The Way We Live
Ellen Fagg, editor
Blue, Blue, My Love is Blue
[p.99]All my life, all I ever wanted to do was dance. From the time I first climbed out on the kitchen table and turned on my heel to dance a late-night tango for my little sisters, a late-night tango clicking across the table top and tapping my way out of their world into another, from that time I knew. To the time of my senior prom when I held Carl Banner under the crepe-paper moon and nudged him through all that we had practiced in the church gym, nudged him and tried to hold forever the feeling that always came when the lights went dim, tried to hold him with the last dance tune that I hummed in his ear, “Blue, Blue, My Love is Blue,” which I hoped would settle in there like cement. Even then I knew. For all that time, and all the time before and since, all I ever wanted to do, me, Lena Laviston, all I ever wanted to do was dance.
But when I was ten, a child of ten, capering around [p.100]the kitchen in my stocking feet, bidding for attention, my father leaned back in his dinette chair from where he was bidding at cards and said, “Get the hell out of here while I’m shooting the moon.” It was an early reflection on my talent, that it was doomed to be misperceived, flung aside like so many countless nines. It was a stunning blow, and the shock of it rolls over me still, when I think of how my socks would sing on the kitchen tile. But on I danced, in closets, in corners, across all their lives, even though I was threatened with “No more new socks.” No more new socks until I learned to appreciate the ones I had. No more new socks until I stopped acting like a fool and did the dishes like I was told.
But still I danced, on stages made of beds or under the spotlight on the kitchen dinette. And I danced around in my own little talent shows, my own little dress rehearsals, with my sisters as audience, and hoped that someday I would be discovered.
Because I always knew that I would be one of the few. Even as far back as I can remember, before all my sisters came along, and my father would lift me by the arms, his first born, and glide my bare feet on the tops of his rough shoes, and he would swing me away and away to the beautiful Tennessee Waltz. Even then I think I knew, being lifted, as I was and twirled by my arms in glory, all the way up to his chest.
I never let anything else creep in. Just dancing. There were little lace tutus for the Primary Parade, starched [p.101]bonnets at Easter Pageant, and angel wings and tights for Christmas plays. It was all there in me from the beginning. It’s important to get the facts straight. Because I didn’t take up dancing in high school just to get out of the house. I didn’t do it for that. With me it was a gift that I had to use. With me, it was natural.
And this is where it’s got me. Me, sitting here listening to my sister Lucky tell me about her love life in Helena, Montana, this guy she’s been living with hot-and-cold for the last five years. I mean, I’m sitting here grinding peas through the top of the Magic Food Mill and feeding the mess to the baby. I’m working my sixth child onto solid food and off my breast, and Lucky’s sitting there in her denim halter top with half an acre of breast resting on my kitchen table, and she’s telling me how Stan, that’s the guy’s name, likes to give her a good suck. If I know what she means. I could have lived without knowing that, but she tells me anyway.
She tells me everything I don’t want to know, and I can’t tell her anything. That’s Lucky. Always trying to catch up and prove something to the world. To listen to her talk, you’d think she invented it. My parents called her Lucky because when she was born the cord was twisted around her neck, and she untwisted herself right at the last minute and came out okay, and I always thought she turned a second too late and cut off the air she had to think with.
Anyway, that was us back then. Lena, Lucy, Lucky, [p.102]Lorna, and Lark. Five little clones whose names people would sing out like a jingle until they came to the right one. Five little clone girls dressed in Easter bonnets and one long name. That was us-the girls-sticking to the back seat of our father’s ’57 Rambler and hoping, each one of us, that we wouldn’t scrape our legs on the metal catch along the front of the seat, or get popped in the head before we got to Sunday School.
So my little sister, the one we all teased because she was fat, she says to me that she likes to try new things. Her and Stan aren’t afraid of trying new things, if you know what she means.
And I say, “Lucky. Does this guy love you or what?”
And she says, “Yes. Oh, yes. He likes to do it three or four times a day.”
“But Lucky,” I try to clear this up. “Does he want to marry you or anything?”
