Northeast philly girls
Northeast Philly girls lived close. Their houses were close, clothes were tight, families crammed together on long city streets. On the corners, they stood in clumps, girls with big hair and tight jeans and fringed leather pocketbooks. They held lipstick-wet cigarettes between two fingers and exchanged bubble gum, lighters, compact mirrors, all with smooth, pink sleight of hand. These girls had names I wanted-Colleen, Eileen, Christine-the long “e” insisting on femininity. Their boyfriends were cool and wiry, dropping kisses on their cheeks or loose arms around their necks. At night, so I heard, the boys took them to the St. Lucy’s parking lot where they pressed up close in the warm backseats, and later, the girls emerged older, more knowing, having acquired fresh gossip and kissing bruises they would display like badges of honor on the corner the next day.
At age twelve, I suspected that in the Northeast, like at summer camps I’d heard about, girls grew up more quickly because they lived so close.They got to see things. They got to hear things. They couldn’t avoid it; there was no place else to go. Becoming a grown-up in Northeast Philly seemed as easy as catching a cold.
Riding in the front seat, heading to Aunt Jean’s house, I watched the city out the window. Neighborhoods in Northeast Philly all looked like this one: blocks of row houses built shoulder-to-shoulder, cramped with stop signs and parked cars and corner delis and kids who walked so close to your car their knuckles nearly skimmed the hood. To me, the thought of having other people living on the other side of my wall was terrifying; if they started a fire in their house, mine would definitely go down with it. In our town, eight miles outside the city, houses were discreet, separate. Around here, neighbors yelled to each other from their front stoops.
It was grey December, the Saturday of the annual St. Lucy’s Christmas fair. For the holidays, the row houses were decorated to the hilt with multicolored lights, life-sized mangers, plastic reindeer hitched on roofs. Like every year, Mom and her sister, Aunt Jean, would sell homemade ornaments at the fair while I spent the afternoon with Terri. I dug my nails into the armrest as anxiety started its slow creep up my spine. It was a feeling I’d grown accustomed to around my cousin-having nowhere to hide.
I sunk low in my seat as Mom turned onto Hartel Street. The usual gang of boys was playing hockey in the street. Even though it was getting cold out, Northeast boys never seemed to go indoors. Their goalie nets sat ragged by the curb, their St. Lucy’s jackets heaped on the sidewalk. The boys were a sweaty hub of crewcuts, baseball caps, Flyers jerseys, and gold earrings around which the neighborhood ebbed and flowed to its own kind of time.
The boys took a step back to let our car pass. I stared at the floor. Mom stopped and maneuvered our SUV into an empty spot in front of Aunt Jean’s. Mom was good at parallel parking, from having grown up on a street like this. When she turned the car off we sat there a minute, listening to it tick and sigh under the hood. Mom’s long maroon coat was belted at her waist, scarf wrapped snug around her neck. Maybe being in the cramped streets of the Northeast made her feel self-protective, too.
Not really. I would have preferred to have stayed right where I was. But I nodded, not wanting to admit how much I dreaded spending time with Terri.
Mom grabbed one bag of ornaments and I picked up the other. When I opened my door, it got stuck in a grey snowbank. Behind us, the boys sounded loud and too close. Across the street, a mother yelled: “Danny, put your jacket on!” As I pried my door loose, I could see the edge of a neighbor’s curtain pulled back, and it was just these kinds of details that made the Northeast seem like a place that knew too much.
Aunt Jean was stirring a cup of coffee with the unused end of a knife. The top end was greasy with butter and toast crumbs. She had the portable phone in her hand and wore a bathrobe with sweatpants underneath. The kitchen table was covered with ornaments: Baby Jesuses in walnut shells, clothespin soldiers, wax paper stars.
“Ed called,” Aunt Jean said.
Uncle Ed-though I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to call him “Uncle” anymore-had been caught with another woman in September. Aunt Jean and Terri were in the Clover parking lot, carrying shopping bags full of school supplies, when they saw Ed’s head in the backseat of a green Volvo. He was with a woman. Girl, actually. She was twenty-two, a cashier at Clover, and her name was Janine.
