Elizabeth Logan Harris | Longreads | December 2019 | 16 minutes (4,123 words)
Weeks before my 14th birthday, 1976: my parents, my two younger sisters and I were piled in our station wagon, rumbling home to Virginia from a ski trip to New Hampshire, when my father veered toward an exit for the George Washington Bridge. “How ‘bout a weekend in New York?”
“New York City?!” we sisters chimed from the backseat.
It went without saying that my mother, who leapt at any chance for adventure, was in favor. She did, however, prefer to plan ahead. “If only we’d been prepared.”
Gunning for the exit, Dad took his foot off the pedal. “Do you want to go or not?”
“Yes! Yes!” we screamed.
Mom’s face broke open, a wide grin. “I suppose so.”
I was eager to return to the big city where I’d been only once before, but the swell I felt was owing to more than a destination. It was the sudden uptick in Dad’s mood that made the car feel like a buoy as we crested the bridge that day.
After the bellhop showed us to adjoining rooms, Mom explained what seedy meant. “Rundown. Worn out. Gone to pieces. Look at this bedspread!”
“So seedy means old?” asked 8-year-old Lyall.
“Old and dirty?” wondered Frankie, 11.
“Well it’s certainly not young and clean,” Mom said.
“Seedy means it’s not up to your mother’s standards,” called Dad from the bathroom. He argued that the old hotel still had a lot of character, which was what he said in defense of his favorite houndstooth jacket with the elbow patches, lately re-lined in a psychedelic paisley by a daring, if undiscerning, hometown tailor. He was taking that very jacket out of his suitcase as my mother looked askance.
Unpacking herself, Mom grumbled again about her lack of city clothes. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her from planning the day ahead. “Let’s give Ruthie a call,” she said.
Ruthie had been our babysitter while a student at a college near us back home. After graduating some five years earlier in childhood education, she’d surprised everyone by becoming a success on Wall Street. I knew my father considered Ruthie “damn good-looking” and my mother thought she was “smart.” I noticed how they both came to attention when she entered the diner next morning.
Over breakfast, Mom and Ruthie decided we would head uptown for the Roosevelt Island tram, followed by Bloomingdales and Central Park. I was the last one in the ladies room before we set out. I dawdled before the mirror, wondering at Ruthie’s mysterious, womanly composure. People often called my dark-haired, petite mother a “beauty,” but she didn’t have Ruthie’s statuesque sophistication, her effortless poise.
From where I stood, or swam rather, treading water in the savage stream of female biology, Ruthie floated serenely. I marveled at the ease with which her body lived inside its clothes: no unsightly tugs, no asymmetrical puckers, no bulges. Her plaid skirt, crisp white blouse, cardigan and patent leather loafers contained her leaning and bending and shifting so discreetly, so damn correctly and unobtrusively they might as well have been a second skin. My bell-bottom corduroys hung too far down my hips and bunched around my crotch so that I had to keep yanking at them as I walked. The sleeves of my blazer were too short, shooting up my forearms whenever I reached out. My yellow turtleneck, spotted with hot chocolate, pulled across my chest in stretchy creases. Underneath my clothes, the situation was graver yet. I was already four inches taller and three dress sizes larger than my mother. In a single year, I’d outgrown all but one boy in my ballroom dance class. My long thin legs (my father’s) were my body’s only concession to shapely proportion, but even they looked spindly, awkwardly delicate, in contrast to the veritable explosion happening at chest level. Wearing a bra since the fifth grade, I’d recently swelled into a C cup (and counting).
Outside, Dad paced the sidewalk. “I thought you had fallen in!” He wasn’t really mad, but he didn’t hide his impatience. “Come on,” he said, waving, “they’re blocks ahead!” I kept a close eye on his back, weaving through the sidewalk crowd. I longed for him to slow down and walk with me. I longed to talk with him, to exchange a few easy words, but we pressed toward the rest of the group in our usual silence.
A tall, agile man with large green eyes and a widow’s peak on the slope of his balding white forehead, Dad was a trial attorney by profession and a performer by instinct. He often got a rise out of folks with a quick joke or, if they had a minute, he’d pull a length of rope from his pocket or fan out a deck of cards, wowing them with a trick cribbed from the amateur magic routines he’d been practicing since his teens. Whenever I ran errands with Dad — to the hardware store, the dry cleaners — we inevitably left behind a cluster of laughing people. This made the strained silence we descended into once we were alone again all the more painful and mystifying. A natural ham myself, I recognized Dad’s compulsion to find an audience wherever he went and entertain them. I never tired of hearing his courtroom stories. We shared a sense of humor and a fascination with the “characters” he represented in his practice.
But this connection felt fleeting at best. For all his comic timing, Dad was subject to unpredictable mood swings. When he shifted downward, when his temper flared, I was often the target: the eldest, the one who knew better. This had long been the case, but in recent years, my back-talk had grown bolder and we often ended up in a screaming match.