Bea

Sep 6, 2015 by

Deborah La Garbanza lives under the evil shadow of the Mormon Temple in the Oakland Hills with her cat Luna.  She writes memoir and fiction and her work has been published in several online and print anthologies.

Bea

By Deborah La Garbanza

When my family moved into Jane Drive, the housing development wasn’t finished.  All around us were empty lots and model houses that Billy and I would sneak into.  We’d jump up and down on the model beds, flush the toilets, run the water in the sinks and see who could race from the attic to the basement fastest.  Planners were still thinking up bright names like John, Walter and Robert for the streets.  For my parents, owning a home was their American Dream come true.  The house on Jane Drive – its big rooms and four floors – was a way of naming and defining our lives.  With the den, the dining room, the living room, the master bedroom, the kitchen, the basement, the patio, the swimming pool and the backyard, we were fully formed as Americans in a way that my immigrant grandparents never could be.

The Kramers lived two blocks away.  My mother and Bea Kramer loved each other.

“I love Bea,” my mother said passionately.  “She is my best friend.”

Bea was married to Harold who sold ice cream to stores.  His truck was always parked in the driveway and the freezer in their garage was always filled with gallons of all flavors.

“If Bea didn’t eat so much ice cream, she wouldn’t be so fat,” my father said.

“Bea has a very pretty face,” my mother said. “She is so intelligent, so competent.”

“Built like a Sherman tank,” my father joked.

“Al, that is not very nice,” my mother poked his protruding stomach.

“Mine’s solid,” he said.

“Bea is fat because she is so sensitive,” my mother said, “she gets hurt easily and her weight is a protection against the world.”

“Sensitive like a hand grenade,” my father scoffed but clearly he did not like my mother’s friendship with Bea.  It took attention away from him.

“And look at her children,” my mother said.

Four of them, all smart like Bea – my friend Billy who had severe asthma, Joe, Bonnie and baby David.  On nights when Billy had problems breathing, one of the more unconventional treatments involved my mother.  The horn would beep outside our door late at night and my mother, clad in housecoat and slippers, would fly out of the house and into the driver’s seat of Bea’s car.  With all the windows down, she’d take off at breakneck speed, racing through empty suburban streets.  Bea would sit in the back seat with Billy, fanning air into his lungs.  Their eyes met when my mother looked into the rear view mirror.

“You don’t have to do this,”  Bea said.  “It’s so late.”

“Don’t be silly, I’d do anything for you and Billy,” my mother replied.

 

My mother always said that she could have gotten any husband she wanted.  Then I’d see her looking at my father wondering if she made the right choice.  My father never looked back.  He was slouched down in the old armchair, smoking Parliament cigarettes and staring at one page in a calculus book for hours at a time.

“Jewish men work with their heads not their hands,” she said this as a warning fo rme not to disturb my father.

She was unhappy with him.  He was an accountant in the garment district in mid-town Manhattan, although he was really better than that because he wanted to be a mathematician.  Every morning he went off ot work and left my mother stranded in the house.  I never saw them touch.  That was the unspoken rule in our family – no touching.  All of us bobbed to the surface only as we spoke.

To her credit, my mother did have artistic ideas and a flair for the unusual.  Her greatest accomplishment so far was the den.  From a travel agent, she got posters from all around the world.  These were places that she hoped to someday see and which rolled off both our tongues like magic words  – Paris, Budapest, Jakarta, Singapore.  My mother arranged these posters on the long wall of the den and lacquered them down so they shone forever.  It was a technique called decoupage, a craze which had hit suburbia.  Every housewife was decoupaging every piece of paper she could lay her hands on.  But I thought my mother more unique, brilliant and talented than anyone when I played in the den under the glow of those mythical places.

Mostly, however, my mother had difficulty executing her ideas.  She was all smiles and talk which hid the canyons and valleys inside of her, the molten lava of anger at her core.  Her hands were like lobster claws that plunked down heavily on people and objects.  Early in life, I came to fear the proceedings of the material world under her direction.  Nothing was ever wrapped or battened down tightly enough: hems always fell, garbage leaked through paper bottoms, sleeping bags unraveled, sandwiches dripped, cabinet doors hung by one screw while my mother looked on uncomprehendingly.  So when my mother decided to take Bea on as a partner in her new fried marble business, I was relieved.