“What did they catch him doing?” I’d asked my mom. “Kissing?”
Her tense face paused for a minute, as if she was about to say something. Then she firmed up again, thinking better of it. “Yes. Kissing.”
But Terri had a different story. “I saw the whole thing,” she told me. “Her shirt was halfway open. And Dad’s hand was on her butt.” She could have been describing one of her soaps.
Lingering in the kitchen doorway, I watched Aunt Jean sip her coffee, running one hand through her reddish hair. You could tell she and Mom were sisters, if you studied their faces only. They looked like older versions of their St. Lucy’s graduation photos, both with blue-grey eyes and thin-upped smiles. Back then, they wore their hair full and flipped at the ends. Now, Aunt Jean’s hair color changed every month. Mom’s was a steady grey.
Aunt Jean banged her cup on the table, as if her wrist were too rubbery to hold it. Mom grabbed a paper towel and sopped up the spilled coffee leaking toward the Baby Jesuses. Then she took the phone and hung it on the wall. She whipped a plastic bag from beneath the sink and started packing ornaments, briskly, like baggers at the Acme. “Jean, if you want to tell me about it, tell it quick. We’re going to be late.”
I knew how Mom would pull her out of it. First she would listen to her describe the call, shaking her head back and forth, slow and steady. Then she would tell Aunt Jean to tell Ed to stop calling. Period. Maybe if I stayed quiet she’d forget I was there.
“Eunice, go upstairs and tell Terri we’re ready,” Mom said, which was exactly what I didn’t want to do.
My cousin Terri and I were the same age (actually, I was three months older), but somehow she always made me feel much younger than she was. Terri had a talent for experiencing every adolescent rite of passage before I got to it. By age eight, she was using deodorant. By ten, she wore lipstick on special occasions. She’d had her ears pierced when she was six months old. Every time I saw her, she’d acquired some new piece of knowledge (what a blowjob was, how a tampon worked) to bestow upon me. For years I’d absorbed this information, wishing I had something to offer in return. But by age twelve, I’d resigned myself to the fact that city girls just grew up faster, and there was nothing I would ever know that Terri didn’t know already.
I dragged my feet upstairs, dawdling in front of Terri’s framed school picture. She wore a plaid uniform because she went to Catholic school. Nothing appealed to me about Catholic school, except that you could go home at lunch, which was convenient if you forgot your homework. My friend Molly said it was the uniform that made the Catholic kids “rebels.” I rolled the word on my tongue: rebels. It sounded like marbles and seemed like them too, smooth and bright, a coveted flash in the palm.
I found Terri sitting on her bed, leaning over a pink notepad. Her bedroom walls were freshly plastered with soap stars. Her bed was unmade and her rug lumped with clothes. Her hair was in a ponytail, sticky with gel and spray. She wore a denim vest over a pink turtleneck, black stretch pants, and dull white Keds with pink laces. My cousin was slightly overweight, but the fact that she wore such tight clothes anyway made her intimidating.
“Hi,” I said. Terri didn’t look up. “My mom told me to get you.” She scribbled for a moment longer, as if unaware of me standing there, then snapped the cap on her pen. “Want to see something?”
This was the way visits went with Terri. They didn’t begin at the beginning. She sucked you right into her life at that moment, as if you’d never left.
Terri stood up and stepped toward me, then yanked down the collar of her turtleneck. On her neck was a swollen spot, the size and color of a prune. “Hickey.”
I wanted to look closer but didn’t dare. I had a fleeting fear that I might catch it.
“I got it from Glenn,” she said, letting go of the shirt. The neck snapped back in place, hugging the hickey inside like a secret. “He’s my boyfriend.”
“Oh.” No one in my sixth-grade class had boyfriends. Definitely, no one had hickeys. Maybe, living so close together, people in the Northeast simply got to touching other people faster, their hands in their hands, mouths on their necks, hands on their butts. I had a flash of Uncle Ed smushed against twentytwo-year-old Janine, their lives rushing at each other like bumper cars to collide helplessly in the backseat of that green Volvo.
