Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Split-Level Life { Excerpt} Sleepwalking

It is noon before I realize the phone receiver spent the night trapped in the kitchen drawer. As always, Rona manages to be the first to get through to me.

“Well, aren’t you the little chatterbox today,” she says, with an acidic hint of possessiveness that signals: it is time for me to make new friends.

“No, I completely forgot I took the phone off the hook. I’ve been in the bathroom all morning. It must’ve been the chopped meat. The girls and Donny ate pasta and they’re fine.”

“Are you saying it was the chopped chuck from Fernando’s?”

“Ah-huh, probably that order we split of frozen patties.”

“Oh crap, Alex, I just read in Family Circle that you can die from bacteria in spoiled meat.”

I hear doors opening and closing, a frantic shuffle coming through the phone wires as Rona begins emptying her freezer. Like a seasoned cashier, she tabulates aloud: “that’s six filet mignons for $48 bucks, eight shoulder chops equals $ 25, two prime ribs $ 35 and a five pound package of hamburger patties for $15… in zee gar-bage.”

“But it might only be a little virus,” I say. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or come clean, telling her I’d eaten some scrambled eggs, coffee, had a toke and pretty good sex against the bathroom wall.

“I’m not taking any chances,” Rona says. “Hey, do you feel well enough to come over? I’ll fix you something light to eat…tea, toast, and some scrambled eggs. I’d pick you up, but Hy brought the car in this morning for the 5000 mile check-up. So, I really need you to drive me there later so I can get the car. That’s if you’re up to it.”

It serves me right. I’m full up on eggs, but agree to lunch in half an hour. Without going into details, over the telephone, I mention the lovely babysitter, Colleen Byrnes, saying she is no longer under my employment. Rona gasps with the identical intensity she demonstrated over the possibility of food poisoning.


The Karl’s home is an immaculate split-level, on the north side of town, "done" in muted tones of beige and mocha— reminiscent of a Danish modern furniture showroom or what is best described as dentist sterile. I often picture Rona and Hy sitting down to a Pillsbury-perfect dinner with their young son Ethan, a sweet nervous boy forbidden to tumble and soil his clothes. As their forks and spoons lift in unison, they appear futuristic and comically robotic. As part of her vows, I bet, Rona has included a policy promising no crumbs, spilled milk, or indelible stains. Yet secretly I envy her strict dedication to order. She would have been the model daughter for my mother the one she would have chosen had she been able to foretell the future. “Oh, Alex, how’s that darling friend of yours?” My mother never fails to ask when she calls weekly from Florida, her question reminding me that I, too, was raised in a home where the pursuit for perfection was revered.

"I thought you and Donny loved your babysitter," Rona says, wiping the tuna salad from the corners of her mouth. I’d love a bite of her tuna, but I’m stuck with the dry rye toast and eggs. She stares me down with her thick, mascara-ed brown lashes. Here in Rona’s spotless Formica kitchen, there is no place to hide. I pretend to look for an old dry cleaning receipt in my bag, stalling to collect my thoughts.

"Yes, we both liked her a lot (my voice breaks on both) and she was great with the girls, but there’s this new boyfriend… someone she met this summer. She's just not as dependable as she was, so"

"Hmm, I'm not surprised she has boyfriends. That kid is drop-dead gorgeous."

"You really think so? Personally, I think she's too damn skinny." Heat wraps around my collarbone. My teeth rip through a piece of dry toast.

"Well, maybe she is a bit too thin, but I'd kill for her hair."

"But it's red, Rona! How would you, of all people, manage all that wild, red hair?"

"Relax, take a breath. I can see you’re upset. You'll find another sitter soon. There are zillions of homely teenage girls hanging out at the new mall with nothing to do on Saturday night."

"That’s depressing." I drain the tea-cup. “I hate having to look for someone all over again.” Tears spring to my eyes. I’m on the brink of spilling the beans.

“Hey, we are talking about a few hours on a Saturday night, and an afternoon here and there. Not a big deal.”

“You know, you’re probably right. I’ll find someone new, maybe more competent and reliable.” I sit up straight and finish my slice of rye. The soggy scrambled eggs are buried underneath my napkin.

“So you’re feeling better already, right?” Rona asks, picking at her molars with a wooden toothpick.

“Yes, I think so. Thanks. Thanks for lunch.”

Rona glances at the chrome clock above her stove. “Come on, we’ve still got some time. Let’s get some shopping done while our little monsters are still in camp, and then you can drop me at the car dealer.”

