--- A M B E R D O R K O S T O P P E R
The trick that saved me from more muggings than I care to imagine was one I thought up myself. I never believed in the thing with the whistle, or kicking car tires, or acting too crazy for someone to want to attack. I did not think I could successfully Mace anyone, ever, and I did not feel capable of pushing someone's nose up into their brain with the hard palm of my hand, like I had seen on the self-defense TV special that they always run during the PBS fund drive. I didn't even really go with the idea of throwing the money in one direction and running the other. Once they speak to you, I have found, once they target you, you are already completely violated. Throwing the money saves you nothing, certainly not your dignity, certainly not money.
The trick I used, which I thought up on the spur of the moment and in a moment of need, was to look directly over the shoulder of the person who was approaching me and to wave wildly at an imaginary person just behind them.
Maybe I had really originally read this somewhere, and maybe I hadn't. But whenever I saw a man veering toward me slightly, maybe looking right at me and maybe not, but with that specific concentration that you can feel coming off of a man (or sometimes a woman) when they have targeted you, I would cry out, "Jodie!" or "Hey. Hold that door!" I often, if I had the time, let the recognition of my imaginary friend come over my face slowly, so that the person I believed was about to attack me actually had a moment or two to believe that they were going to get away with it. Perhaps they even thought of taking extra advantage of seeing that I was, ostensibly, preoccupied with something just past them. But then when I called out and waved wildly, it was always a moment worth savoring; they would physically veer away. If perhaps they should look backwards to see who I was talking to (it seemed only the dumber looking ones did that; they just could not help themselves) there were always enough well-lit homes to make it seem that the person had just ducked their head inside, perhaps to silence the dog or kick the cat back into the living room. The fact is, it never failed, because in the entire time I utilized the trick I was never mugged and I truly, truly felt the satisfaction that came from thwarting the individual whom I believed had planned to attack me.
My old trick had been yawning; that had been when I was younger, and I was not so often approached for my money or body, but just to be frightened, by boys who liked to see a girl flinch. In these situations, I had trained myself somehow to yawn hugely while at the height of my fear, and this seemed to disappoint and embarrass them.
When I tell people that this is my trick, waving, and that it works, they don't believe me. If there's one thing in the world I scoff at it's people who don't believe things. Average things. People who honestly seem incapable of believing anyone's life to be any different from their own. Never mind the fact that I've never been mugged since I started waving, they say: it proves nothing having to do with the fact that you are waving.
It goes like this with almost everything: the Alien Autopsy, the thing about the Pink Floyd album and The Wizard Of Oz, the thing about the skip-patterns forming secret messages in the Bible and Torah; forget it. It's as if I made it all up myself. Once a display of potted geraniums fell on me at the Wal- Mart; forget it, it may as well never have happened.
Someone in the neighborhood actually sidled up to my mother one night and asked if I had "exaggerated" the story. I was home with an icepack, and a scrape on my head that eventually caused such a large and odd scab, entangled with my hair, that I was forced into a short haircut.
My mother was appalled. "Can there be people in the world so jealous of someone else's life that they actually begrudge them being hit in the head with geraniums at the Wal-Mart?" she asked me. Of course, it is true.
There are people like that, exactly. We live on their street.
There are people who are jealous of anyone who does anything at all, has anything happen to them. There are people who are jealous of victims. There are people who are jealous of my family. We are middle-class ourselves, but don't feel it. We don't go with an artsy crowd, but we read the papers, all of them, and we might generally know where the artsy crowd is going . We are middle-class, but there are things we do not do. We are not people who cook with Minute Rice. We do not, in our family, require the bridesmaids at our weddings to wear fuschia. We do not honeymoon on islands. We do not buy compilation CD's off of the television. We do not eat our garnish in restaurants. Although we wear the costume, I feel that there is still a tangible difference between us and the others like us. As a family, I think we have always felt that, my mother and I. It's not a matter of wanting everyone we talk to to be smarter, more cultured, or any such thing; still, intolerance is what you would call it. It is certainly what other people call it when referring to us.
The girl who asked my mother if I had exaggerated about the geraniums falling on me at the Wal-Mart is named Winnie Hulting. She lives on the same narrow street as we do -- a quaint city street where everyone has a flower box and there is an upscale supermarket only two blocks away, but still most of us do not venture out after nine or so. Winnie is about my age, which she probably considers a marriable age and which I do not. She lives with her mother, Jane Hulting, whom I consider to be my friend or acquaintance more than I do Winnie, even though Winnie and I have grown up near each other since I was about five and we are both still living at home, certainly longer than most young women do.
