Laurie scuffed her black high-tops along the sidewalk, feeling ready to self-combust, like those people you read about in the pages of the National Enquirer who suddenly burst into flames at the dinner table. She was so tired of being Laurie Greenspan, loser, also-ran. She played the scene at the falafel stand over and over in her mind, becoming more and more humiliated as she thought about it. Carla and D.J. on Cloud 9, and her sitting there drooling like a bum outside a restaurant.
Suddenly, someone screamed in her ear. She almost had a heart attack. She whirled around. It was two stupid boys from Bancroft. They laughed and she gave them the evil eye. Ha. If she were Carla, she’d have socked them in the face, or kicked them where it would hurt the most. But she wasn’t Carla, and her ineffectualness made her feel doubly miserable. She wished the world would just shut up and go away, just for a moment, and leave her alone. She would have given anything for one single minute of complete silence, of nothingness. No Laurie, no Carla, no D.J., no world.
She turned down her street, which was dense with apartment houses and small older bungalows. A bunch of guys were hanging out in front of one building, drinking their first beers of the day. It was a choice between passing them or the big Doberman behind a low fence on the other side of the street. She preferred the dog, which hadn’t jumped out of the yard—yet. The dobie rushed up to the low chain link fence, growling hideously, its long teeth flashing. Laurie stepped off the curb into the street to avoid its territory, just as she would have done with the runaways, if Carla hadn’t picked a fight. Farther down on the next block, a bunch of little girls were jumping rope. Their childish voices chanted, “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?”
Why did life have to change? Laurie thought. Not so long ago, she and Carla had recited that rhyme. Why couldn’t they be 10 again? Everything had gotten out of hand recently, pulling and pushing at her, eating at her nerves like a rat gnawing in the wall. Fifteen used to seem so old, like the top of some mountain. But now it was like being at the bottom of a well, the light just a tiny, round hole 50 feet up, marking the day she could go to college and get away from home.
The jumper was on “Number four stole the cookies” when she tripped and went out. The girls began turning the rope again, and suddenly, Laurie dropped her purse and jumped into the game herself. The little girls screamed with laughter. For her, they did “Mabel, Mabel, set the table. Don’t forget the red hot peppers!!!” Laurie jumped as fast as she could, but eventually they got her. She slung her purse back over her shoulder and waved goodbye. There was just no going back.
The Greenspans’ small, white bungalow sat near the end of the block, with its paint peeling and brilliant magenta bougainvillea growing along the sagging porch. The house nestled between two others, one painted aquamarine, the other with dead cars on the front lawn and heavy metal playing on the stereo. Through the open window, Laurie could see her father just where she had left him, propped up in his old armchair by the window, laying out cards for solitaire.
She stopped for a moment to look at him. From here, Robert Greenspan looked like a perfectly normal middle-aged man with wavy gray hair. Handsome even. You’d never know he was just the shell of a man. Lights on, nobody home. Once he’d been a brilliant mathematician, so her mother said, a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech. But when Laurie was five, he’d stepped off the curb into the street, and somebody had run him over. WHAM! Life changed in an instant. The guy never stopped.
It made Laurie sick to think about it. One tiny accident, a random split-second combination of factors, could change your life forever. If anything had been different, if her father had been one second later or earlier, or if he’d been watching, or if the guy hadn’t been going so fast or had hit his horn, or if someone had called out to her father, “Hey, Robert!,” or if he’d gone to the bathroom after leaving the class he’d been teaching—change one thing, and he’d still be here.
Laurie could still remember the old house where they used to live in Pasadena, near Caltech, in a pretty neighborhood with big trees. There was a swing set in the backyard, and they used to have barbecues on summer nights. Her room was at the front of the house, a room all her own with wood floors and lots of windows and a big dollhouse. Her mother was happy then; she was studying for her master’s in physics. She used to laugh and even sing. Laurie remembered one song in particular, a Russian birthday song about a crocodile.
But then the accident happened. The insurance paid most of the medical bills, but her father was just a postdoctoral student and not a regular professor, so after awhile the money stopped, and her mother had to drop out to take a bookkeeping job at Paramount Studios that another Russian lady had found for her. And now some other kids were living in Laurie’s house, swinging on her swings, playing with her dollhouse, growing up under the big trees with fathers who talked to them and mothers who sang—all the things that should have been hers, but weren’t, because of what happened in that one split second.
Laurie slammed the screen door. “Hi, Dad.”