Fried marbles were the latest thing in suburbia.  My mother used the oven as a kiln, and lately, instead of dinner, I would open the oven door and find trays of cracked marbles, like crazy, broken eyes, staring up at me.  Everyone thought fired marbles beautiful.  They came in all different colors.

“You’ll come to love them too,” my mother said as she cooled them on the countertop.

The kitchen table was the work table and my mother tried hard to glue the fried marbles into all kinds of settings.   Rings, bracelets, necklaces, it was a complete line.  When she took Bea on, I began to think that just maybe this business idea would be successful.  Bea had been a physical therapist during WWII.  She was a WAC and under her hands, anything could be fixed.  I didn’t think my mother could do anything that the Army needed.

“Fried marbles are just coming into their own,” my mother said in her winning way, “with Bea, production will increase tenfold.  We’ll expand  – do earrings.”

My mother was always ambitious, restless for more.  Her housecoat would slip off her brown shoulders.  She didn’t know why she was so restless.  Like many women of her generation, she had traded experience for security, sensation and feeling for fidelity.  With her wide smile and straight teeth, her narrow hips and broad shoulders, my mother was beautiful but unfulfilled.  I held a fried marble up to the light and marveled at its smooth, hard, round surface.  Inside the glass was all broken up along many faceted lines.  Light was reflected in skewed ways.  It reminded me of my mother, all tough, hard and smooth talking on the surface, all fractured inside.

My mother and Bea worked late into the summer nights filling their growing orders for fried marble jewelry.  They sat at the kitchen table under the white florescent light.  The hum of the house, with my father and me asleep upstairs, satisfied my mother for a minute.  She looked at Bea and relaxed.  The heat and humidity of the day subsided and there was the pleasure of breezes traveling up bare legs.  My mother wiggled her toes luxuriously in her thongs.  Bea’s fingers moved deftly, gluing and setting marbles, twisting and braiding chains, putting the final touches on packing boxes.  Outside fireflies rhythmically lit up the dark night.  The sound of crickets filled the air.  Suburbia, with its cookie cutter houses and tidy lawns, faded away and the feelings of the lowlands, of the ocean’s salty presence, asserted itself.  Indian spirits who once lived on Long Island drifted back.  It was hard to lie to yourself on summer nights like that.

My mother and Bea talked in their easy way.  They talked about the children, about camping trips the families could take together, about Harold’s ice cream route.  They talked about the Weight Watcher’s group my mother was starting for Bea.  Bea shared her favorite meat loaf recipe which my mother promised to try.  They talked about an article they had both read in the latest Ladies Home Journal.  My father snored from the upstairs bedroom.  My mother imagined him on his back like a beached whale, the white sheet tangled between his sweaty legs.  In her mind, my mother scanned her house – the rooms the decorator had gotten to, the rooms that still had furniture from the old days.  She made a note to herself to get rid of that old armchair my father sat in so often.

My mother sighed in contentment at how she was transforming herself – no more was she just the poor daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who once owned a candy store in Brooklyn.  She patted down the hair the beauty salon had straightened and set.  No more did she have kinky Jewish hair.  With every new piece of furniture – with the slate shelves, the mustard colored ottoman, the Chinese vases, the Castro convertible – she was different.   With every appliance and fixture, the RCA TV, the GE refrigerator, the Ford station wagon – she was an American.

Bea rested a skilled hand on my mother’s shoulder.

“I want to tell you about something that happened to me a long time ago,” she said.

My mother’s eyes gleamed and she shifted away from Bea.

“During the war, when I was a WAC,” Bea continued, “I met a woman – another WAC – and we cared about each other in the same way I care about you now.”

“I don’t understand what you mean,” my mother said.