Certainly Winnie Hulting could have grown up to be my best friend. We could have shared everything together, sent each other special signals in the evenings by flicking the light switches at the fronts of our houses, double dated at the prom, gone off to college together. I've never minded that she wasn't exactly a fast-track girl, or a paragon of popular culture; really, I can be friends with anyone, as long as they're not a completely useless idiot who thinks ill of me for no good reason other than simple jealously. And unfortunately that rules out Winnie Hulting.
There has never been a time over the last twenty-seven years that, when we saw Hulting mere and fille, I didn't get the distinct impression that as soon as they had turned away they had begun again to use my life as an Aesop's fable, a tale warning against thrill-seeking, ambition, overstatement and hope. My mother can back me up on this; her conversations with Jane Hulting over the years seem to indicate the same. My mother cannot claim to have been much of a friend to Jane Hulting over the years, either; she was wed for two years to Jane's brother. It wasn't an unpleasant period in my life, nor a memorable one particularly. But it seems to have left a bitter impression upon our neighbors.
Jane is what my own mother says used to be called a "schizophrenogenic mother"; a mother that was directly responsible for the mental illness of their child. I don't think anyone would consider Winnie really mentally ill; she lacks the characteristics of a mentally ill person as much as she lacks the characteristics of a healthy one.
Jane Hulting, the naysayer of today, was once full of what you would call hope. For most of my life, actually, I knew her as a woman out for nothing short of life commitment. She had, in fact, a reputation for a husband hunter, intense like a Zuni Fetish doll. A moral woman in her own mind, Jane Hulting is a woman who despite decades of city living will cry at the sight of a homeless man on a grate. She is also a conscientious woman, who, when sleeping with the married choir director of the junior high that Winnie and I attended, Dustbustered her own blond hairs out of his bed while his wife was still away. This, she considered proper.
People used to have plenty to say about Jane Hulting. Whether Winnie knew about any of it, I never really knew. I knew Winnie inside and out, and our names were linked by our peers, our teachers, our neighbors and Girl Scout leaders forevermore, but I never could tell if she was the way she was because she knew what her mother was hiding, or just because of the aspects of Jane that Jane didn't hide had affected her strongly.
While I consider neither of them to be my real friend, I have spent more pleasant time in the company of Jane Hulting than in Winnie's. Jane, as well, is a doubter, a non-believer. She is dimpled and freckled, even in her fifties. Winnie looks nothing like this, and although I know nothing about Winnie's father, it must be him that Winnie looks like.
Jane Hulting and her daughter Winnie do have a great deal in common. In her daughter's case, it appears to be a symptom of having done not much in life, and having had to live with Jane; in Jane, it appears to be a symptom of having done not much well, having failed, and having considered herself the average, control subject for all success and failure in life. If it happened to her, Jane seems to think, it will happen to anyone else.
Jane has always expended much energy on me telling me how I will not succeed; how I will lose my will; how my ideals will fall by the wayside. She does it with the best intentions. We sit outside on our respective stoops and she takes a tone with me that I realize she hopes will finally burn the message into my mind: I'm wrong to be happy about my life. And I'm particularly wrong to continue with this moral certitude business of mine; not cheating, not sleeping around, not getting into drugs and getting fat and being lonely. Where these sins are concerned, apparently she believes that intrinsically I am just the woman for the job, and I am merely treading water by not getting them accomplished; unlike her Winnie, pedaling off to Youth Group at a time in her life where she could barely be considered a youth.
Jane spun dastardly tales of Life In The Real World for me privately whenever it seemed to her that I was becoming too successful in my own. She told me how college would be for me, how great it would seem at first, and then how useless, and she told me stories of her own college days that would certainly seem to back this theory up. Where I was concerned, I thought she was rude to tell me such things at such an impressionable time; I thought she was bitter, and in time was glad to find that she was wrong.
My love life, again, she had mapped out for me in no uncertain terms of defeat and disaster. She was wrong there too.
Lately she has been telling me that, although she often calls me idealistic, I do not "give people a chance". This is true. I'm stuck-up, I'm closed minded, and I'm not sure what she's offering me as a reward to an alternative. I have a lot of friends. It's just that those who are not my friends are apprised of the situation early on. Jane does not like that I choose my companions carefully, and that I have a healthy disdain of the rest; rather, she does not like the fact that I do not suffer for something she herself is sure she would suffer for if she herself tried it. I myself don't mind being disliked by people I dislike. For Jane, and people like Jane, it's painful.