“How was school today?” he asked. He kept forgetting that it was summer.
“No school today.” She sat down on the couch by her father’s chair. “Black five on the red six,” she pointed out.
He smiled and moved the five. He got caught up in The Love Connection on TV and forgot he was talking to her.
She took her clothes out of the hall closet, which she had to share with the winter coats and her mother’s sewing machine, and locked herself into the bathroom, where she performed the depressing task of changing the Princess back into Cinderella. Off came the bicycle pants and the tank top, and on went the faded hand-me-downs from her cousin Sylvie. Off came the huge hoop earrings and bangle bracelets she had acquired one rainy day at Woolworth’s. Off came the makeup. Laurie wasn’t allowed to wear make up—her mother couldn’t understand that the younger and more innocent you looked, the more you got hassled. She didn’t get it that this wasn’t Russia. This was Hollywood, USA, and you had to blend in if you wanted to survive. If Laurie walked around looking like Shirley Temple, the way her mother wanted her to, she wouldn’t get two blocks on the Boulevard before something awful happened to her.
But there was no talking to Lena Greenspan. She knew everything. She had left Russia at the age of 20, too late for her to have any idea of what America was all about. So according to her, good girls didn’t wear makeup, or shave their legs, or go to the movies, or have ideas of their own. They just walked around wearing bows in their hair, knee socks, and plaid skirts; and hung on their mothers’ words like a bunch of robots.
Laurie stashed her clothes and jewelry in the hall closet. The house looked so dreary, especially in the clear afternoon light. She and her brother kept the place clean—the books dusted, the dishes washed, the threadbare rug vacuumed—but everything was old and faded, like the flower print on the couch where she slept every night. It was the only thing left over from that other life, before the accident. Then its flowers had been bright and new.
She remembered the chicken, sitting in the refrigerator, defrosted, waiting for her. Day after day, the same old thing. Make dinner. Clean up. Do this. Do that. And no one ever thanked her for it. No one ever noticed anything she did.
What if she didn’t cook the stupid chicken tonight? What if her mother came home from work and she just hadn’t done it? “You want chicken? Go see the Colonel,” Laurie said out loud, imagining the bliss of saying such a thing to her mother’s face. “Order a pizza, what do I care. Didn’t you hear? Lincoln freed the slaves.”
But of course, she would never dare do such a thing. Lena Greenspan was no Monica Modre. You couldn’t reason with her, you couldn’t refuse. Reluctantly, Laurie took the chicken out of the refrigerator, brushed garlic and paprika over its rubbery skin, and put it in the oven at 350, feeling disgusted with herself for being such a brainwashed slave, such a mommy’s girl. It really made her sick. But what choice did she have? Her mother had no sense of living in a democratic country. In this house, things were still under the totalitarian system. Lena snapped her fingers and Laurie jumped.
Laurie sliced some cheese, made a sandwich, and put it in the toaster oven, but the heat wouldn’t come on. Of course, she thought. What next? Things were falling apart right and left. The roof, the plumbing, the electricity. The house was still on fuses, and it was almost the year 2000. It would be a miracle if the place didn’t burn down some night while they were all asleep.
She put the cheese sandwich on the counter and examined the toaster oven. She got out a Phillips screwdriver, removed the cross head screw in each of the four legs, and pulled off the bottom panel. A shower of crumbs spilled out onto the kitchen floor—the floor she’d just scrubbed before lunch. Laurie started laughing, hysterically. It was just too typical of her life.
She pulled herself together and focused again on the toaster oven, and she saw what was wrong with it. The wire coil was broken, that was all. She got out a pair of needle-nose pliers and twisted the wire back together, then reassembled the oven. She said a short prayer and plugged it in, ready for the ZZZZT and the shock—it was that kind of a day. But the oven heated right up, no stink, no short. She felt a flush of pleasure and pride. Nobody else would care, but she’d done it. She put in her sandwich and swept the floor while it toasted.
“Toaster oven works,” she said to her father as she sat down on the couch. He didn’t look up from the TV.
She took a bite of cheese sandwich and picked up the SAT cram book her mother was making her study because there was no summer school. The LA City Schools were out of money again. Her mother was always harping that she had to do well on the PSATs if she was going to get a National Merit Scholarship like Murray. Even though the PSATs were two years away. Laurie sighed and started on the vocabulary lists. She studied them by writing a story using all the words in each little section. “The sanguine grin on the face of the sanguinary satrap was in contrast to his customary sangfroid.” Her mother thought the stories were a waste of time, but memorizing words was so boring otherwise.
