Art: Act Naturally
On the last day of school, Shaina watched the clock over the door and thought about the smell. Her mother blamed it on their three cats who used the crawl space in the garage instead of their litter box. Morgan, her stepfather, accused their overweight chocolate lab who was prone to incontinence if she wasn’t walked at frequent intervals. Because Shaina’s mother didn’t subscribe to the belief that in the year 1972, women were the sole keepers of hearth and home, and since Morgan’s idea of cleaning was to move a pile of dirty clothes from the couch to the hamper, the house was rarely dusted, vacuumed, or scrubbed. Most of the time, Shaina didn’t notice the smell, but when she came in from outside, it hit her: a combination of unwashed dog, the sandalwood incense her mother burned when she meditated, stagnant dishwater, and an underlying note of old dirt. That was the smell and Shaina hated it. Without taking her eyes off the clock, she raised her arm to her nose; maybe, she thought, the smell clung to her and marked her as unclean. This would explain a lot.
When the buzzer sounded, she lined up with the other students. As the lines snaked through the halls of Lakeview Elementary towards the blacktop where the school buses waited, everyone was ignoring the no-talking rule. Even so, teachers smiled as students laughed and joked and called see you next year to their friends. Shaina moved forward, one step at a time, holding her book bag in front of her. On the bus she stared out the window at the trees as they flicked by. She took off her glasses and cleaned them with the bottom of her shirt and then put them back on, pushing them up the bridge of her nose with her index finger. All around her, the voices of the other kids melded into one solid sound that vibrated against her ears.
But Shaina didn’t care. Tomorrow they were going on vacation.
However, despite Morgan and her mother’s vow to make an early start, everyone overslept. Six-year-old Becca, as usual, was the first one to wake and sounded the alarm. Morgan shouted orders that caused more confusion than progress, but nevertheless by mid-morning, he was backing their Dodge Dart out of the driveway.
Shaina and Becca lined up their Barbies on the ledge beneath the rear window and entered into heavy negotiations about which clothes would go to which Barbie. Shaina was lobbying hard for the taffeta ball gown, but Becca refused to let go of the matching gold metallic pumps. When she threatened to put them in her mouth, Shaina punched her in the arm.
“For God’s sake,” said Morgan when Becca started to wail.
Nell, their mother, said nothing, only hoisted herself up over the front seat and scooped up both Barbies. She twisted off their heads, opened the window, and flung them out. Becca stopped crying and she and Shaina watched as the heads, one brunette, one blonde, bounced down the highway. Ken was spared since his head was more firmly in place, but without Barbie he was worthless so Shaina stowed him in their pink carrying case along with the clothes and shoes.
“I’m hungry,” said Becca after some time had passed.
“We’ve only been driving for twenty minutes,” said Morgan. Let’s wait until we get on 95. We’ll stop at one of the rest stops.”
Just as Becca took a big lungful of air, Nell pointed: “Let’s stop here. Might as well have a good breakfast. Then we can drive the rest of the way through.”
Morgan sighed. The back of his neck was red.
At the rest stop, they ordered eggs and toast and the grownups ordered coffee. But the waitress forgot Morgan’s toast and then was nowhere to be found when it was time for the check. Shaina could tell Morgan was mad by the way he rushed them out to the car without giving in to their pleas for Lifesavers or gum. “Jesus H. Christ,” he said. “It’s one o’clock already. At this rate we won’t be there until after dinner.” Morgan was mostly beige: fair hair swept back in a low pompadour, watery eyes like caramel colored marbles, pale skin that burned easily in the sun. Now he was red-faced and sweating; a lock of hair fell over his eye and stuck to his forehead.
“It’s okay, honey. We’ll make up for lost time when we get on the interstate.”
“Where are we going anyway?” asked Shaina.
“We’re going to visit some friends and stay in a cabin. A real cabin. How does that sound?”
Shaina and Becca looked at each other. Visit friends. Cabin.
“Can’t we go home?” said Becca.
Nell smiled and pushed her sunglasses up on her head, pulling the long dark waves away from her face. “There’ll be other kids there for you and your sister to play with. It’ll be fun.” Her voice went high up on the word fun so Shaina knew that the fun would be for her mother and Morgan and she and Becca would have to scrape around the edges for theirs.
“I have to go to the bathroom, Daddy Morgan,” said Becca.