And she says, “Well, if that’s not love, I don’t know what is.” And she stops there because she knows now about my recent divorce and pretends she doesn’t want to rub anything in.
The baby squirms sideways and nearly wrenches out of my arm I got clamped around her middle. Lucky says, “Little yahoo, little bugger,” and I pull tighter with my forearm so I won’t lose my grip on the Magic Food Mill in my hand.
And here’s the thing about Lucky, the thing everyone knew about her all her life while she was growing [p.103]up at home—Lucky and her “piano talent.” Lucky signing up for the talent assembly, her name on the bulletin board in the hall in front of third grade. A little black smudge mark under her name. A little of Lucky on the board for everyone to see. The “professional” Lucky. And us other kids, her sisters, shrinking into corners when anybody asked, “What’s this about Lucky?” Me and Lorna walking just a little bit ahead all the way home because we knew the secret about Lucky—Lucky plunking away at home with two fingers, never-had-a-lesson-in-her-life Lucky. Because it was bound to rub off on us, see. No matter how it would turn out, it was bound to rub off. Lucky getting up on stage and plunking out “Old McDonald” or “Dolly Dear.” Or Lucky not getting up on stage, making some excuse at the last minute so that everyone would groan with recognition of the old tale of our infamy. Our family shame that seemed to have no end and no beginning. That Lucky should think of doing this made our social rise all the more impossible. Lucky and her piano talent. Just like all the Lavistons.
But nobody knew about me. I was the real thing. I could dance. Knew it when I swung my hips, every time I went out to get the mail. Knew it when I walked up the junior high stairs with a bunch of junior high boys behind. Knew it when I danced with myself in the dark to the totally delectable tune of “Chantilly Lace, a pretty face, a ponytail hanging down.” Knew it when there [p.104]wasn’t a soul around or a drift of music in the air. Even then I knew. I just knew.
But here I am and Lucky says, “In my mind, we’re married. A common-law marriage. He hangs his pants on the bedpost just the same. Sometimes his place, sometimes mine. It’s all just the same. In my mind, we’re married.”
In my mind, she is something else. And now I have to ask myself this: What choice did I have being born into such a family? After high school graduation, my father gave me two choices. I could stay home and help build the new barn, or I could go to a business school, a one-year mill, and pay my own way. He had too many daughters coming along for anyone to get any fancy ideas about college. And I was the first one. I had to set the example. And when it was Lucky’s turn to leave home, she got to go to state four years and now she waits tables.
I had to go into business because that was where the money was. I couldn’t believe they tried to teach me shorthand when all my talent was in my feet, tried to give me dictation when my spirit was free, tried to cram office machines down my throat when I was light as a feather. I couldn’t believe one word anyone ever said to me until I discovered the weekend dance at the Ridgeway and Freddy Street dancing to “Hey Jude,” strumming his stomach like it was a guitar.
I always was a sucker for a slow dance tune, something that gave you goose bumps. Give me a two-step or [p.105]a fox trot any day. Something where your partner takes you in his arms and waltzes you out of this world into the next.
So anyway, I’m sitting here listening to Lucky, The Pianist, because, hey, I figure I’ve had six kids, that’s one less than my mother, and I figure there isn’t much Lucky can tell me about sex. I figure maybe after awhile she will slow down and ask me a question. I mean I have had six children pulled from my groin, six times split open by the cry of new life, six times I have multiplied and fulfilled the measure of my creation and I think I know something she doesn’t. But does she slow down and listen to me?
I mean I could tell her a little bit about life in general. Not just sex. About how people say things about having so many kids. Like I’m some kind of nymphomaniac to have had so many. Like I can’t control myself. You can’t tell me I don’t know what they say behind my back about me and Freddy. Me and Freddy, the fertility twins. Freddy didn’t mean for things to turn out the way they did. Things just happened. But me, I wanted those babies, every one. Every one was a little bit special. A little shaving off the soul of God. And my only regret is that Freddy took off before I had any more. And that’s what I tell those people who think they know so much about my life. Who like to stick their noses in where they don’t belong. Because if there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s people wanting to know your business and run your life [p.106]for you, just to get a thrill, and who have no intentions of sticking around long enough to help out. And me on welfare, a divorced woman without an education, trying to raise six hungry kids. If they don’t want to help us out, they can just mind their own business.
