January 7, 2012
After a few months in Bethesda, my father and mother and I moved to Potomac. This was a new development, rich in kids, all the houses of recent vintage. The children on the block played together, and I played with them too. Next door was Alison, who bent my thumb back against my fist to see if I would cry, which I did, because it hurt, and it was surprising to stand there while someone looked right at you, right in your eyes, and did something that was painful to you, watching you to see your reaction. My mother didn’t like Alison, either; one day she’d just mopped and Alison came running through in muddy shoes, and when she called Alison’s mother to complain, they wound up telling each other to “go to hell.”
I’d wanted me and Alison to not be friends anymore, but not like this. To have to avoid someone at the age of four because of a vague sense of past bad blood was stressful, but eventually it became a skill I’d carry throughout life, the ability to walk right past someone who’d been an intimate without speaking or meeting their eyes. Things were not perfect at Alison’s anyway; her father tried to drive the car onto the lawn to run over his wife. My mother tried to explain that to me. “He tried to hit her with his car! He drove up on to the lawn!” The idea of intending someone in your family fatal harm was deeply unsettling to me, and driving on the lawn? Was that even possible? “He was going to kill her? How did she get away?” They lived in a house together, right next door – was she upstairs hiding in a closet? “She ran into the house! That’s what you get with crazy people.”
I played with Kathleen and Eileen from across the street, two sisters my age with several older brothers, one of whom had a motor scooter, I guess you’d call it, or a dirt bike. Something small but powerful that I both longed for and feared, as I feared the boy on it for being so much older and so obviously powerful because he drove a vehicle of his own – the freedom that implied, the inroads into the adult world he’d made. When I was offered a ride, I was scared to be noticed and spoken to by this tough older kid who’d never paid me any mind, but I also really wanted to do it, and was allowed to climb on and hang on for a slow, thrilling ride up and down the block.
I was not the only one who had a desire to drive away. There was a boy down the block who I loved, and who loved me, and we played together frequently. This was all well and good until somehow the notion of physical love was introduced, and I got a suffocated, trapped feeling, like I’d promised something I couldn’t afford and was going to have to pay. Our mothers thought it was adorable and made a lot of jokes about it – were they the ones who creeped me out about it, something lascivious in their tone of voice? One night, the little boy was waiting for his parents in the car; because this was the 1970s and nobody cared about safety at all, the parents had started the car then both run back in the house for one last thing, and the boy had crawled into the driver’s seat and pressed the pedal. The car was in reverse, so it just rolled backwards down the driveway, across the street, and into the neighbor’s mailbox, before coming to a stop. Again, my mother’s recounting was less than settling. She told me this as though it was funny, but she left out the important details – Who was hurt? Was he going to have to pay for the mailbox? Was anybody going to jail? Did his parents beat him until the skin came off his body? She was puzzled by my questions, my digs for information; to her it was a simple story: A child tried to drive a car! What mischief. To me, it was fascinating new information to ponder.
I played in Kathleen and Eileen’s basement with them, clapping games with ribald insinuations, Miss Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell… Hide and seek, and I wound up somehow alone in their parents’ bedroom, where the radio was playing “Seasons in the Sun,” and I felt the lyrics applied directly to me: “They tried to teach me right from wrong.” It was a moment of dislocation, where certain features of reality suddenly stood out so much that I couldn’t help stopping to marvel at them. I could look across the street from this room and see my parents’ house, our house, but I could see it from above because this house was higher than ours. Meanwhile, the song on the radio was being sung somewhere else but I was hearing it through a box. That person isn’t here, I thought, and had a sense of being unseen, in the same way our house across the street couldn’t see me spying on it. The man singing the song was not present. I could “get away with” something. I wondered what that would be.
Why was I so mercenary already? Why so prone to shame? I decided I didn’t like “Janice Erlbaum” anymore, I decided I wanted to be called Rose Red, like Snow White’s sister in the storybook. I announced this to my mother and father. “Call me Rose Red now because that’s my new name.” My father replied, with total seriousness, “If I have to call you Rose Red, you have to call me John Jacob Jingleheimer Shmidt.” I was infuriated – this was exactly the type of name we were trying to get away from, ugly and cumbersome. Besides, his name was Daddy, it was a fact, and we weren’t changing it now. “No,” I insisted. “If you get to change your name, I get to change mine,” he said, and I couldn’t make him see any other logic.
I had already told the other kids on the block that I was changing my name to Rose Red. One of Kathleen and Eileen’s brothers had heard this and just laughed at me outright. “Ha ha! Rose Red, that’s stupid.” And with that, the tenor of my friendship with the girls changed forever. They made fun of me, and to go from being friends to being scorned in under five seconds was so disorienting; it was a sharp sudden pain that would never submit. Even if I could get them to stop teasing me, I couldn’t get them to not have teased me in the first place. Now it was all ruined.
That night, I proposed to my parents that we move to a new house. I thought of it as my only hope – to go somewhere new and begin again. I couldn’t go out there anymore, I couldn’t even show my face. Nobody was going to come swing on our backyard swingset with me, not mean Alison from next door, not Kathleen and Eileen who’d turned on me on a dime. My proposal to move was struck down, so I decided that I would pretend we were a new family who had moved in, that Janice and her parents were gone, and I was someone new, specifically an “Indian princess.” I expressed my new identity by walking in mincing steps with my palms pressed together and my feet turned out, as this was the generally accepted walking style of Indian princesses. I wanted my parents to go along with the ruse, but they either didn’t understand what I was asking or blew it off. “No, pretend,” I insisted. Again, how did I think I was going to get away with this? How did I think I was going to be able to convincingly lie to people around me, and what kind of relationship did I plan to have with them? It took a lot of chutzpah to think I could pull off a faked identity, and it took a real pessimist to believe that the only way to relate to other people was to pretend not to be me. That I would think the best I could do was have a friendship based on lies.
But really, I don’t think I felt much of a difference without friends. I played alone a lot, and I read a lot, and I continued to watch Sesame Street and Electric Company. I was not more or less lonely or bored without other people, and was now learning how quickly relationships can turn bad, so recognized that there were always going to be alone times. I really enjoyed sucking my thumb and rubbing the area above my top lip with my index finger; that was something I could do for hours, and interacting with people often required me to take the thumb out and speak, which did not always prove worthwhile.
I skated around the kitchen in my socks. I breathed on the glass of the sliding door in the kitchen and ran my finger through the mist. I was taken to play at the house of a sister and brother, and when they argued, the mother told them to remember Sonny and Cher, because “Sonny’s always sunny and Cher always shares.” Even at age four we knew that was stupid and worthy of scorn. I guess my mother was trying to help me to branch out since I was no longer playing with anyone on my block.
I was not unhappy when, a few months later, we moved.