Authors: Consuelo Saah Baehr
“Pert, pithy and very New York; full of the admirable offhand observations of an unfooled eye.” Times Literary Supplement
Nothing To Lose
Consuelo Saah Baehr
Copyright 2010 by Consuelo Saah Baehr
For Gwyneth Lou Baehr
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When April Taylor was two days old, her mother, Bernice, had a shot of Deladumone to dry up her breast milk and put a bottle of Enfamil into her baby daughter’s mouth. Right away April took long, choking gulps, snuffling and swallowing. From the beginning, she loved her bottle.
By eight months she was a chubby, adorable baby who said ‘Hi’ to anything that moved and also DaDa. She could drag herself around in an awkward crawl and sit doubled over. She ate jarred beans and carrots, jarred beef and chicken and jarred peach cobbler a name meant to stimulate mothers into believing their babies were having a grown up dessert. April tripled her birth weight, astonishing the pediatrician.
“God bless her,” said the neighbors and pinched her thighs. Except Mrs. Beck.
“All that fat’s not doing her any good,” she would say, hoisting her own frail Sylvie on her hip.
Bernice was neither proud nor sorrowful. She was two weeks short of her nineteenth birthday when April was born, an indolent young woman with beautiful breasts and a flat behind. It was sex, not motherhood that had enticed her into marriage. She couldn’t think of many things to do with a baby except feed it. Talking aloud in the empty house made her feel nutty.
In 1963, when April was in the fourth grade, the children were studying words that ended in “nce” and the teacher, Mrs. DeMont, asked them to use those words in simple sentences. April wrote: I can make my pony prance. I have a chance of winning the race. I can bounce a ball. I can dance very well.
“Very optimistic,” wrote Mrs. DeMont in red and put a sticker of a smiling kitten on her paper. After class, April asked Mrs. DeMont what ‘optimistic’ meant.
“It’s when someone has a happy view of life even though the facts point to something quite different.”
“You mean they point to unhappy.”
“Yes, my dear.” Mrs. DeMont pursed her lips as if she had more information but didn’t care to share it. “Have a talk with mother.”
The suggestion made her uncomfortable. April knew Bernice had nothing to tell her. Sylvie had those kinds of talks with her mother every day, every hour. Did anything happen in school today? Were you called on? Did you answer? Was it right? Was the teacher pleased? Did she tell you how nice you looked? Mrs. Beck had an insatiable desire to know what kind of little girl she had. April’s parents never thought that way. They were unaware that things could go wrong with little girls very early in life. She was vaguely aware that something had gone wrong with her already.
April’s parents were so crazy about each other she was always the third party. Once she saw her father approach her mother with a gushing garden hose. “Stick ‘em up,” he said and shot her with water in each breast. Then they hurried into the house. April shut off the water and waited on the porch. There was never legal neglect. April was clean, fed, inoculated. Every other spring, Bernice bought her an Easter coat and hat and Easter underwear.
Until the fourth grade, April had no idea that her weight would have consequences; that just blocks away on Charlecote Ridge, there were mothers who would have cried and lost sleep to see their daughters start out with all that against them. Bernice didn’t cry. On 170th Street, fat wasn’t good or bad. No one was shaping their children’s futures when they were nine years old. They were thinking about cleaning the leaves out of their gutters and re-webbing their lawn chairs.
Every day, Bernice packed the same lunch: a bologna and cheese sandwich with mayonnaise and lettuce on white bread, a small bag of potato chips and a cupcake or Devil Dog. Sylvie had egg or tuna salad on whole wheat bread, an apple or an orange. Sara Davis brought a thermal-mug of soup, cheese with crackers and grapes or a banana.
“If I ate potato chips,” Sylvie said, “my mother would smell them on my breath. They could send her to find lost children by smelling their lunch bags.”
Once April had visited Sara Davis’ house and was taken into the garage where Sarah opened the lid of a freezer that would have made April’s father whistle with envy. There were rows of steaks neatly labeled, porterhouse, shell, sirloin. Next to that were stacked boxes of Birdseye vegetables, Celebrity crabmeat, Louis Sherry ice cream in three flavors. Sarah found a box of Popsicles and offered one to April. They went outside and sat on a small wrought iron bench in the middle of the lawn. Sara wasn’t eating her Popsicle and it began to drip on her hand. “I’ve got to get rid of this,” she said and walked to a coiled garden hose and ran the water over the Popsicle until it melted.
April couldn’t have been more shocked if someone had slapped her face. She had never in her life not finished a dessert. What’s more, she would have gladly eaten Sara’s Popsicle and was about to tell her so before she hosed it into a puddle of stained water.
Bernice had a simple cooking style that was similar to every blue-collar mother in Queens. She made meat loaf once a week. She browned her onions put them in a large bowl, added ground chuck and pork, two eggs, a cup of breadcrumbs and half a cup of ketchup. She blended it all with quick strokes, first taking off her wedding band, then shaped the mixture into a loaf that she wrapped in bacon. Side dishes included mashed potatoes made with margarine and evaporated milk, canned corn and lima beans. She bought Gravy Master and every night made gravy that was pored generously over whatever meat they ate. She always put out a dish of olives and celery sticks.
She was proud of her cole slaw – the only salad she ever served. It was made with an irresistible dressing of mayonnaise, evaporated milk, crushed pineapple and sugar. For dessert, she often made Jell-O with whipped topping or Royal chocolate pudding. Heart’s Delight peaches – which they preferred to Del Monte – was their favorite fruit. For Sunday breakfast and lunch, Bernice would pick up a coffee cake or salt sticks from Smilen Brothers, a specialty market close to home. Smilen Brothers were more expensive than King Kullen and when she served these treats, she would say, “These are from the gyp.”