The voice of Chuck Wollery, the host of The Love Connection, kept breaking into Laurie’s thoughts. She hated this show, with the leering Chuckster asking smarmy questions about the people’s dates. Did they do this, did they do that? What everybody hoped was that they had gone to bed together.
“Can’t we watch something else?” Laurie said. She got up and changed the channel.
“No!” her father said, terrified. “No!” He tipped over his card table, trying to reach the TV, and knocked all the cards on the floor. She sighed and turned back to The Love Connection.
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know you liked this show.” She settled him back in his chair, picking up his cards for him. He straightened them, reshuffled, and began laying out another game as if nothing had happened.
Laurie looked at him. She couldn’t help feeling that her real father was still there somewhere, deep inside that clouded mind, that his brain damage was like the wire broken on the toaster oven, and someday, someone might be able to reconnect him. And then he would spring to life and be a real father again instead of this useless department-store dummy.
But as soon as she thought it, she felt bad. It wasn’t his fault, after all. He hadn’t asked to get run over. She remembered a little about the way he used to be, before the accident. He used to make up stories for her about a world that was the exact opposite of this one, where there was an opposite Laurie and an opposite Dad, where you got dressed to go to bed and brushed your teeth before you ate. In the opposite world, people smiled when they were sad and cried when they were happy, water ran uphill, and people were born old and grew young. Her father also used to make funny machines that did strange things. Laurie remembered one especially. You put a marble in a little cup and water poured and a bell rang and a little man lifted a broom, and at the very end, a bird on a spring shot across the room. She felt a big hollow place inside whenever she remembered what she was missing.
Her mother said Laurie was a lot like he used to be, always imagining what if. Lena wasn’t like that at all. She had a mind like a railroad track. It went from here to there in the most efficient manner possible. She never considered that there might be other places to go, other ways to get there.
The screen door opened and slammed. Murray the Student Prince had arrived. He was slender and dark, with dark eyebrows that made him look as if he were scowling. He dressed conservatively, in dark pants and a white shirt. He was tutoring rich kids on how to take the SATs this summer, and he hated them with a bloody passion. They had cars and dated beautiful girls and went to rock concerts, while he, who had placed in the 99th percentile on the SATs, took the bus to and from Bel Air and Beverly Hills every morning and night with all the maids and old ladies. Without even saying hello, Murray went right to the mail. He had graduated from high school that summer, and although he’d been accepted at several good colleges, he’d been waitlisted at Harvard and Stanford, the two places he really wanted to go. If he didn’t get into one or the other, life would not be worth living.
Murray tore open an envelope.
“Anything?” Laurie called out.
“Northwestern again. God! They say they’re going to give my place away if I don’t accept soon.”
Laurie was looking forward to him just being gone. She didn’t care if it was to Stanford or Dogbreath U, as long as she got his bedroom instead of having to sleep on the couch in full view of everybody, like a goldfish in a bowl.
“How was your day, Laurie?” she said, imitating her brother’s voice. “Gee, swell, Murray!” she said in her own voice. “For one thing, I fixed the toaster oven.”
“Ask me if I care,” Murray said, going through the rest of the mail.
He was such a jerk, such a mutant form of life, she thought, watching him as if through a microscope. But of course, her mother thought he was the normal one. Murray the Perfect, the standard by which all behavior was measured, the shining star, the golden yardstick. Laurie couldn’t date because Murray never dated, even though he was almost 18. Laurie couldn’t go to the movies with friends because Murray never went to the movies with friends, not that he had any friends anyway. He’d never even gone to the beach, not once in his entire life.
Murray was the type kids hated the most, the kind who waved their hands in the air when they knew the answer, who thought they were cool just because they had memorized the periodic table and could tell you how many protons were in the nucleus of titanium. With knowledge like that, you could survive about two seconds on the Boulevard. Murray was such a geek he didn’t even know he was a geek. And he would always be a geek, even if he went to Harvard.
He set his briefcase down by the couch and went to take a shower and change. He showered every morning, and then again when he came home. As a little kid, he’d hated to play in the sand because it was dirty.
Laurie turned on the cold water in the kitchen while he was showering, just to hear him yell.
* * *
At seven, as Laurie was heating up the peas, the front door slammed.