Morgan banged the wheel with the palm of his hand. “You’re kidding me. Why didn’t you go back at the restaurant?”
“I didn’t have to go then.”
“Well, you’re just going to have to wait. There’s probably not a rest stop for another five hundred miles.”
“Morgan,” said Nell.
“I really have to go. Bad. Real bad.”
“Maybe we should look for a place to stop,” said Nell.
“I told them to use the bathroom before we left the diner,” Morgan said.
As the miles spun out under the Dodge’s tires, Becca’s whimpers turned to sobs.
“There. Turn there,” said Nell and Morgan swung the car towards a ramp leading to a rest stop. To Shaina, it felt as though the car was going so fast around the turn that two tires lifted up right off the ground. Morgan pulled into a parking space and Nell took their hands and hurried them into the filthy pee-smelling toilet.
Back on the road again, Shaina and Becca made a tent under the blanket until the air got too hot. “Are we there yet?” asked Becca.
“We’re not even out of New Jersey!” Morgan yelled.
For the next few hours, Shaina and Becca entertained themselves by bickering and instigating each other until their mother and stepfather became silently, dangerously furious and none of them were speaking to each other.
Then Nell was shaking her shoulder. “We’re here,” she said. “Wake up, sleepyhead.” From where she lay on the back seat, Shaina could see the treetops combing the deepening blue of the sky. She sat up and looked out the window.
“How come everyone’s naked?” asked Becca, but no one answered her because Nell and Morgan were already out of the car. Morgan was stretching and saying he was hungry, where’s the food, and Nell was hugging a woman with long brown hair streaked with silver, which looked odd since Nell was wearing a striped polo shirt and wrinkled denim shorts and the woman had only her two breasts hanging leathery and defenseless down to her puckered belly.
“Come on, girls,” said Nell. Shaina could hear the impatience in her voice so she climbed over the seatback and out the door.
“I’m Ted,” said a man, holding out his hand to Shaina. She shook it quickly, averting her gaze from the soft beige tube surrounded by bristles that was nearly eye-level with her face.
Shaina didn’t know where to look, let her eyes jump from tree to fence to avoid having to look at the naked adults. In the cabin, her mother and Morgan stripped off their own clothes and Shaina glimpsed Morgan’s furred belly before she could avert her eyes. “Don’t be so uptight,” her mother said, urging her to take off her clothes. Becca conceded by taking off her shirt and leaving on only her shorts, but she was a baby anyway, not like Shaina whose chest had recently developed two small bumps, so Shaina’s t-shirt and shorts stayed where they belonged – on her body.
Dinner was held in what Morgan called the Mess. Shaina kept her eyes on her plate of lentil loaf and brown rice. There were other children, some older that Shaina, and they were naked, too. One girl came over to her and Becca, but Shaina couldn’t look at her, at the naked body of a girl her own age. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” Nell whispered to her as the girl walked away, the muscles in her butt clenching and unclenching with each step. “Our bodies are natural, nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all one with the earth. Everyone here is celebrating that.”
Shaina said nothing. How was it she could feel like she didn’t belong either at school with its rules and roaming packs of child-sized predators, and a place like this where everyone was naked and no one thought anything of it, even the kids?
The next morning, everyone gathered by the lake for a picnic and a swim. Shaina stubbornly wore her yellow one piece with the halter top. Becca took one look at her sister and pulled on her Wonder Woman bathing suit.
The lake was flat, the center the color of milky coffee, the edges reflecting back the green of the surrounding trees. Some of the women chose toplessneess over complete nudity, although Shaina couldn’t see why. What was the use of the teeny bikini bottom when all that flesh was on display, she wondered. The men were worse in her opinion. Some had hair everywhere, even on their backs, even on their shoulders. She wouldn’t look at what dangled between their legs. She and Becca stood in the lake up to their thighs and Shaina focused her eyes on the darts of light in the murky water. Although she wore her bathing suit she felt like she was the naked one. Like there was nothing between her and the rest of the world. Her thin skin offered no protection. She trembled under the callous blue sky, felt the silt at the bottom of the lake suck at her toes, threaten to pull her under. The possibility that this thin skin could dissolve into the summer sunlight filled her with horror. She wanted protection, rules. She wanted grown-ups to keep their clothes on.
“Come on, Bec,” said Nell, “take off your suit. The water feels wonderful on your bare skin.”