Jane's daughter, Winnie, has a teaching degree. She quits her teaching jobs rather frequently, usually following an extended illness. I've never actually heard of her making it through an entire school year. Winnie always manages an extended illness right before she quits a teaching position, so she can quit over the phone instead of actually doing it in person. She takes a good long time between jobs, too. "Money isn't everything," she says to me. Somewhere along the line she has convinced herself, at least for a moment, that money is everything to me. That seems to be one of her highly valued tactics of rhetoric. I am disappointed in Winnie Hulting as a person, far more than I am in Jane, because Winnie is not even remotely in conflict over who she is, the way her mother is secretly. Everything that is unpalatable about the girl has won out entirely. There is nothing else about her.
Of course, I was not around when she asked my mother if I had been "exaggerating" about being hit on the head by geraniums in the Wal-Mart.
And as comforting as it was to hear my own mother defile the Hultings that evening over dinner, I wanted to discuss it with Winnie myself. "It's always been nice to have a girl your age on the block," my mother said, more to herself, and then disagreed with herself almost instantly.
"But that girl! It's not that she's a bad girl or anything, she's just such a... such a poop."
My mother acted like this was the first time she was admitting to this; in fact, I had been hearing her speak about Winnie this way for what felt like my entire life. I remember hearing her say things like this about Winnie when we were five.
Back then, Winnie was a simpler person. She tended to want to play certain things certain ways and then get physically ill if she could not, or, in other words, if I did not want to. I was not controlling with Winnie as a child. Certainly, I can remember very early instances of diplomacy where I insisted that, if she did not want to play what I was playing, that she just go play by herself - in my room, with my things, it was fine by me, just let me be. Nothing I did seemed to satisfy her; it was always too odd, too active, too dangerous, and yet I saw Winnie as all of these things. To me, she was the unsettled one, but it would have broken her to have been faced with that. I never could have told her. She would have thought I was crazy.
There had been a long string of incidents like this over our young lives. Winnie, it seemed, never believed a word out of my mouth, even though I cannot ever remember have a conversation of any value with her. Where Jane her mother vowed to crush the spirit, any spirit, Winnie's tactic was simply to refuse to believe that anyone else's life, particularly mine, it seemed, existed. It was as though she believed I came home with stories of murders and circuses and epiphanies every day of my life, and it was all she could do to fend off the blows.
I excused myself from the dinner table and stepped outside. She was sweeping the front steps of her mother's home. "I want to tell you now, while we're alone," I began, to show I was not out to embarrass her, "that my mother took a bit of offense at what you asked her about the Wal-Mart."
I wish I could remember now what Winnie's immediate, gut reaction was, but I cannot truly say if she winced, or looked caught; I do remember that she did not seem to have any trouble calling to mind what it was that I was talking about.
"Should I apologize to her?" she asked, simply. Winnie was not one to argue, or defend herself; it was clear to me that she was willing to deal with the issue of my mother's hurt feelings far more than she was willing to deal with why they had gotten that way.
"I don't think that's necessary, Winnie," I said. She did not insist.
"Were you offended as well?" she asked.
I suppose I shrugged; I had so many unkind things going through my head that I could barely keep my face on straight. "What did you think she was going to say to you, Winnie?" I asked her. "'Yes, Winnie, and thank God you finally had the courage to come forward about my lying daughter'? What could you have been expecting to gain from saying something so utterly stupid?"
Winnie looked downcast, but not completely beaten enough for my present tastes. "I apologize to both of you," she said.
Feeling exhausted, I slumped down on the slate step next to where she had been sweeping. I thought carefully over everything I knew about Winnie Hulting, trying to determine if there had been anything in the past that I could have called her on the way she called me on this. The fact was everything I knew about Winnie was relatively believable. There was, of course, the fact that she left all her teaching jobs due to "illness" when it was obvious to me that she left them because she wasn't a very good teacher - but I assumed that everyone that knew Winnie had sort of tacitly agreed that this couldn't even be considered a lie, due to the obviousness of it.
"It seems really stupid, Winnie, that you would be jealous over something like getting hit on the head with a pot of flowers."
She didn't say anything, patiently waiting for me to go back to my own corner so that she could continue her version of reality, the one where I was a bad girl.
"Are you working lately?" I asked her.
Her eyes were downcast. It was almost as though her eyelids had a lavender-brown, bruised cast, from hanging down so low all the time. It was a look that Winnie used to communicate sageness. She was a firm believer in "still waters run deep," although she tended to go at it backwards, and it took so much of her energy to keep her waters still that she appeared to stop breathing, but deeper they did not get. They were more like the Great Salt Lake, Winnie's waters, rejecting everything put into them, bobbing it to the surface and washing it ashore.
"I've applied for some substitute positions," she said, "I haven't heard anything back yet."
"Mmmm," I said.
Winnie, having finished her sweeping, picked dead leaves off of the trailing dusty miller in one of the windowboxes. Inside, I could see Jane's rocker gliding peacefully in the light of the television.
"It surprises me sometimes," I said, "to think that my mother was for a time your aunt."