“Her name was Rose and she wasn’t really like you at all,” Bea laughed, “she was tall and skinny and had red hair and freckles.  Yellow Rose of Texas I’d call her – she was from there.  I’d always kid her about that amazing drawl.”

“That’s nice,” my mother said.

“But the point I was making was that we felt the same way about each other that you and I feel now.”

My mother looked at Bea.  Bea took a deep breath.  “We loved each other.”

“Oh!  Of course!  I love you, Bea,” my mother said blithely like a reflex, “you’re my best friend.”

Bea was red in the face with the shame of explaining the kind of love she had with Rose, fighting with the desire she felt for my mother.

“My friendship with Rose grew to be physical,” she said simply.

My mother felt a chill go up and down her spine.  She felt suddenly nauseous.  Her head began to pound.  Bea couldn’t mean what she was saying.  For some strange reason, my mother thought of her property line, how it ran close to the side of the house and expanded out to corral in the big backyard.  The white picket fence she imagined putting up now had spikes.  She drew her arms around her chest.

“And we loved each other that way until the war ended,” Bea was saying.

Loved each other like that?  For a second, my mother imagined stroking Bea’s beloved face, imagined the deepness of their kisses, their laughter and secrets.  For a second, she imagined riding the soft ocean swell of their bodies moving together.  For a second, my mother felt happy.  Then the property line ran through her.  This was her house, her furniture, her trees, her pool, her clean, spotless American dream.  Sex with a woman?  What was she thinking?  That was disgusting.  These things only existed in lurid paperbacks with mannish women on the cover or in Greenwich Villages in dark, smoky coffeehouses between people who wore berets and dressed in all black.  In drug dens with prostitutes, in mental hospitals with women who wanted to be men and shaved their head and wore army pants and padded crotches.  That was something sick that only ugly or fat women did to each other because they couldn’t find a man or because they were men themselves.  My mother thought she was going to retch.  She looked angrily at Bea who was wearing a floral tent dress.  How did Bea fool her?  They went to the same beauty salon.  They both got their nails done by the same manicurist.

“So why did you go back somewhere with that person after the war?” my mother asked coldly.

Bea struggled helplessly.  “Texas is far away.  I didn’t want to live in a strange place…and I wanted a family and children and a home.”

“You have those things.”

“Yes…and I’ve tried hard to make it work, and it has, but then I met you.  At first I just loved you like my best friend but it grew into something more in my mind…I didn’t want it to, it just happened.”

“You made your bed, now lay in it,” my mother said.

“I am sorry…I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“You can have all kinds of feelings  – that doesn’t mean you act on them.  If I acted on every feeling I had…”

“You’re right, of course.  I didn’t mean we should act on it.”

“How dare you think I would do something like that?”

“I am sorry…I really have upset you.

“Upset me?  Upset me?  I’ve loved you Bea and yet you bring such a disgusting thing into my house?  I loved you…for god’s sake, I never said I was IN love with you!  With a woman?  How sick could you be to confuse that ?  How dare you think I’m that kind of person?  How could you twist my words into something so perverted?”

Bea stood up, tears streaming down her face.  Her hands, clumsy for once, trying to find the car keys in her pocketbook.

“Please, let’s just forget the whole thing.”

“Forget it?  How is that going to be possible?  Knowing that you twist everything I say or do for you?  I can’t trust you.  I can’t be friends with you anymore.  I’ve been so stupid to think you were my friend when all along you’ve been harboring this terrible thing.  Go.  Get out of my house!”

She slammed the door as Bea ran out.

 

True to her word, my mother never saw Bea again.

“Bea is not my friend anymore,” she told me, “she did something very bad.

The fried marbles never got off the ground.  “People just aren’t into them anymore,” my mother said.

Years later, after my mother had gone back to school to study psychology but before I came out to her as a lesbian, she said, “Bea was a person who had a lot of problems with boundaries.”

“She loved you, Ma,”  I said.

“Bea was co-dependent.  I don’t know where I was to have enabled her like that.”

“You loved her, Ma,” I said.

My mother looked at me quickly, a tiny tear forming, then her jaw tightened and she resolutely looked away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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