Becca’s face as if someone had shined a light on it. She chucked Wonder Woman onto the shore and put her arms around her mother’s neck. Nell took her further out into the lake, dunking her up and down, making Becca laugh, the little girl’s dark hair wet at the ends, clinging like seaweed down her narrow back. Her mother’s breasts, tipped with pink nipples so much bigger than the two bumps on Shaina’s own chest.
“Shainie,” called Becca. “You come, too.”
“Yeah, honey. Come on. The water feels great.”
But Shaina wouldn’t move. Crossed her arms over her chest. At least, she thought, blinking her eyes against the tears that wanted to come, the people at ashram they visited last spring wore clothes, robes of soft apricot and saffron. And unlike the communes they had visited in summers past, the ashram was very clean. Shaina had even liked the spicy Indian food they ate for lunch. Nell had led Shaina and Becca into a room where a small brown man in orange robes sat cross-legged on a raised cushion. He was holding a peacock feather with a green and turquoise eye. Like a foreign prince, Shaina thought, from A Little Princess. Becca and Shaina copied Nell, sitting in lotus on the carpet. We’re going to meditate, Nell had whispered, and chant until we let go of our bodily selves. If we’re lucky, her mother said, her eyes hot with excitement, we may even see God. Feel the shakti flowing from the energy in the room, from Baba Muktananda, the guru, the man with the peacock feather. Everyone in the room chanted: Om mani pad mi om Om mani pad mi om until Shaina felt the sounds vibrate in her chest. But even then, Shaina had held on fiercely to her Self. She didn’t particularly want to see God and, in fact, found the prospect terrifying. After a while she opened her eyes. Everyone chanting in unison, eyes closed, hands on knees, palms up, index finger and thumb forming a circle. She was bored. Later Nell told Shaina and Becca that Baba had smacked her hard with the peacock feather. So lucky, she had said.
After the picnic, Shaina retreated to the cabin that smelled of stale wood smoke to spend the rest of the day rereading the latest Nancy Drew. The cabin was a small room with a double bed against one wall and a bunkbed on the opposite one. In between stood a woodburning stove that made Shaina think of a squatting toad. The walls were the trunks of trees, still with the bark on them, and the floor was planks of wood, uneven and splintery. Shaina took her sweatshirt out of her suitcase and spread it over the lower bunk’s blanket, which was navy blue and not very clean looking. Nancy Drew was so brave and so clever, thought Shaina, as she opened the book, pushing her glasses up her nose with her index finger. Nancy didn’t have a mom, but her dad treated her like a grown-up even though Nancy was only a teenager still. Shaina wished she looked like Nancy who had blonde hair that turned up at the ends, so unlike Shaina’s brown frizz. She read a few pages and then closed the book and walked over to one of the small windows and looked outside. Naked people playing horseshoes over by the Mess Hall; naked people sitting on blankets under trees; naked people walking and talking along the camp’s dirt paths. She didn’t see her mother or Becca anywhere. Shaina backed away from the window and lay back down on the bed. After a while, she opened her book and read about how Nancy and her best friend Bess tried to find a clue in an old Turkish rug.
Just as it was getting too dim in the cabin to read, Nell came through the door, carrying a sleeping naked Becca. “Hungry?” her mother whispered. Shaina nodded.
Nell slid the little girl off her shoulder and onto the double bed. She poured water from a white porcelain pitcher into a matching bowl. She dipped a washcloth into the water and went over to Becca, who was now awake and yawning and rubbing her eyes. Nell took the cloth and wiped Becca’s face and then each of her feet. The white cloth came away streaked with black. Then Nell changed the water, rinsed the cloth, and washed her own face. Shaina looked away as her mother crossed and uncrossed her legs to wash one foot and then the other.
At dinner, Shaina sat between her sister and her mother at a long picnic table, while Morgan sat across from them next to the man and woman who had greeted them when they arrived, Ted and Alice. Ted was less bristly than most of the men and had a face like Shaina’s Ken doll, but with orange hair instead of yellow. Alice had two long gray braids that brushed against her long gray nipples and round glasses like John Lennon’s. Shaina was glad that the table blocked at least part of the view. Ted made Becca laugh by pretending to snatch her nose off her face, wiggling his thumb between the knuckles of his fist to show her that yes, he had captured it. “No, you didn’t,” giggled Becca. Ted made a show of putting her nose back where it belonged, finishing by tapping the replacement with one freckled finger. Shaina pushed her scrambled tofu with bean sprouts around her plate with her fork. As far as she could see, she was the only one wearing clothes.