Terri picked up the notepad and put it on her dresser. The dresser, while seemingly innocent-a jewelry box, a statue of Mary-was actually full of secrets. Tubes of lipstick. Letters to soap stars. Even a lacy pink bra tucked away in her sock drawer. On her dresser top was a half-used bottle of perfume called “Surrender” that she sprayed on her wrist like bug repellent.
“Give me yours,” she commanded, and I offered her my arms. Standing so close to the dresser, I could see the notepad. My Friends, it said in bubble letters. Below were three columns: Yes, No, and Maybe. My name was under Maybe.
Terri ran a lipstick around her mouth. It was the same way she used to fill in coloring books: quickly, messily, veering out of the lines. She blotted her lips on a tissue, like I’d seen Aunt Jean do, then hooked my arm in hers. “Let’s go,” she said. From the pink trash can, the lip print smirked at us, bright and wet.
On first glance, St. Lucy’s gym/auditorium was like Terri’s dresser: all innocence. The room was packed with long folding tables, cupcakes, arts and crafts. Stiff basketball hoops hung on either end and a giant, crepe-papered box of raffle tickets hunkered by the door. Every hour, one of the priests or nuns plucked a ticket from it, setting off a wave of commotion until the winner stepped up to claim his or her Christmas ham.
On the stage, Santa Claus presided at the end of a long line of mothers and babies. The mothers chatted while they waited, rocking their strollers with one foot and shaking their heads back and forth. They looked like Mom did listening to Aunt Jean, which got me wondering how many husbands in Northeast Philly had been found in the backseats of cars with twenty-two-year-olds.
When we arrived, Terri surveyed the crowded gym with her hands on her hips and her eyes cut narrow. Looking for Glenn, I guessed.
“Maybe I’ll go hang out with my mom,” I said. It was worth a shot.
Terri rolled her eyes. “Don’t be a dork. I want you to meet Glenn.” She picked up my hand and began threading through the crowds, unfazed by strangers’ chests and elbows. Though I was almost positive I didn’t want to go where we were going, I couldn’t help feeling a certain cool pride, being in public and attached to Terri’s hand.
As we approached the stage, Terri slowed her pace. In front of us was a door marked “Backstage Only.” Terri scanned the room once more and, not spotting Glenn, pulled upon the door to reveal a narrow staircase.
“Come on,” she said, giving me a poke between the shoulder blades. When the door closed, the noise of the gym clipped off and I heard a different kind of music: muffled talk, running water, the laughter of teenage girls.
“Come on,” Terri said again, though she wasn’t moving any faster than I was. I started up the staircase, lined on either side with framed pictures from old school musicals: kids frozen singing with rounded mouths or grinning with hands thrust high in the air. They seemed unreal, out of place. When I reached the top step, I could see a door marked GIRLS. It was propped open, revealing a slice of tiled floor and fluorescent light.
The room was packed with Northeast Philly girls. Brazen, painted, smelling like aerosol and bubble gum. They were older than us, freshmen at least. They wore pink combs in their back pockets and tight jeans with copper-colored rivets. Their hair was in big waves, crimped and curled after what I imagined was the collective effort of painful rollers, hot irons, and all-night slumber parties. The image of one girl curling another girl’s hair seemed to me the most profound and intimate gesture of friendship.
One tall girl held her face an inch from the mirror; she was dressed like one of Santa’s elves, but looked more like a “Price Is Right” model. A big-haired blond girl had one leg propped up on a sink like a ballerina. She was shaving around the cuffs of her jeans and saying, “I don’t want Mike seeing my ankles all hairy.”
The elf said, “You think all Mike’s going to see is your ankles?” “Shut up.”
“You shut up!”
A stall door slammed open and a short, bowlegged redhead popped out. “Why don’t you both shut up?” She squeezed into a spot in front of the mirror. “Better shave the whole leg, just in case.” Laughter filled the room.
