She could do this. At last. She could. This was what her daughter needed from her. She drew in a deep breath.
“When I was a kid, California was beautiful citrus groves instead of parking lots and freeways. Oil derricks pumping continually up and down on the hillsides, like giant rusty praying mantises. The first Golden Arches. I remember when they started building Disneyland and my father thought Walt was ‘bat shit crazy’ for pumping so much money into a kids’ carnival,” she said quietly, slowly, finding her way word by word.
“We were Ukrainian.
“Did you know that?
“No, of course you didn’t. I never told you anything about my life or your heritage. I guess it’s time now.
“You’ve always wanted to know my story. So here goes.
“As a girl, I …
thought it meant “ugly”—Ukrainian—and it might as well have. It was the first of the secrets I learned to keep.
Fitting in. Not standing out. Being Americans. This is what mattered to my parents in the plastic, shiny world of the fifties.
You can’t understand how this could be, I’ll bet. You are a child of the seventies, wild and free. You grew up around people who wore a whole different kind of headband.
In the fifties, girls were like dolls.
Extensions of our parents. Belongings. We were expected to be perfect, with nothing on our minds except pleasing our parents, getting good grades, and marrying the right boy. It’s hard to think now, in this modern world, how much it mattered that you marry well.
We were to be nice and pliable and make cocktails and babies, but neither until after marriage.
We lived in one of the first cul-de-sacs in Orange County. Rancho Flamingo, it was called, a horseshoe plan of ranch-style houses set on identical lots, with green, well-tended lawns out front. If you had really made it, you had a swimming pool.
Pool parties were all the rage. I remember seeing my mother’s friends clustered by the pool, wearing bathing suits and flower-dabbed rubber swim caps, smoking and drinking as the men drank martinis by the barbecue. They were all drunk by the time someone finally jumped in.
Weekends were a movable feast; one tropical-themed pool party after another. The weird thing is, I only remember watching the adults. Children were to be seen and not heard back then.
Honestly, I never thought much about it when I was little. I blended into the woodwork. No one paid me any mind. I was an awkward girl, with frizzy hair and thick eyebrows that overshadowed my face. My dad used to say I looked like a Jew—he would swear when he said it, and I had no idea why it bothered him—why I bothered him—but it was obvious I did. Mom told me to just stay quiet and be a good girl.
I kept quiet, so quiet I lost the few friends I’d had in grade school. By junior high I was an outcast, or maybe not an outcast, maybe just invisible. By then the world was changing, but we didn’t know it. Terrible things—injustices—were happening all around us, but we didn’t see. We looked away. They—black people, Hispanics, Jews—were “them,” not “us.” My parents never mentioned our own ethnicity as they spewed their racism over cocktails. The first time I asked if Ukrainians were like Communists, I was fourteen years old. My dad smacked me across the face.
I ran to my mother. She was in the kitchen, standing at the avocado-green Formica counter, wearing an apron over her pale blue housedress, smoking a cigarette as she poured onion soup mix into a bowl of sour cream.
I was crying so hard snot was leaking into my mouth and I knew a bruise was forming on my cheek. Dad hit me, I said.
She turned slowly, a cigarette in one hand and that empty soup mix packet in the other. She stared at me through her jeweled, cat’s-eye black glasses and asked, What did you do?
Me? I drew in a great, gulping breath. She took a drag of her Lucky Strike in its holder and exhaled.
That’s when I understood it was my fault. I’d done something bad. Wrong. And I’d been punished. No matter how much I thought about it, though, I couldn’t figure out what I’d done that was so bad.
But I knew I couldn’t tell anyone.
That was the start of me falling. I don’t know how else to describe it. And then it got worse. In the summer, I began to change physically. I started my period (You’re a woman now, my mother said, handing me a pad and belt, don’t embarrass us or get in trouble), and my br**sts developed and I lost layers of baby fat. The first time I showed up at a pool party in an Annette Funicello two-piece, I heard Mr. Orrowan from next door drop his martini glass. My father grabbed me by the arm so hard it felt as if the bone snapped as he hauled me into the house and pushed me into a corner and told me I looked like a tramp.
The way he looked at me was worse than the slap across the face. I knew he wanted something from me, something dark and inexplicable, but I didn’t understand.
* * *
He came into my room one night when I was fifteen. He was drunk and smelled like cigarettes and he hurt me. I don’t think I have to say any more about that.
Afterward, he said it was my fault for dressing like a tramp. I believed him. He was my dad. I was used to believing him.
I tried to tell my mom—more than once—but she avoided me now, snapped at me over the smallest things. She was constantly telling me to go to my room or go for a walk. She couldn’t stand the sight of me. That was obvious.
After that, I tried to disappear. I buttoned my sweaters to my throat and wore no makeup at all. I talked to no one, made no new friends, and lost the few I’d had.
