Read Read My Lips Online

Authors: Sally Kellerman

Read My Lips (5 page)

BOOK: Read My Lips
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S
OMETIME AROUND FIFTH GRADE WE MOVED TO
S
AN
F
ERNANDO
proper, to a lovely little house on Brand Boulevard two blocks in from Laurel Canyon. That’s where I trained Shadow to jump the fence. I was so proud (my father not so much). Shadow
and I would wander around looking for adventures together. One day, while we were out walking, I saw a huge expanse of dirt in the distance. I got a little closer. They were houses, but strangely, they were all being built at the same time. They looked exactly alike.
Oh no,
I thought, looking at the changing Valley,
I hope it doesn’t get too crowded.

I swam like a fish throughout junior high and even won first place in All-Valley butterfly as well as third in All-City medley. But things started to change socially, and my self-image started to take a hit. I was growing—fast—and suddenly looking for reasons to feel good about myself. One of the most frustrating things about being so tall so young was that there was very little I could wear in my size that was cute. There were no clothes for big girls, for people who didn’t look like my little five-foot-two mom, all high heels and petite femininity. But feeling big made me ready to take anything that was said to me the wrong way. When one of the kids in my seventh-grade class told me I had a crooked smile, at first it hurt my feelings.

“No,” my friend explained. “It’s sexy.”

Sexy? What was that, exactly? I wasn’t entirely sure, but I could tell by the way he said the word that I definitely wanted to be it. So when it was time for school pictures, I tried to smile just as crooked as I could. The day we took the pictures home I showed my father the best shot.

“That’s disgusting,” he said, and he tore it to pieces in front of me.

He wanted my older sister, Diana, and me to be more like our mother: to wear dresses, to be more, well, demure. So the two of us occasionally found ourselves dressed in matching pinafores. He also wanted us to do well in school. Diana was a bookworm, but school was never my thing, outside of drama, choir, gym, and recess. I preferred playing in George Pupitch’s haystack to doing my homework. George called me “moo moo clarabell jersey bounce labatroite” after all his neighboring cows because I was taller than all the neighboring cows—and most of
the boys. But once I returned from haystacks and walks with Shadow, my father was always checking in on me, hovering over me and my books.

“Think!” he’d snap, when all I wanted to do was nap. I couldn’t manage to read to save my life. I’d look ahead a few pages so that if my dad quizzed me, I would have an answer. “Tom Sawyer was just getting some kids to paint a fence,” I’d tell my father.

“Okay . . . very good,” he’d say. And the minute he was out the door I’d be asleep.

I earned Cs, Ds, and Fs. I needed—still do—people to make things interesting for me. Sitting in a classroom with a teacher verbally instructing me put me to sleep. I just couldn’t take it in. Not until I had kids of my own would I discover I had a lifelong learning disability, the kind that wasn’t acknowledged—let alone diagnosed or medicated—in the 1950s. If you did poorly, you weren’t working hard enough, plain and simple. Even later, after millions of classes, when actors or teachers would give me books or lecture about the “spine of the character,” the words and lessons never sunk in. I need to
be.
I need to
do.

S
TILL,
I
MANAGED TO KEEP SCHOOL INTERESTING.
I
N ELEMENTARY
school I’d started a Cowgirl Club. We ran around slapping our legs, pretending to be riding horses. I was a huge fan of Betty Hutton and used to paint freckles on my nose and put on my roller skates and sing songs from
Annie Get Your Gun.
Another highlight of my youth was joining the Bathroom Club. To belong, you had to be willing to go to the bathroom in the orange groves. I was the only girl in the club. In middle school clubs got a little clique-ier. Girls were invited to join, girls were kicked out. None of it made a whole lot of sense to me.

When I was invited to join the Girls Club at San Fernando Junior High, my best friend, Sherry, didn’t want me to and was a little possessive of my attention. Sherry and I had known each other for years, and she didn’t like me to have other friends.
When we were younger we would take snails from the garden, put them in a jar, salt them, and watch them shrivel and die. (We hadn’t heard about animal cruelty.) When we moved on to having sleepovers, Sherry told me how to masturbate. But then Sherry joined the Girls Club before me—the same one she’d insisted I not join—and kicked out the girl who had invited me to join. Then I insisted we bring her back, and they did. Then they all kicked me out. I had no idea know why, but something occurred to me: I could get myself a whole new gang. And I did.

I was voted class clown in the ninth grade and decided to audition for the
Follies
with Sherry. I created our musical act: I was the star, the director, and the choreographer. I decided it would be a little bit Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a little bit like
Show Boat,
with Ava Gardner, and that there’d be roller skates involved. Singing was nothing without a little extra something, and roller skates added real panache.

My sister told me that, on skates, I looked like an elephant on a teacup. Before, when I was younger, I was too skinny; now I was an elephant. Diana had always teased me when I would gab or sing. “Shut up, big lips, with your stupid voice!” she’d say. “Big lips” always made me cry. But she was so smart and so bookish and seemed to have the answer to everything. I idolized her. I thought she looked just like Shirley MacLaine. Was she right about my
Follies
routine? I didn’t care. Nothing ever stopped me from performing.

