Authors: Wendy Lawless
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To my sister, Robin
NEW YORK, 1969
THE BIG SLEEP
Perhaps because her second marriage had only lasted twenty months, or perhaps because she was having a bad hair day, in January of 1969 my mother swallowed a whole bottle of pills and called my stepfather at his hotel to say good-bye.
Although they were still legally married, he had installed himself at the Carlyle while she sued him for divorce. After he received her farewell call, he quickly finished his Gibson, telephoned the fire department, grabbed his Burberry raincoat, and jumped into a taxi. It was a time in New York when you could say to a cabdriver, “Take me to the St. Regis,” or, “Take me to the Oak Bar,” and he would just take you there—no further explanation was needed. “Take me to the Dakota,” he said to the driver.
While my mother arranged herself on her monogrammed, baby-blue satin sheets and prepared to enter the Valley of the Dolls, and my stepfather chain-smoked and
shouted at the cabdriver to go faster, goddammit, I slept in the top bunk of the bed I shared with my younger sister, Robin, dreaming of hot dogs.
We had been living in the Dakota, the late nineteenth-century, neo-Gothic apartment house at the corner of Seventy-second Street and Central Park West, for about a year and a half. And while I would later think of the place—the setting for the film
and the future and final home of John Lennon—as a glamorous backdrop for my mother’s tumultuous second marriage and divorce, at the time it was just our rather large and wonderfully spooky apartment, in which I was about to find myself awakened by my mother’s rescuers.
I was driven from my hot dog dreamworld by a plinking sound, high and silvery—the sound of something falling, like rain but heavier and coming from inside the house. I got out of bed, carefully climbed down the bunk-bed ladder past my sleeping sister, and walked out into the long hallway of our cavernous apartment. I peeked around the corner to find four firemen in big, dark coats and hats beating down Mother’s bedroom door with axes. One of them stood on a ladder breaking the glass in the transom window above the door. The shards of glass rained down on the men below and bounced off their helmets, making a tinkly noise as they hit the polished parquet floor.
I wondered why they didn’t use a key or just knock on the door like I did. They were making a big mess, which always made Mother angry. And it was very loud
and Mother hated loud noises. (“It’s because I’m a Libra,” she’d explain.)
Boy, were those firemen going to get it when she opened the door, I thought. They took no notice of me. I turned and looked the other way toward the foyer and saw my stepfather in his raincoat hustling down the hall toward me. I was surprised to see him; I hadn’t seen him in a while. Even when he was still living at the apartment, he never seemed to be around.
“Hi, Pop,” I said. “Are you coming back?”
“Yes, dearie,” he said, uttering another in what was becoming a long series of big fat lies that made up my primary interaction with grown-ups. He didn’t look at me as he passed, but he smelled like cologne and French cigarettes. The firemen parted to make way for him and he pounded on the door with his fist.
“Georgann! Open this goddamn door!” he bellowed.
There was silence as everyone held his breath, listening for some sign of life on the other side of the now-battered door. Nothing. My stepfather took a step back, and the men continued to hack through it.
From the far side of all this noise, flying glass, and splintered wood, appeared our nanny, Catherine, a Caribbean giantess in a bathrobe and slippers. Her cold-creamed and bespectacled face bore the look of disapproval and incomprehension with which she regarded almost everything that went on at our house—crazy white people acting crazy. She put her hands on her massive hips and said, “What the blazes is goin’ on here?!” The men didn’t stop.
Catherine surveyed the chaos until her eyes found me standing there in the hall in my nightgown. Here was something she could do—get the little one back to bed. She raised her eyebrows and began to amble slowly down the hall in my direction.
Catherine, who stayed with us longer than Dinah or Fanny or any of the other nannies, was always trying to put our house in order. I loved her and hated her for that. I loved her because she fed us, bathed us, and rubbed Vicks VapoRub on our chests when we were sick. I hated her because I wanted my mother to do those things for us.
“C’mon now, Wendy,” she barked. Her voice was incredibly loud so it always seemed like she was shouting at you. “Time to go.”
I looked up at Catherine, towering above me. She was like a mountain with a crown of curlers. Her huge body completely blocked my view of the action. Two more men with dark blue jackets over white uniforms raced by us from the front door, pushing a stretcher on wheels. I tried to watch but Catherine firmly grasped my shoulders and steered me back to my bedroom.
Inside, she shooed me up the bunk-bed ladder, patting me lightly on the bottom. “You go to sleep now, lambie pie,” she said, pulling the covers up to my chin.
I could hear her heavy breathing as she leaned in under my bed to fix my sister’s kicked-off covers. Robbie could have slept through a train wreck. Catherine lumbered over to the door, closing it behind her as she went back out into
the hallway. The room was dark except for the faint light from the street below. I looked up at the molding on the ceiling, tracing it with my eyes as I did every night before I went to sleep. I followed it around and around, imagining a toy train on the ceiling racing on a track. I heard the wheels of the stretcher again in the hall. I climbed out of bed, snuck over to the door, and peeked out.
Even half-dead, Mother was beautiful. She had the icy good looks of a Hitchcock heroine—a high forehead, long, thin nose, and striking cheekbones. Her blond hair, most of which was a fall attached to the top of her head and expertly teased to create a tumbling-mane effect, lay tousled on the stretcher pillow. She was wearing her blue Pucci peignoir set that brought out the color of her eyes—which were now, of course, closed.
My chest felt twisty as I watched the men in white uniforms with blue jackets wheel her down the hallway and out of the apartment. I believed Mother was safe with the calm, quiet stretcher men and their nicely combed hair and cast-down eyes, but I wondered where they were they taking her, and what they would do. Did they have some magic way of waking her up—a special drink, true love’s kiss? Would they put her in a glass box like Snow White while she slept? I felt anxious as the questions kept coming. How long would she be gone? What would I tell my sister?
I climbed back into bed and stared again at the ceiling, trying to slow my racing mind. The low murmuring of my stepfather and the firemen ended with the clicking of the
lock of the front door, and a quiet stillness came down. I was left alone with my thoughts, listening to my sister’s soft breathing. I squeezed my eyes shut and rolled over, pulling the blanket carefully over my neck so that if Barnabas Collins, the vampire in my favorite TV show,
, somehow got into my room, he couldn’t bite me there.
As I slept, Mother was swept off to Bellevue Hospital in an ambulance. At the hospital they pumped all the Seconal out of her and kept her for psychiatric evaluation for twenty-four hours, which, we were to discover later, was about ten thousand hours too short. By the time she was released into my stepfather’s care, he had already paid off the hospital officials to keep her name out of their records and his name out of the papers: she was never there, it never happened.
The next morning, my sister and I got up and got dressed for school, putting on our dark blue jumpers and pulling on our navy kneesocks. It seemed like any other morning until we walked down the hallway past our mother’s now open door and our shoes crunched on the broken glass as I realized it hadn’t been a dream.
“Where’s Mommy?” my sister asked, peering into Mother’s empty bedroom.
As the older child (I was nine) and a witness to the previous night’s events, I felt I should provide some sort of explanation about just where our mother might be, even though I didn’t really know. I decided to make it into a kind of game, so Robbie wouldn’t feel afraid or think that I was worried.
“She went away last night with Pop,” I told her. “She
rode away with Pop in a bed on wheels,” I added, hoping this would sound like something fun, like a ride at an amusement park.