Anyway, I heard that kind of crap all my life, about people who have more kids than they can afford. Like it wasn’t the Lord’s commandment or something. They stick it to you in little ways, like when you are getting out of the car at the wholesale grocery. You are unloading from the Rambler, just coming out into the fresh air, when someone says something about a pack of circus clowns climbing out of a Volkswagen. Makes you feel like dirt. And then there is always someone getting you mixed up with one of your sisters, which they think is funny. I could tell Lucky all this, but she should know about humiliation being fat. Six kids and I still have a better figure.
In fact, I could tell her some stories about Freddy, but why bother. He’s history. A faded tune on the dance floor. Some double-timing hot-step from the 1960s that no one even wants to remember.
Lucky gets up to get a drink of water. There is a lull in the drone that has been pounding in my head ever since she arrived. Like closing up the piano after the kids’ hammering. Like the first day of school after they’ve gone. Like valium. All this talking and talking about Stan and his horny self. Lucky takes a long swig at the sink and [p.107]then comes back and sets the plastic glass onto the wood table I sanded myself. A water moustache purses on her upper lip, which she has no intention of wiping dry.
She has been revived. So her and Stan like to try new things, she says. Like she hasn’t mentioned this before. They like to try new positions, if I know what she means. For instance, she says. And she shows me with her hands. Meanwhile, I’m wiping Georgette’s mouth, and trying to keep a straight face. Because it is hard for me to imagine anyone straddling Lucky in any position. Lucky on the top. Lucky on the bottom. If there is a God in heaven, you’d think He’d spare me this. After all I’ve done to build up the kingdom, having my kids and all. But no. I have to listen to every word. This is my sister who I haven’t seen in five years, and she is a guest in my house. She can gesture with her hands all she wants and draw diagrams on the table. This is my sister. Which way do I like it best, she says. Which way did I like it best with Freddy? And now she has me. She wants me to diagram back. He was fast Freddy, all right. But to Lucky I say, “Some things are sacred.”
And that cuts her off a little. She takes another drink. There is a hand calculator on the table where I have been adding up the check book. Although why I try to balance it, I’ll never know. A divorced woman is a hopeless case. And Lucky is picking up the calculator and punching in some numbers. “Let’s see. You figure seven-point-five times a week, fifty-two weeks out of the year, minus a [p.108]few months when we’re not living together, times five years and you come up with something like this.” She shows me the figure. I do my best to ignore it, but it’s big. Real big.
Georgette spits peas down my blouse, and I hit her in the mouth with the burp rag. All my life I never minded kids. I was the oldest. I had my hands full with all the babies at home. All my father’s babies, born one after the other until there were six of us, and then bingo, there he finally was-the boy, little Bernie. My baby brother, the little live-wire we had all been waiting for, the reward after the long parade of girls, after trial and error, after “Slam-barn-thank you, ma’am.” This is the way Lucky always described it about our father-the way he did it to Mother. The way any man will get away with if he can.
And how does she know so many stupid things? How does she know so many things that passed right over my head while we were growing up? How could she know such a thing about our parents? And now she’s talking about coming. How many times, she wants to know. How many times in one night? But she doesn’t wait for an answer. “Some things are sacred, I know,” she says, and holds up her hands to spare herself.
Then she drops both hands on the table flat. “You do come, don’t you?”
And I say, “Of course, I do. Where’d you think this one came from.” And I point my chin at Georgette. And then I listen to what she has to say next. About how when [p.109]we were kids and liked to climb up the flag pole. That’s kind of what it feels like, she says. The way it feels when you have your legs wrapped around double, your toes locked behind your ankles, and you slide down fast from the top. “Yeah, I know,” I say.