My life went like that for months. My dad got drunker and angrier and meaner, and I got quieter and more depressed and more hopeless, but I thought I was okay. You know, handling it, until one day in class when a boy pointed at me and laughed and everyone joined in. Or I thought they did. It felt like that scene in Suddenly, Last Summer where the boys turn on Liz Taylor and the guy she’s with. Ravenous and hungry and pushing. I started screaming and crying and pulling at my hair. The classroom went silent. I heard the quiet and looked up, horrified at what I’d done. The teacher asked what was wrong with me and I just stared up at her until she snorted in disapproval and sent me to the principal’s office.
Appearances. That’s what mattered to my parents. They didn’t care why I’d cried in class, or pulled out my own hair, just that I’d done it in public.
They said the hospital was for my own good.
You’re a bad girl, Dorothy. Everyone has problems, why are you so selfish? Of course your father loves you. Why would you say such terrible things?
You think there aren’t parallel universes, but there are. They can exist inside of you. You can be an ordinary girl one minute, and an empty shell the next. You can turn a corner—or open your eyes in your own dark bedroom—and step into a world that looks like yours but isn’t.
The hospital—they called it a sanatorium—was in another city. Even now I couldn’t tell you where. It could have been Mars.
They put me in a straitjacket. Wouldn’t want me hurting myself, or so said the men in white who came for me.
So there I was. A sixteen-year-old girl with bald spots, trussed up like a goose and screaming. My mom cried every time she looked at me but not because I was in pain. Because I was so loud. My dad wouldn’t even come with us.
Take care of it, Ma, he said.
When we got to the place, it looked like a prison on a hill.
Will you be good? We’ll take off the straitjacket if you’ll be good.
I promised to be good, which I knew meant quiet. In the fifties, good girls were quiet girls. They unwrapped me and let me walk up these wide stone steps. Mom walked beside me, but not close enough to touch me, as if I’d contracted some disease she thought might be communicable. I walked in this fog where I was both awake and asleep. I learned later that they’d drugged me. I don’t remember it, though. I just remember going up those steps; it was like being underwater. I knew where I was and what I was seeing, but it was all hazy and the proportions were wrong.
I wanted so much for my mom to hold my hand. I’m pretty sure I kept whimpering at her, which only made her walk faster. Click, click, click. That’s the sound her heels made on the stone steps. She was holding on to the patent leather strap of her handbag so tightly I thought the leather would rip.
Inside, everyone wore white and looked grim. I think that’s when I noticed the bars on the windows. I remember thinking I was so insubstantial I could float away, through the bars, if I really wanted to.
The doctor’s name was Corduroy. Or Velvet. Some fabric. He had a pinched mouth and an alcoholic’s nose. When I saw him I started to laugh. I thought his nose looked like a red parachute opening up and I laughed so hard I started to cry, and my mother hissed at me to behave, for God’s sake, and her fingers clenched around the strap again.
Sit down, Miss Hart.
I did as I was told, and as I did it, I stopped laughing. I became aware of the hushed silence in the office, and then of the weird light. There were no windows. I guessed too many people had looked at Mr. Cotton’s parachute nose and jumped.
Do you know why you’re here? Dr. Silk asked me.
I’m fine now.
No, Dorothy. “Fine” girls don’t pull their own hair and scream and make wild accusations about people who love them.
That’s right, my mother said crisply. Poor Winston is beside himself. What’s wrong with her?
I looked helplessly at Dr. Wool. He said, We can help you feel better if you’re a good girl.
I didn’t believe him. I turned to my mom and begged to be taken home, where I swore I’d be better.
I ended up on my knees beside her, yelling. I told her I didn’t mean to do it and that I was sorry. You see? she said to Dr. Silk. You see?
I couldn’t make her understand how sorry I was, and how scared, and I started screaming and crying. I knew it was wrong—bad, too loud. I fell forward, hit my head on the hard wooden arm of my mother’s chair.
I heard my mother scream, MAKE HER STOP DOING THAT.
I felt someone—people—come up behind me, grabbing me, holding me.
When I woke up, however much later it was, I was in a bed, with my wrists and ankles strapped down so tightly I couldn’t move.
People in white began appearing around me, springing into place like those targets on a wheel in a carnival. I remember wanting to scream, trying to, but no sound came out. They were working on me and around me without even really seeing me.
I heard a rolling sound and realized I could still turn my head, although it took effort. A nurse—I later learned her name was Helen—wheeled a machine into the room, up to the bed.
Someone touched my head, smeared a cold goo into my temples. I turned my head away and heard a voice say, Shit, and felt fingers tangle in my hair.
Helen leaned over me, so close I could see the tiny black hairs in her nostrils. Don’t be afraid. It’ll be over in no time.
I felt the sting of tears. Pathetic, that such a small kindness could make me cry.
Dr. Seersucker came in next, his face pursed up, his nose preceding him. He leaned over me without a word and fit cold, flat metal plates to either side of my head. It felt like rounds of ice, both freezing and burning, and I started to sing.