She stands, and in seconds, loads the dishwasher, freshens her lipstick, grabs her handbag, and is ready to go. I stare at her amazed, at how easily she analyzes any crisis, minor or major, produces a solution, and then ties it up like a bundle of old, worn-out clothes to dump in the Goodwill bin. There is not a trace of sentimentality in deciding to let go. Finished. Done. Next. Rona and I live, not only, on the opposite sides of town; we live on opposite poles of the earth. Still, since moving to Wheatley Heights, I am drawn to her like a piglet to teats, searching for any semblance of nourishment.

Truth is; it’s less lonely to sleepwalk alongside her.

Later that afternoon at her suggestion, I place an ad in the North Shore Tattler. By the following week, I have ten teenage girls scheduled for interviews. One of them is a fourteen-year-old named Agnes who lives half a mile away. She is ebullient in spite of severe acne and the silver fences imprisoning her teeth. I hire her on the spot.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The First Hurt { Excerpt from A Split-Level Life}

At precisely five o'clock, Fred Rogers’ hypnotic voice fills our large, rustic den. Lana and Becky sit squeezed together, holding hands on Donny's faux leather recliner. Mesmerized by the hospitable gentleman inviting them on his daily journey, their tiny pink tongues poke out and lick the dryness from their lips, and my heart aches with tenderness. Look, Nana, these are your great-granddaughters. Becky's named for you. She has your long, beautiful fingers and silken hair. I have always maintained an open line to my maternal grandmother, who disappointed me only once, by dying.

The automatic garage door rumbles, and I swallow hard. This, the only sound the girls hear over the clanging of the trolley in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

"Daddy's home," Lana announces before returning her thumb to her mouth.

I hear the familiar heavy shuffle of Donny’s feet as he walks through the doorway that connects our garage to the den. His wiry brows are knit together and his shoulders are hunched to his ears, hinting he’s had one rough day at the factory. Donny is no longer the aspiring attorney his father once bragged about. Since his father put him in charge of a brand new division at H. Pearl and Sons, he is an employee, capable of screwing up like all the others.

I cower behind the dining room wall like a cat that’s been shooed away from the table. Donny makes a pit stop into the powder room. I listen to his long, never ending stream. He’s left the door wide open, and I refrain from scolding. But as soon as he charges into the den and lifts Becky and Lana to give them rough nuzzles on their necks, I rush forward and tug at his shirt- sleeve. I've never done this before. In fact, watching Donny with the girls has always filled me with immense pleasure, but now I need him separate — no delicate and fragile props like our children.

"Hi," he says, his kiss missing my cheek as I pull back and stiffen. "What's up? Okay, what did you burn?" He follows me into the kitchen, glancing at a few bills on the table and the blackened Pyrex soaking in the sink. He shoots a sympathetic grin. "I can pick up Chinese?"

"I'm not hungry. I want to talk. Let’s go sit in the living room."

Becky and Lana, having abandoned their fish sticks, are slurping chocolate milk through striped straws. Their rapt attention is on Mr. Rogers, who has just zipped up his beige cardigan.

Donny’s concern is woven with impatience. He passes our white spinet piano and lingers, hits a C chord like in a television drama. Looking at his watch he plops down on the loveseat beside me. I wait while he removes his lenses. Here comes the ritual of rubbing his eyes. If only he could see me now, really see me; but without his "eyes" he's close to legally blind. He hasn’t noticed my sunburn or the mascara streaked beneath my lashes making me look like a baby raccoon.

"Shoot," he says.

"I got a call this morning from Mrs. Byrnes." He looks blank.

“Who’s that?”

“She’s the mother of Colleen…our sitter, remember, Don?” My voice cracks. I take a deep breath and rally to regain my composure. Donny leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He pushes his glossy auburn hair back with his hands, and I see his smooth profile, how uniquely handsome he is — how any young teenage girl might confuse his intentions. But, having said her name again, I am trembling. Donny slides over and kneads my shoulder. I can’t, won’t look in his eyes. Instead, I stare at a pulled loop in the area rug, praying Becky and Lana stay put in the den.

"Mrs. Byrnes said you took Colleen to the high school parking lot last night. Why didn't you take her straight home? What the hell were you thinking?"

Donny turns mute, which only frightens me more. I wish he’d say something, anything. When I turn and look at him, he appears filmy through my tears. He is still in profile. His jaw, once hidden by his goatee, sets firmly, and juts forward.