Sherry and I rehearsed and auditioned our show to be a part of the Follies. I was stunned when we our act didn’t make the cut. It was my first real performance rejection—but certainly not the last. I retired to my room and stood in front of the mirror. I looked deep into my own eyes, smiling a crooked smile.

Someday . . . Someday . . .

By the time I was in junior high, acting and singing were already inseparable for me. I wanted to be a movie star, and I wanted to have a huge wedding so everyone could come and see how pretty I looked. I wanted to sing. Unfortunately, I kept getting
plumper as I worked my way through junior high, so admitting out loud I wanted to act began to seem like more of a stretch. I didn’t think I looked like the actresses I admired. I didn’t look like Doris Day. So I kept my desire a secret.

With the onset of my extra pounds, our mealtimes went from the routine teasing of my mom to an ongoing interrogation from my father. He analyzed every bite that made its way from my plate to my mouth.

“Sit up straight. Do you want to eat in the garage? That’s too much salt! That’s too much sugar!”

He became the warden of the prison I’d made, burying myself under the weight of Twinkies and candy bars until I was ready to come out.

There was little that my mother could do but put her usual positive spin on my weight gain. “Well, darling,” she used to say, “you’re so well proportioned.”

Oh, Mom. To this day whenever a script hands me a “dear,” I always wish it were a “darling.”

My weight gain was partly due to puberty and shooting skyward. But in therapy I realized that there was also probably some fallout from the unwanted attention I received from the father of a friend, “Jennifer,” whenever I spent the night at her house.

The first time he climbed into bed with me I was around ten or eleven years old. Jennifer and I came in from outside, covered in adobe mud. We cleaned up and crawled into Jennifer’s twin beds. Jennifer’s father came in to say good night and then, instead of leaving, got into bed with me. I didn’t know what to do. I just froze.

Maybe it was because I didn’t cry out that he kept pushing it. He kept after me, holding me and touching my chest, eventually putting his hand between my legs. He would stroll around the house naked with a huge erection while I was there. I remember wondering how it was that men ever got their pants on. Once he took Jennifer and me for a drive and parked somewhere in the woods. He began to tell us dirty stories, things I’d never heard
before or even understood. Then he said, “You girls won’t be virgins when you get married.” Jennifer and I started sobbing. With every advance, I didn’t know what to say. Only once did he ever put my hand on his penis. And that was when I finally managed to speak. “Don’t you ever touch me again,” I said, and that was all it took. However, it took me a long time to work up the courage to do it.

I didn’t dare tell my parents. I never told anyone—except Jennifer. When I did, she just glared at me, furious, and said, “So?”

I
T TOOK ME YEARS TO UNDERSTAND THAT
I
HAD FINE PARENTS
who simply reflected their own lifetime of pain, their own secrets. But they never, ever complained. They lived. They had fun. Still, I regarded them as products of the Victorian era. There was a right way to do things and a wrong way. There were rules, and people lived their lives according to those rules, especially proper young women. There was a lot that went unsaid in our house, things I would have liked to have known about. The foremost of these was the story of my younger sister.

My mother waved down to Diana and me from the hospital window when the baby was born. We weren’t allowed to go up to see her for ourselves. Those were the days when doctors and nurses swept in to take your child the moment it was out of your body. A hospital room with a newborn was not the place for children.

When my parents brought Victoria home, I thought she was the most adorable thing I had ever seen. At first she just lay there in her crib, staring off. Then, after a few months, she learned to giggle and would make eye contact. She was about eight months old when my mother left for a weekend to attend a spiritual conference. She had never left us before. Because she had to leave town, she arranged for a housekeeper to come stay to take care of Diana, me, and little Victoria.

I remember the housekeeper standing at our old-fashioned
stove the first night my mother was gone. The housekeeper was talking to me as she was stirring supper on the stove. I liked watching her cook. It was kind of mesmerizing.

She told me about a friend of hers who was staying with a family when their baby died. Then she added, “I just don’t know what I would do if that happened to me.”

That sounded horrible to me. She stopped talking and kept on stirring. I watched her spoon go around and around. Was this an omen?

Our house had railroad bedrooms—you had to pass through Diana’s and my bedroom to get to Victoria’s. So the next morning there was no way Diana and I would not know what was happening.

The housekeeper came running through our room on her way out into the hall, screaming, “The baby’s dead!!! The baby’s dead!!! The baby!”

I froze. My father was next, flying into our room from the hall, racing in to see Vicky.

He staggered back out of Vicky’s room, saying, “Girls, don’t go in there. Stay where you are!”

As soon as he was out in the hall, I snuck into Vicky’s room. She was just lying there, a little bit of saliva at the corner of her mouth, her eyes still open. I ran into the bathroom with Diana before my father caught me. We could still hear the hysterical cries of the housekeeper. I was furious. I was sure it was somehow her fault.

“Let me out of here!” I yelled at Diana. “I’m gonna kill her! Let me out! LET ME OUT!”

Diana was so kind; she tried to calm me down. All of a sudden my dad swooped in and took us down the street to the home of the Greens, our close family friends. Then he left without saying when he’d be back. All we knew was that he was going to see my mother.

BOOK: Read My Lips
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