“Pig,” said the ballerina.
“Hey, it’s not my fault Mike’s getting lucky tonight. I’m just telling it like it is!” The redhead circled her mouth with lipstick as the room laughed again.
I didn’t get their jokes. But I understood their tone: a raw, secret language. It was as if, alone together, the girls’ streetcorner femininity was tossed off and their true selves laid bare. I longingly imagined the downstairs bathroom: an old woman cranking the handle of the paper towel dispenser, a mother changing her baby on a duck-print palette on the floor.
The girls were drowned for a moment by the hand dryer. This was Terri’s opening. She grabbed my hand, lifted her chin, and sashayed us though the door.
No one noticed. We waited by the wall as the dryer slowed to a moan.
“Hey,” Terri said.
The elf glanced over. “Hey there.”
I felt Terri’s finger between my shoulders again, forcing me forward. “This is my cousin, Eunice,” Terri said. “She’s from the suburbs.”
A few looked over that time, surveying me up and down: a girl from the suburbs? I felt vulnerable, transparent under their pink– lidded eyes, as if with the word “suburbs” these girls could see through to my very core: never had a boyfriend, never been kissed, never had a hickey or a bra or lipstick in her sock drawer. Any inner life I’d possessed walking in there was snuffed out by the closeness of their scrutiny and the closeness of our bodies.
Then somebody yelled: “Hey, who has a cigarette?”
“Hang on,” said the redhead. The ballerina resumed work on her ankles. I felt the interest in us soften and disperse, like a dandelion head blown off.
Terri looked at me and frowned, as if I hadn’t done my part. “So anyway,” she said, loudly, as a toilet flushed. “Anybody know where Glenn is?”
“Glenn Teti?” the ballerina murmured, inspecting her ankles.
“Glenn’s in the changing room,” yelled a voice inside a stall. “Somebody out there give me a tampon.”
I could feel Terri inhale. “What’s the changing room?”
The redhead glanced at us, smiled, but said nothing.
The voice yelled, “You know, where all the play geeks go to change clothes before shows. Guys, I’m not kidding. I’m leaking.”
The room laughed again, as I felt Terri tug my arm. “Come on,” she hissed, then said, “Bye guys,” and pulled me out the door.
We hurried a few steps down the hall, then stopped, our eyes adjusting to the dimness. Terri squinted in the direction of the stage. At the end of the hall was a velvety curtain, beyond which was the incongruous image of Santa Claus holding kids on his knees and asking them what they wanted for Christmas.
“Let’s go back,” I said.
Terri shook her head. “I want to see Glenn.” Our voices were thick and whispery, like criminals.
“You don’t know where he is.”
“You heard her. The changing room.”
“But you said you didn’t know-”
“I remember now. I can hear voices from there already.”
I listened, but there was no way to distinguish between the muffled sounds of the stage and the girls laughing, toilets flushing, hand dryer droning, faucets running. The bathroom door opened. Some girls left, some entered. From the gym, a cry went up. Someone must have won him- or herself a ham.
“I’m going back,” I said, and turned to walk away.
Terri caught my arm. I knew she would try to convince me to go with her, but this time I wasn’t going for it. I didn’t care what she said. She could call me a dork. A nerd. A baby from the suburbs. I wasn’t going.
But when I turned and saw her face, her features looked soft, her eyes wide. Sweat had appeared on her upper lip, above her bright red lipstick line. “Eunice?” She sounded like she might cry. “You have to come. Please. I can’t walk in there by myself.”
It was the most vulnerable I had ever seen her. She pursed her mouth, lipstick blearing like a squashed berry. Tears wobbled in her eyes. I felt embarrassed for her, for having to admit her helplessness. Yet at the same time, I felt a sense of pride. Terri needed me. She was depending on me. For the first time, I had something my cousin wanted. It was the only argument I couldn’t have refused.
Walking down the dark hall, groping the walls, was Northeast Philly in all its unabashed intimacy. I could smell my cousin’s perfume mingled with sweat and hear her labored breaths.