But I never was much of a climber. Lucky was the one who always made it to the top. I’m getting this picture of it all in my head. Lucky, all alone out on the playground at school, going up and down the flagpole. Lucky, all alone under the covers in the bedroom at home where six girls slept. And Lucky and Stan irretrievably tangled, arms and legs intertwined, in some waterbed with mirrors over there in Montana. And then there is me, me and Freddy. But Lucky is ahead of me.
“Everybody knew why you came home from business school,” she is saying. “Everybody knew it was because of you and Freddy, because of sex.”
“Who is everybody?” I am saying. “What gave you that idea?” I see me now coming home in disgrace, a failure at typing, a failure at dictation. Barely passing office machines. “What do you mean everybody knew it was because of sex?”
“Well, that is what Fran told me,” says Lucky. Fran is our cousin who married an accountant and who has enough money to take one of my kids but has never offered. And Lucky says, “Fran said that Mom took you to the doctor when you got back to see if you were pregnant, because the old lady you were staying with [p.110]said you were out late all the time. She says you catted around all hours of the night and she had no control over you, and if Mom and Dad didn’t get you home soon, you’d be pregnant. And Mom took you to the doctor, and he said you didn’t bleed, and that’s why Freddy Street followed you up here after you left school, and you got married so fast.” And Lucky leans back, looking satisfied with herself.
I mull over what she has said to me, and then suddenly it is like the room has changed color. So that’s what all that was about. The doctor looking up between my legs. Because I needed a physical, my mother said, but really because they never understood. Nobody understood. About how I had this special talent, how I had to go to those dances at the Ridgeway or die. Trapped as I was in downtown Boise. And now Lucky is telling me this after all these years, stuff she has known all along. Stuff everyone has been saying behind my back all along. Here I am a mother in Zion and people have been saying things like that. People been knowing things that I didn’t know myself- why my parents kicked me out. Why they don’t even look at my kids. And now I see it all. The reasons for things over all these years. The way they have been seeing my whole life for the last fifteen years, my marriage, my children, my divorce, and all my bad luck. Everything’s upside down. They think the Lord’s against me because of the way I’ve lived, and I’m getting exactly what I deserve for being somebody I never was.
[p.111]I let Lucky rattle on for one more sentence, something about Amos being early, and then I let her have it. And this is what I say. “The only reason there’s a divorce in this family is because as it turns out my husband is homosexual. And the one thing I won’t stand for is people thinking that everything has been my fault. And the one thing you better get straight right now is that I don’t enjoy it in any position, not up or down, not regular or otherwise. And the real reason I’m mad is this: All my life I’ve been good. I went to church and took my sisters when my parents said to go. I put up with little Bernie kicking me on the shins and didn’t hit him back like I wanted. And I even went away to the school where father said I had to go. And what did I get for doing what I was told? I got religious and I got shin splints. I got a bad report card and I got kicked out of the house. And now what it comes down to is this: I have a husband who enjoys sleeping with men better than me and has no intention of paying child support, and I’ve got to feed my kids on a crummy paper route. And not one relative will lift a finger to help. Not my sisters who have problems of their own. Not my cousin, who thinks she’s Hedda Hopper. Not my father or my mother, because they think I’m the whore of Babylon.”
And that’s what I tell Lucky more or less, sitting there across from me with her mouth hanging open. Words like that coming from me, I suppose. Well, I let it sink in [p.112]for about two minutes, and then I tell her to get the hell out.
So they have these dances out at the Cotton Club on Highway 95. It’s a bar, but a real nice place. Live music and dancing. It says so on the sign. And you don’t think I’ll fit in, but time will tell. As soon as the sitter gets here, that’s where I’m headed. Because I’m still young. I can still swing my hips. Maybe I will be rusty a little at first, maybe I’ll gasp for breath the first time around. But I think I’ll make it. Because once you’ve seen the ceiling whirling away, you never forget it. It’s always in your body somewhere. You are always, from that time forward, one with the dance. And maybe I won’t find him on the first try, maybe not even on the second. But I will find him. Some man. Some dancing man who will be good for more than one time around the dance floor. Some man standing there along the side in the blue dim light, waiting—waiting for me to step out into my slow sway, in my velveteen plush dress, some man waiting somewhere, who still knows how to dip.