It was cooking that was, tasty, filled you up and needed little chewing. Bernice and April’s father, Harlan, were proud and satisfied to live this way. They considered themselves a thousand times better than the Italians down the street who had soup on Mondays – to clean out their systems – and spaghetti on Wednesdays and all kinds of tomato sauce and grated cheese. Her father had never eaten a Chinese dinner or an Italian dinner or even pizza. “I wouldn’t have it in my stomach,” he said, as if he were talking about Red China being in the U.N.
In eighth grade, April took the state aptitude tests and was scheduled for a conference with her guidance counselor. She picked all the pills off her white Orlon turtleneck and wore pantyhose instead of socks. The night before she used a peel-off clay masque although there was little wrong with her complexion. Someone was going to help her plan her future.
“Do you have any idea of how you did?” Mrs. Calderone, the counselor, asked in a teasing way. April shrugged. “Look here, verbal reasoning, 95.” Thump went Mrs. Calderone’s hand. “Numerical ability, 91.” Thump. “Abstract reasoning, 97.” Thump.
“Language, 93, spelling, 92.” Thump, thump. “You can compete at the very best institutions and have a fine academic career – a future!”
That night, after dinner, April approached her father and told him she wanted to talk to him about her future. Harlan laughed, genuinely amused by her seriousness. “Your future,” he said, “is what comes along when you’re eighteen and have to find a job.”
When April was eighteen and had finished high school, she didn’t look for a job. She was five feet five inches and weighed 180 pounds. She had Bernice’s large green/gray eyes and Harlan’s thick chestnut hair. She had the kind of looks that made people surmise she’d be stunning if she just lost some weight. She, too, was certain she could control her future by simply losing weight. The ideal man would love her. Important work would be hers. But she couldn’t quite galvanize her will.
Mrs. Beck was billing Sylvie as pre-law. Sylvie had a job at the New School in New York City’s Greenwich Village for the summer. She was going to take courses to apply for credit at Brooklyn College where she would use her Regents scholarship. “You could do the same,” she told April. In August, Sylvie urged her friend to be her replacement at the New School job when she started at Brooklyn the following month. She brought home an application and made April call Jamaica High and have her records transferred. Working at the New School entitled her to two free courses. That was a start. She could come in a couple of days before Sylvie left and learn the switchboard, which would be one of her duties. Having had a taste of Manhattan, Sylvie was impatient with anyone who chose to remain in Queens. She had a boyfriend who came to pick her up in a red Ford Convertible. He was in advertising, an account executive with an agency that had Rice-A-Roni and Bond Clothes among its clients.
Harlan warned April about the fairies and the creeps that hung around downtown New York. “At least we know she won’t be raped,” offered Mrs. Beck, pursing her lips to show her disapproval of Harlan’s slurs.
“So, I guess, I’ll go,” said April.
“You’ll see,” said Sylvie. “It’ll change your life.”
If Harlan has stood outside the lobby of the New School on any evening, he would have declared it a Communist outpost. It had an adventuresome leftist air about it. Yet you had only to study the catalogue to see that many of the courses were how-to’s for getting ahead in the capitalist system or for repairing a damaged spirit jaded by the good life.
When she walked the streets of the Village, April felt daring and sophisticated. There was something about that liberal wind sweeping across the sidewalks that made her feel intellectually superior to almost anyone alive.
No one at the New School cared about her weight, her experience or the fact that she wore the same outfit three days of the week and another outfit the other days. She was one more ship passing through in a world of transients. They showed her what was necessary and went about their own pursuits with the distracted saintly air of serious scholars who also had to earn a living.
Between her lunch hour walks and the unavailability of Bernice’s handy, carbohydrate-loaded snacks, she lost ten pounds and was so exhilarated she made a conscious effort to lose ten more. She could now fit into a size 16, which allowed her more fashion possibilities. She went to Bloomingdale’s and picked out two bias cut skirts, two turtleneck sweaters, brown leather boots and a tan raincoat. By the time her classes began for the spring semester, she was someone with a recognizable waist and vastly upgraded dreams. And what she dreamt about was love.
In 1972, there was no air of goodness about celibacy. Everybody was hugging and kissing. On the street. In the movies. In books. Everybody, it seemed but her. Worse, she was pure not out of self-restraint but lack of opportunity. It was the worst thing you could know about yourself. In this state of continuous arousal and recrimination, she saw the man of her dreams around every corner and one day, he materialized.
The first time she saw Harald Tierney was at 6:30 on a sweet January evening. It had been a bizarre hot day, a record breaker. He was searching for something in his pockets. He frisked his breast, his hips, his sides. He was standing in half-light wearing a charcoal gray suit with a soft blue shirt. He saw her and smiled, not in an intimate way but as if he smiled at the world in general. He turned and a recessed light lit the back of his neck. The expression on his face, the texture of his skin, the bold cut of his jaw, the play of the innocent blue of his shirt against the pale, damp flush of his face was tremendously appealing to April.
He found what he was searching for, waved it to her as if in explanation and disappeared inside a phone booth. She edged closer and watched. He smiled as he spoke into the telephone and hung up reluctantly. When he rose to leave, she almost followed him.
By midterm, April had dropped her initial courses and chosen two others: Writing Advertising Copy and a seminar entitled: Change Your Emotions and Win in the Stock Market. The stock market course was overenrolled and at the first meeting, the students had to move to a larger room. As she looked around, April was put off. The audience was heavily sprinkled with affluent middle-aged women wearing dresses instead of jeans. The men wore dark suits and watches without numbers. It looked as if these people had already won in the stock market.