"She wasn't," said Winnie.
"Sure she was. By marriage. I have aunts and uncles by marriage that I consider to be my aunts and uncles as much as blood."
"Probably because they married into your family before you were born," said Winnie, who was good with the ready answers, no matter how dubious their quality. "Anyone would feel that way. I remember your mother. I remember that wedding. I remember that bridal shower."
That was a funny thought to me, and I recognized it as something that meant a lot. I could have bet on Winnie's contempt for such a thing, a bridal shower, particularly one that was not her own. Recently, we had gone passed the knitting store together to see balloons and streamers and an "IT'S A GIRL" announcement in the window. "Oh, how tacky," Winnie had said. "Everybody has babies."
"You remember my mother's bridal shower?" I asked.
"That one," Winnie said pointedly.
"I myself was not invited," I said. "I didn't even go to that wedding. I think my mother hoped for me not to recall that I had been to her wedding; she had really hoped to pass John off as my father for life."
"You were too old for that," Winnie said. "Too smart."
"What do you remember about the shower?" I asked her.
"Sitting around, watching her open gifts." This certainly sparked distaste in Winnie, this act of sitting around watching someone else be lauded for something that in her mind deserved no attention. "She didn't get any housewares. I remember my mother commenting on it. Because she had already set up house once, you know. With your father."
"Yeah," I said.
"Um, she got alot of those... outfits. That you wear at night. What..."
"That, but that's not the....peignoirs. She got some peignoirs. My mom had gotten her a peignoir. I signed the card."
"Hah!" I said, kind of amused myself.
"People certainly had a lot to say about if afterwards," Winnie said, seeming to forget the position she should have been taking was one of meekness.
"I remember," I said to her. "Have you any idea what that feels like? To hear someone talk about your mother that way?"
The rocking of the light generated by Jane's chair was no longer visible in the window. Winnie's face split like unpicked fruit. "After all," I continued, "all my mother did was get married."
A cool white mist settled over Winnie's face unhealthily. "My mother is the only reason you and I aren't stuck being cousins the rest of our lives," I said.
"What difference would it make if we were or not?" asked Winnie.
"It's better that we aren't, I'd say," I told her.
Those were the last words I said to Winnie Hulting for a few weeks. It was not unusual for Winnie and I to go through extended periods of ostentatious not-speaking; our mothers did it as well. Unfortunately, we were always somehow pushed back toward each other out of proximity, just like family.
Lives go on. I was accepted to the graduate program of my choice; my boyfriend and I decided to move in together. I went to Jane to tell her just this, and she did not dissuade me in the slightest. I was now a lost cause to her, lost to happiness and hope of a normal life. I did not see Winnie leave the house in the mornings, and when I came home in the afternoons, she would often be on the stoop in a smock that indicated she had stayed home all day, shaking out rugs. She paid me no mind the way that adults refuse to address children; not out of meanness, but out of feeling that it isn't wrong in any way if they don't.
One warm evening, I wanted to try a recipe that I had never tried before, and I sat down with the cookbook and made a list of ingredients. "Get yogurt," my mother called to me. She was helping pack some things of her own, china and such, that she was letting me take to my new home. I went outside with my list and headed towards the supermarket. Then, with my bag in hand and feeling hopeful and new, bursting with thoughts of my new life, newer than anything, supported by those who cared about me, I started home, planning to spend the evening making scotch eggs.
He certainly did not come out of the shadows, because there were no shadows; the sun was setting, but it was bright and hot over us, as though we were trapped in a jar.
"Excuse me miss, Excuse me, miss," he said, approaching quickly from where I had not been looking, and when I veered away, disinterested, yawning, he approached quicker and bolted in towards the angle I had created to separate us. I panicked, but there was nothing to do or say. From around the corner of my street, peeked the face of Winnie Hulting, leaning on a broom, looking at me as though she expected something.
I did not acknowledge her. I did not wave. She stared at me hard, and I saw the look of recognition of what was going to happen to me come over her face; she saw, and she believed, and she looked horrified, and it was the sweetest moment. In fact, I turned from her stare, loosening my eyes from any destination for a moment, and he had me. Had me at an arms length, with a fistful of my jacket in his hand, and his elbow was locked tight as though he wanted to keep me at a distance as much as I wanted to him; yet, he had me.
I screamed, "No."
"Shut up," he said, putting the knife to my neck, and I did. "Money," he said. "Where is it?"
I saw a neighbor that we rarely talked to rushing toward us, his large grey Shepherd bolting ahead of him. Someone else I didn't know that well shouted, "Call 911."
"Quick!" I said to the man who held me. I glanced toward my block and expected to see no one, and that is exactly what I saw.
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