This is monstrously good. And it just came to me today. No plan to do it. Arrived out of nowhere.
Birthdays tended to go a’wanderin' in my family, as if they were loose-limbed and refused to answer to fixed dates.
You had your day, and then it lingered, stretched for, let us say, half of the following week. The birthday nimbus. An extended halo of celebration. My father may have been the architect of the concept.
“Math is fuzzy,” he’d say. “Even when you compute that three-cubed is 27, there are no one-sided numbers, only people who could be looking deeper.”
This was a way he had of trying to get me and my brother Arnold to think beyond what our dad called “the given.” The clarity with which you think you see a glass of water or a ruler’s edge, when there could well be shooting flames present, or hard-hooking twists, were you to recalibrate your mind, if not your eyes.
You didn’t acquire more gifts or cakes in the nimbus, but maybe there’d be a lesser rebuke if I termed Arnold a d-bag or vice versa, or your bedtime got pushed a bit further into the night.
It was a nice space to occupy, the nimbus, and it helped you understand—and perhaps this was its calculus—that marking a given day was but a commemoration, and the gratitude someone else had for you coming into their life couldn’t begin to be adumbrated with scratches on paper.
But that year—conceivably it was the acquisition of a second digit in my age that did it—marked a shift and what I, naturally, being a ten-year-old girl accustomed to the sweet nuzzling of the nimbus, initially thought was a downturn in my fortunes.
“Hank,” my mother said, “you’re going to have to pick, piano or soccer. Your choice,” she added, as if I was the designer of this either/or construction.
My initial thought was: “Fuck me, adulthood blows.” Arnold was thirteen, and freely dispensed—when our parents weren’t around, naturally—with his much-relished, newly-acquired modes of verbiage. Had I told him he was a true mentor of filth, he may have bowed.
I was named for an aunt Henrietta who saved my mother from drowning after she hit her head on the diving board as a teenager. My mother had been old enough—and earlier won some breast stroke competition at the Y—that when she stayed at the Cape with Henrietta and my great uncle Gus—who made it all the way to 108, and told this story until the last of his many pipe-choked breaths—she was allowed to swim on her own, one of those people that nearly from birth is termed a “water baby,” as if having come out of the womb part-human, part-flotation device.
No one was out back at the pool, as the oft-told tale went, “but I felt a pinch in my collarbone,” Henrietta said, “and I went a’racin,” subsequently locating my mom, her legs folded under her, arms intertwined, resting on the bottom, and turned over on her side, “Like a stillborn child tied into a knot, minus the bones.”
That simile was crucial in Uncle Gus’s recountings of Henrietta’s heroism, even if how he said it made me think of those Boris Karloff pictures when he plays a grave robber, what they used to call a Resurrection Man. Henrietta didn’t live long enough for me to remember hearing the story from her directly, but I understood—even felt it in my blood—maybe it was our shared name—that when people like my people put “a’s” in front of verbs and chopped a “g” off the end, they couldn’t have meant their words with greater conviction.
I was proud to be named for my aunt, because I loved my mother very much, and if my aunt hadn’t possessed a vaticly-inclined clavicle, been an ace swimmer herself, and taken a CPR class, my mom would have been no more, and I never would have been.
People called me Hank, on account that the 1950s were long gone, and the only Henrietta you knew of as a kid at the time was the cat in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, an insecure tabby who lived next to X the Owl. And outside in the world to my classmates and friends, I was a tomboy, so “Hank” had a kind of secondary level to it—my father’s otherwise clear glass of water, with flames present.
Fatigue had infiltrated my capabilities at the piano bench, as I knew better than anyone, being my own harshest critic. I think you might have best summarized my once blazing lines of Liszt as sodden—in part because I was the dervish of any and every soccer field and expended huge amounts of energy—which Arnold would have likened to blowing a full load, as if some people blasted partial ones—which was ironic, as I didn’t love soccer, and would brainstorm reasons I might give my parents for taking a respite, if only for a season.
“Added focus is the rub,” my mother said smiling. I remember thinking my parents were heady people, or maybe it was coincidence, this apparent vetting of my thoughts, but upon soliciting his input on the matter, Arnold just said that that’s how parents roll, and I left it at that.
We spent a lot of time with each other, me and Arnold, and with our babysitter, Jenny Race. She was there a lot of nights when we went to bed, and some months it could be most days, when our dad was out of town for business—he consulted on reactor repairs at power facilities, which broke down more than you would have thought, requiring his recondite expertise to once more get going—and our mother was in the city on account of her gig as a theater director.
It helped that Arnold and I were close, though I did think he was disgusting, just as I’m sure he thought I was a combo of blank—and somewhat boring—slate, and girl-jock, but there was a certain amount of stage-managing on both our parts, as we were both—something—regarding Ms. Race.
“if I could fuck anyone in the world,” Arnold began one time, “it’d be her.”
We’d been tasked with weeding the back garden in early October, and I thought, “who the hell pulls weeds out of the ground at the time of the year when you start getting frosts?” but that’s the kind of thing our parents had us do.
Arnold didn’t mind as much because with no one in earshot, he was free to air his latest theories and desires, as much to hear how they sounded aloud with an audience, as for shock value. The way he said this particular statement about Jenny made it seem as if I’d been a guy, he’d have asked me what my answer would have been.
“Why don’t you tell her?” I’m sure she’d love to hear it.”
“Maybe I will. Maybe she would.”
“I’d love to see that.”
“I wouldn’t do it in front of you. The mood would have to be right.”
His hands slowed down. No weeds would be ripped from his little plot of garden earth. I could feel him thinking, considering whether he might woo Jenny Race whilst watching The Empire Strikes Back for the umpteenth time, with some popcorn he said he made just for her, hoping she no longer remembered that evening she had walked in on him changing, which I experienced from the side of the hall where my room was as two staccato shouts from Jenny that she didn’t see anything, and later tried to forget myself after Arnold had told me 1.That he had had a boner—a term I had previously been blissfully ignorant regarding, and that, 2. It was long as a comb, which I decided in the end was the more troubling bit of information.
But then interlude of thinking would come to a close, this spell of halted garden weeding came to be broken, and Arnold would spit, and resume flinging dead dandelions into the bucket between us. He had a penchant for transitioning from the vulgar to the earnest without him necessarily knowing that I was able to see past his braggadocio and follow the path of his heart, which was abetted by the fact that my own heart traveled along a similar track.
Jenny was eighteen and she’d made All-State as a mid-fielder the year before on the high school soccer team, and she was also my piano teacher, being a legit wunderkind, whereas I was somewhat of a wunderkind simulacrum. You couldn’t get more legit than Jenny Race.
When that year was over—her last year of high school—she was going to Juilliard, for free, which I did not understand at the time. I knew that we had money, but nothing made that more plain to me than those first couple times when I saw my mom pay Jenny after she came home from a matinee, and Jenny said that the amount was far too dear.
She’d speak like that, as if she lived in one of my Beatrix Potter books, which was so romantic to me, and where I would have liked to live, too, allowing that Jenny would be staying and not going to this Julliard, which sounded as if it may have formed a kind of tri-city area along with, I don’t know, Camelot and Oz. Just had that ring of the faraway, something post-horizon, like one of those dreams a person has in life that is always prefaced with a “someday.”