“Hello, I’m home,” Lena Greenspan called out wearily, kicking off her shoes. “Such a day.” She was a small, shapely dark-haired woman with large eyes that always looked tired. She rarely smiled, and Laurie could hardly remember the sound of her laughter; it was something that belonged to another lifetime. Lena’s job as a bookkeeper kept her late on Fridays, and then she had to walk home. The money they saved on a car and insurance went into Murray’s college fund. Money, money, money, that was all she ever thought about. Money and grades and scholarships, which were money and grades.
Lena kissed her husband on top of his wavy gray hair, put her arms around his neck. It was something Laurie couldn’t understand, how her mother could still be in love with him. It was ridiculous, like being in love with a hamster or a doorknob. He didn’t look up from his solitaire.
“So, what’s new?” her mother asked, taking off her beige suit jacket. “I fixed the toaster oven,” Laurie said.
Murray held out his letter from Northwestern. Her mother frowned and took the letter, opened it, and read, her dark eyebrows knit together.
“They only want make you worry.”
“Maybe I should take their offer,” Murray said.
“They won’t give place away.” Her mother folded the letter back in the envelope, tossed it onto the table. “Look how they want you.”
“I made dinner,” Laurie said. “It’s almost ready.” “But how can you be sure?” Murray said.
I’m invisible, thought Laurie. The invisible girl.
“I know. You wait for best schools.” Her mother pulled the pins out of her French twist and disappeared into her bedroom to change.
The timer went off. Laurie scraped rice onto four plates, hacked up the chicken, dumped the peas into a dish, and carried the plates out to the dining-room table. Nobody cared about her. She could die tomorrow and nobody would notice, except that dinner wouldn’t be ready. She sat down by the window as her mother emerged from her bedroom. A butterfly started as an ugly caterpillar and emerged as a beautiful winged creature, whereas her mother went into the bedroom as an elegant businesswoman in a suit and silk blouse, and came out as a Russian scrubwoman in a snap-front housedress. Laurie didn’t even want to look at her.
Lena went into the living room to get her husband.
“Eat some dinner, sweetheart,” she said, turning off the TV. Only then did he stand and follow her to the table.
“How was school today?” he asked Murray.
Murray didn’t bother trying to set him straight. “Fine, Papa.”
Her father began to eat.
“So what you do today?” her mother asked Laurie.
Laurie didn’t answer. What was the point of talking? She didn’t count. Only Murray, the big deal, was important.
“You go with Carla Moore again?” her mother said, arching a dark eyebrow. Laurie shrugged.
“Always Carla Moore. Don’t I have enough to worry?” Her mother stabbed her chicken, cutting it with surgical precision. “Your brother never make me worry.”
Laurie rolled her eyes. She’d heard it all before. She didn’t even bother to argue.
After dinner, her mother made her do math problems from the SAT cram book. Laurie knew all this stuff, a squared plus b squared equals c squared. It was boring, and one of her favorite movies of all time, The Night of the Iguana with Richard Burton, was on the eight o’clock movie. She turned the channel early, hoping her father wouldn’t notice when Wheel of Fortune became a steaming Mexican jungle. Luckily the commercials were lively enough, so he didn’t seem to mind.
Her mother didn’t approve of movies, even though she worked for a movie studio. “You done with algebra?” she asked, reading glasses halfway down her nose, looking over the top of her newspaper. “Let me see.”
Laurie handed her mother her algebra problems and went back to the movie as Richard Burton, the defrocked minister, and his tour group of crotchety ladies straggled up the steps to Ava Gardner’s hotel perched high above the Pacific.
The phone rang. Laurie half-rose to answer it, but her mother fixed her with a stare and went into the kitchen to answer it herself.
“Laurie,” she called from the doorway, her left eyebrow pointing up like an arrowhead, her dark eyes filled with disapproval, so Laurie knew it was Carla.
Laurie took the phone, wishing there were an extension somewhere in the house so she could have a little privacy. “Hi,” she said.
“Guess what?” Carla said breathlessly.
“You and D.J. got the Nobel Prize for earwax removal,” Laurie said, watching Richard and Ava from the doorway.
“Yeah, yeah. So what’s up?”
“Oh, nothing…” There was a pause on the other end of the line. “I’ve been de-virginized.”
Laurie turned her back toward her mother. “Tell me!” she whispered.
“Not on the phone. Come tomorrow, I’ll tell you everything.” And Carla hung up.