Then her mother and Morgan were telling them to follow them outside. “We’re going to a bonfire,” said Nell. Shaina hoped they’d make s’mores like they had at camp last summer. Now it was completely dark, but torches hanging from the trees lit the way. Above, the sky was crazy with stars, and all around, the night whirred and buzzed with the songs of a thousand insects. Nell carried Becca and held Shaina’s hand while Morgan walked quickly ahead of them so he could get a good place by the fire.
“Over here,” he called, motioning to them. “Isn’t this a perfect spot?” he said, pointing to a tartan blanket spread over the ground about six feet from the bonfire, which writhed and roared like something alive. Shaina agreed that it was perfect, set up as it was in front of two enormous boulders that they could lean their backs against as they watched the fire.
Naked people everywhere. On the narrow plank benches, on blankets. Naked children darted in between the boulders, shrieking and laughing. Across from where they were sitting, a man put a guitar on his knee and began to sing. There weren’t any s’mores, indeed no marshmallows, but everyone was singing “Blowin in the Wind,” “Kumbaya,” “Alice’s Restaurant.” Becca had joined in with the other children as they ran in and around the boulders, but Shaina was content to sit on the blanket and watch the fire. Some of the growups were passing around a bottle and others a bumpy looking cigarette. Shaina leaned back and looked up at the stars and scratched a mosquito bite on her ankle.
“Gotcha!” Shaina dragged her gaze away from the dizzying night sky and saw that Ted, who was sitting on one of the plank benches, had snatched up Becca as she ran by. He put her on his lap and tickled and tickled the little girl. Becca laughed and wiggled, trying to get away, but Ted’s hands were everywhere, seeking out her most ticklish spots: under her arms, the side of her neck, her tummy. Shaina saw his arm snake between Becca’s kicking legs to tickle tickle tickle behind her knees. The freckled arm moved back and forth and Shaina looked at her mother, at Morgan, but they were talking to a woman who was all fat fleshy folds, white breasts the size of pillows and Becca all the while screaming with laughter. In proportion to her body, Shaina saw, the woman’s head appeared very small. When Shaina looked back, Ted had released his hold on Becca who darted behind one of the boulders, panting. She stuck her tongue out at Ted and disappeared.
Shaina’s heart bang-banged against her chest in a way that made her lips go numb and her fingertips tingle as if they had fallen asleep. She stood. “Bec?” she called but the singing absorbed her thin girl’s voice and tossed it into the flames of the bonfire.
“I don’t feel well,” Shaina said, tapping Nell on one bare arm.
“This is Ruth,” Nell said. “My daughter, Shaina,” she said the woman.
“Nice to meet you,” said Ruth.
“I want to go back to the cabin,” Shaina said. “I’ll take Becca with me.”
“Excuse me,” Nell said to Ruth. She pulled Shaina down next to her on the blanket and whispered in her ear. “That is quite enough, young lady. You may not want to have a good time, but you are not going to spoil this for me on our last night here. Do you hear me? Do you?” Her breath was hot against Shaina’s ear. Shaina nodded and Nell turned back to Ruth.
After the man put away his guitar some time later, people started stirring, standing, stretching, and it was time to go. Nell found Becca sleeping behind one of the boulders curled up on someone’s discarded blanket. When she picked her up, Becca started to cry.
“What’s the matter?” Nell said.
Becca wouldn’t answer. Snot dripped from her nose and mixed with the wet on her face. She had a swelling mosquito bite on her forehead and another one on her cheek below her eye.
“Why is she crying this time?” said Morgan, coming up behind them with their blanket folded up over his arm.
“If you don’t stop this instant, I’m going to put you down,” Nell said. “I’ve had just about enough of you and your sister whining and complaining.”
But Becca didn’t stop and so Nell put her down. It was a long walk back to the cabin.
The next morning, her mother and stepfather put on their clothes and drove them all home.
But when they finally arrived, Nell told them that they would spend the whole next week with their father. With Theo. So the next morning Nell repacked their suitcases with mostly clean clothes. When they heard the car horn from the driveway, they kissed Nell and Morgan goodbye and hauled their suitcases out the door and down the steps. Their mother never walked them to the car and their father never came to the front door and rang the bell. Shaina couldn’t remember the last time she had seen her parents together.
