of tanned boys whistled at us as we passed. Monique stalked on, but I smiled. These boys had helped me with my secret quota. I had imposed this quota on myself when I’d been sent to an all girls’ school. My rule was that I had to get at least one boy a week to notice me; at least one boy must look at or talk to me. I stared into strange boy’s eyes at the bus stop, hoping they would grin at me. Sometimes I got so desperate I was tempted to count my little brothers’ jerky friends. So I was happy when the boys whistled; it was only Saturday night and now I could relax for the rest of the week.
Monique wanted cotton candy. I shared some of hers, letting the pink sugar dissolve on my tongue. The helium machine hissed, filling up red and silver balloons. Monique paused at the entrance of the Tunnel of Love, but I wouldn’t get into one of the rickety cars with her.I didn’t trust her in a vehicle of any sort. Besides, I didn’t like having blue lit skeletons pop out at me. Instead we went over to the dart booth and tried to win a large pink snake by breaking balloons, but neither of us hit even one,
The fortune-telling booth sat at the end of the arcade, with skee ball to the right and to the left nothing, just the darkness of sea and sky. The booth was draped in rugs, good rugs, I could tell by the thickness of the weave, the fast brightness of the colors, the dense proliferation of knots.
“Do you want to go first?” I whispered. The salt air hung heavily about us.
“No, you go.”
I pushed a hanging rug aside and we crept into the booth. Inside, it shone with a satisfying dark red light. The fortune teller herself was seated at a round table. A large crystal ball was perched in front of her, while a thin line of blue smoke rose from an incense holder in the shape of the head of a lion.
The gypsy was a disappointment, though. She wore a fluffy pink sweater and skirt. She didn’t even have a turban, and the black roots showed through her bleached blonde hair.
“Cross my palm with silver.”
We looked at her blankly.
“Five dollars each to have your palms read.”
Monique nudged me forward and I put five greasy one dollar bills down on the table.
“The left hand is the hand of the soul,” intoned the gypsy. She had a strong accent, Brooklyn or Queens. She wasn’t from New Jersey. “The right hand is the hand of experience.” The gypsy smelled of rosewater hand lotion. She picked up my right hand and examined it. “Don’t worry about money,” she said. “There is plenty of money in your palm.” There was also plenty of money in my purse and in my shoe, in small denominations that I had stolen gradually from Grace and my father. “I see a long line of marriage,” the gypsy continued, “and I hope you like children because I see three children in your palm–two girls and a boy.” The gypsy took a breath: “You are a little reckless, strong willed, you have a wise-ass bump right here,” she said, and pinched it under my middle finger. Then she took my left hand, pursed her lips, squinted.
She shook her head.
Next to me, Monique was vibrating with interest.
“It’s very odd,” said the gypsy.
“Something is wrong with the way you were born.”
“The way you were born is wrong…”
“You see that in my hand?”
“The left hand is the hand of the soul. You’re birth wasn’t normal, you’ll excuse my saying…”
“Is something bad going to happen?”
“Something bad has already happened,” said the gypsy, “something bad has already happened on a mountain in a place where there is no ocean. Didn’t your mother ever tell you about the way you were born?”
“My mother’s dead,” I said softly.
“Ahh…” and she let my hand fall. “Cross my palm with silver,” she said to Monique.
“That’s all?” I demanded.
“For five dollars, that’s all.”
I got up and turned abruptly, pulled back the rug and bolted into the night air. There was a blue light at the end of the arcade, with a few late moths hovering around it. I could hear the sound of the sea.
When Monique came out of the booth she looked excited; her skin seemed to shine, golden at the edges.
“What did she say?”
“Something about a rock and roll band. Maybe I’ll be a famous singer. But Rania…”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Monique gave me her you-are-in-my-power look.
“Forget it. Bug off. Leave me alone. This is my business, not your business.”
“I can’t forget it. It’s your destiny, your fate. You have to find out what happened. We need to know, it’s a mystery crying out to be solved. If it were me, I would want to know. I wouldn’t have let them keep it a secret from me all these years. Your family is keeping the truth from you, the real truth about who you are and how you came to be born. But we’re going to find out what really happened.”
“Monique,” I said, “since this is my destiny, my fate, I just say cram it. Maybe not for always, but at least for tonight. Let’s just go on a ride or something and the go home, all right?”
“The subject is not closed,” said Monique. But she followed me in the
direction in which I was headed, towards the ride called the Spinning Teacups.
A toothless guy took our tickets and helped us into a big pink cup. The teacup swung around gently, but as the ride speeded up it began to spin in earnest. It spun and it spun and Monique and I threw back our heads and began to laugh. Once we started to laugh we couldn’t stop. I was laughing so hard I was afraid I would pee in my pants, but I didn’t care. I closed my eyes and opened them and the night sky of stars spun crazily–the inside of a kaleidoscope, and church’s mosaic dome, the dancing of those foxfire lights behind my closed eyes.
There was still the real ride home in the dark, with Monique trying to figure out the difference between the parking lights and the brights. But I sat quietly. I wasn’t frightened this time. The gypsy had seen long and cluttered life in my palm. Also, now I knew that I had something that Monique wanted–a mystery. Until that mystery was solved, she would have to be my friend.
When we got home it was two o’clock in the morning. Monique had take a wrong turn and ended up in Perthamboy, New Jersey. Monique’s mother was waiting for us at the bottom of the driveway, and we were grounded for the rest of our lives.