"I thought Mrs. Byrnes was lying, Donny. I screamed and hung up on her. She wasn't lying, was she?" Donny’s face is bloated as if it’s about to explode. I yank away from his firm hold, but he grabs me and presses me hard against his chest. "Tell me why." I am talking into his work-shirt and taking in the dizzying aroma of sewing machine grease.

"I don't know, Alex,” he says somberly. "It was nothing, really. The kid said she was afraid to drive. I told her learning to drives was a snap. All I did was ask if she wanted to try. She said yes. We were in the parking lot for ten minutes at the most."

I try to wiggle away again, afraid that I’ll scratch out Donny’s beautiful hazel eyes. He holds me tighter as if to say, yes, do it if it’ll make you feel better. Hurt me back.

Maybe because of fear and the realization that I have no choice, I begin to picture the stupidity, even find innocence in Donny's act —that childish need of his to feel important. But I can’t forget that the incident occurred way past midnight, and that Colleen is in high school, and he might have been arrested and ruined all our lives.

Alex Pearl, suburban housewife 1974

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

When Alex Met Donny { Excerpt from "A Split-Level Life"}

I met Donald Pearl when I was nineteen, technically a virgin, and positive that I'd graduate college unattached, forcing me to live with my parents until they died. We were both counselors at The Weeping Willow Day Camp — me, working after my junior year of college, he, having switched from engineering school to dental school, and finally law school where he was completing his first year. I had observed him during the summer, a few times saying a quick hello — taking note of the variety of Betty or Veronica counselor types he often paired with, a different one each week. Donny doubled as the music counselor, and when he played the beaten up baby grand propped on the camp stage, his head bobbed rhythmically reminding me of Paul McCartney for whom I carried an obsessive crush. Maybe it was the spell of the upbeat music or being surrounded by the chaotic energy of two dozen admiring and adorable tots, but I felt an immediate link to Donny- something unspoken, yet lyrical, telling me he was it. Though I wasn’t exactly thrilled to learn it had a waistline two inches slimmer than mine.

Donny camouflaged his boyishness and smooth ruddy complexion by sporting a short goatee and wearing his wavy auburn hair long and tucked behind his ears. Near the end of the camp season, our grins grew broader whenever we passed each other, an assortment of campers trailing us like twitchy caterpillars. Once, I’d thought I was being nonchalant, but we both turned around to look back. We knew we were running out of time. Then one day after most of the minibuses left to return campers to their respective neighborhoods, Donny sauntered up to me and asked in a low, husky voice for me to hold out my hand. Taken aback, my heartbeat accelerated and I obeyed, as if it were perfectly natural for him to give me a command, as if he and I were already that well acquainted.

"What are you doing?" I asked, giggling. I felt my cheeks redden.

"You'll see," he whispered. His eyes were round and a bit droopy. Yes, he looked just like Paul. It was amazing. Donny leaned his head over my shaky outstretched hand and tugged on his eyelashes a few times until a moist contact lens popped into my palm. The little sphere tickled slightly, and I held my arm out stiffly afraid to move.

"It was in wrong...driving me crazy," he said, wearing this lop-sided grin. Then he peeled the nearly invisible lens from my hand and popped it inside his mouth.

"Don't do that or you'll get a horrible infection. That happened to my college roommate," I scolded gently. Here I was, having a hard time remembering his name, but I was already taking care of him. Had I just passed some test? I wondered if all of Donny’s girlfriends got to feel the warm wetness of his contact lenses swirling around in their palm? He walked alongside me to the counselors’ parking lot, and as I slipped into my Dart convertible, Donny leaned in and asked for my number.

"What about...?" I started to ask.


"Oh, so that's her name."

"Bonnie and I are really good friends," he said.

I looked at him coyly, wanting to ask “come on, do you think I’m an idiot?”

This guy’s probably just another charmer, I thought, so why was I letting him charm me? Reluctantly, I scribbled my phone number on a gasoline receipt and handed it to him. What the hell, there were only two weeks of camp left, and we'd both be heading back to school.

He called two hours later. We went out that night and every night after that for the remainder of the summer. Bonnie and her junior counselor threw me murderous looks each morning when we lined up for roll call. I was sure one of them would try to poison my orange sherbet at lunchtime. Obviously, Bonnie had a different interpretation of what it meant to be Donny’s good friend.

From the novel: A Split-Level Life by Sande Boritz Berger