Miranda, Daddy’s girlfriend, was in the car, a cherry red LeMans. No, not girlfriend. Not anymore. On one of her recent visitation weekends, Theo had announced that he and Miranda had gotten married, that they would be living together. He showed them a picture of the two of them on the steps of City Hall.
“Why weren’t we invited?” Shaina had wanted to know. She still remembered Nell and Morgan’s wedding at the Unitarian Fellowship, although it was long ago when she was only five. She and Becca had worn matching Swiss polka dot dresses and had gotten to stand up in the front with their mother and Morgan while the minister said the words that made them married.
“It wasn’t that kind of wedding. It was just me and Miranda and some close friends,” he said.
With this awareness that daughters somehow ranked lower than close friends, Shaina had looked at the picture and handed it back to her father.
Now Miranda got out of the car so that Shaina could tip the front seat forward and climb into the back. Shaina thought Miranda was pretty. Younger than her father by over ten years, Miranda definitely didn’t fit into the mother category. Not like Morgan could be a daddy, because he acted like a daddy and their mother deferred to him like he was a daddy. Miranda was freckled and thin, like Mary Tyler Moore, Shaina’s favorite TV show actress, with thick straight hair the color of a new penny.
At Theo’s apartment, Miranda had picked out all the furniture: a purple corduroy couch, a mod black leather chair, pole lamps with chrome balls that could be adjusted to cast light in various directions. The painting over the couch matched the colors of the room – splashes of purple, black, and gray against a white canvas. In the corner, a desk, piles of books with dense blue or red covers. Now that Theo was in medical school, he had to study a lot, all day long, while Miranda was at work.
Theo bent down to pick up Shaina’s suitcase and wrinkled his nose. “When is the last time you girls had a bath?”
Shaina and Becca looked at each other and shrugged. Did the water from the pitcher count?
Theo sighed. “Well, you need one. Both you girls into the tub. March.”
After Miranda filled the bath and closed the door behind her, Shaina and Becca took off their clothes and climbed into the tub, lowering themselves into the water that at first felt too hot, and then just perfect. As she shampooed first her own hair and then Becca’s, Shaina felt the dirt slide from her body and when she stepped out of the now gray tinged water, she was clean and new. “While you’re here, you’ll take baths every day,” said Theo, when they emerged from the bathroom wrapped in their matching pink bathrobes.
“Okay, Daddy,” said Shaina.
Becca said nothing, only chewed her fingernails even though, Shaina could see, the skin was ragged and a couple of the fingers oozed droplets of blood.
They spent the rest of the day watching TV: Creature Feature, an Abbott and Costello movie, then a silly love story with Doris Day. Becca said little, only held onto her ratty blankie that she refused to let Miranda throw into the washing machine with the rest of their clothes. Later, Miranda served a dinner of tuna casserole. At the right corner of the placemat, they each had their own wooden bowl with a neat little salad in it topped with Catalina dressing. Ice cream sundaes for dessert. Then more TV – Mary Tyler Moore and the first half hour of The Carol Burnett Show. Becca fell asleep and Theo carried her into their bedroom and tucked her into her bed. As Shaina climbed up to the top bunk and slid between the cool clean sheets, she felt like she had come to rest on an island, exhausted after paddling through churning water. Sleep pressed down against her closed lids and her father shut the door, chopping off the triangle of light from the hallway. She missed the feel of her cats pressed up warm and purring against her side as she fell asleep at home, but not the gritty feel of the sheets or the cat hair that tickled her nose and made her sneeze. She missed her mother, but not the feeling that Shaina and her sister were something to be gotten around so that Nell could finally do the things that really interested her – like her art and her poetry – without having to think about what they needed. “If I had to do it over again,” Nell often said, “I wouldn’t have married so young and had children.” She missed her mother’s arms around her as Nell tucked her into bed, but not the sticky smell of body odor that emanated from armpits unsullied by deodorant. She missed her home because her daddy’s apartment was most certainly not her home, although there was a bedroom set up especially for her and Becca. Then finally, the relief, as sleep closed over her like lake water, drowning out the procession of nipples and buttocks and penises that insisted on coming out from where Shaina had hidden them.