“I think it’s back here,” Terri said. On the floor was a thin stripe of light from a crack in the curtain. My heart pounded as she fumbled in its thick folds, and when she pawed her way through I found myself in what had to be the changing room: raw, splintery wood floors, long dressing mirrors, sporadic folding chairs and a dozen teenagers sprawled in them. The smell of cigarettes hung sour in the air.
This time, we didn’t have to vie for attention. The room fell silent. It wasn’t as crowded as the bathroom, but somehow the space made it more impenetrable. I recognized the ballerina, sitting a few feet away. She looked different-smaller, blonder, softer-not the kind of girl who talked about tampons and getting lucky. The boy next to her (Mike, I assumed) wore a scummy baseball cap turned backwards. The other kids sat clumped in the far corners, smoking and watching us.
Suddenly Terri exhaled: “Glenn! Hi!”
It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Somewhere in the course of our dark, nerve-wracked journey, this person “Glenn” had begun to take on mythic proportions, and by that point, I think I’d stopped believing he was real.
Sure enough, a skinny blond boy rose from the back and walked toward us. His body reminded me of a strip of bacon, thin and lean and rubbery. His face was almost totally covered in sandy freckles, and a shock of blond hair fell over one eye.
“Hi there,” he said. “What are you doing here, kid?”
Terri tried to affect a sultry shrug, but her denim vest bunched up around her ears. “I don’t know.”
Behind Glenn, someone let out a wolf whistle. He threw a glance over his shoulder, then smiled down at Terri. I waited for her to introduce me, but she was gazing up at his face, barely able to contain her smile.
“Who’s your friend?” he asked, lifting a chin in my direction. For a moment I fell in love with him too, just for asking.
“She’s not my friend.” Terri flipped her ponytail over her shoulder. “She’s my cousin.” She took a step toward Glenn, and with a sinking feeling, I realized she was abandoning me. I had been a device, a second body to get her through the door. Now that she was in, I was going to be on my own.
Glenn pushed the blond hair out of his eyes. Like a silent invitation, he turned and started walking to his chair. Terri followed. I felt myself begin to panic. Should I go and leave her here? Should I follow too?
I noticed Mike, the boy who was getting lucky, was looking at me. He had a spiky crewcut, gold earring, and a football shirt full of tiny holes. It reminded me of the punctured lids we used on bug jars in science. “So, what grade are you in?” he said, leaning back so his chair legs rose off the floor.
I looked at the ballerina, hoping she might recognize me. But she was trying to light a cigarette, frowning at the tip.
“I don’t go to St. Lucy’s.” My voice sounded small. “I live in the suburbs.”
“The suburbs, huh?”
“Leave her alone, Mike,” said the girl, sounding bored. She exhaled smoke as I searched her face for something, anything, a hint of female empathy. But she just wanted Mike’s attention back. She pushed down on his knee, so his chair legs clattered forward.
Then, from the other end of the room, I heard a cough. I looked over and saw Terri perched on Glenn’s knee. She was holding a cigarette between her messy red lips, her pinky finger thrust to one side. In that moment, my cousin’s image began to unravel all at once, like an unclenched ball of yarn. I saw her as the others must have seen her: a lumpy twelve-year-old, with gawking eyes and breasts like two raisins poking through her turtleneck. When she coughed again, Glenn and his friends started laughing. Terri smiled, pleased by the attention. She was their joke and didn’t know it.
Angry as I felt, I had to get her out of there. I gathered my nerve and said: “Terri. Let’s go.”
I tried to sound firm, like my mom, but Terri pretended not to hear me. I waited as I had before, for her to look up and reel me in, but I knew it wouldn’t happen. She wasn’t the same girl who had moved so confidently around her bedroom, flashing me her hidden hickey. This girl looked young, and silly, legs dangling off Glenn’s lap and feet not touching the ground.
Like everything else about Northeast Philly, Christmas Eve Mass at St. Lucy’s was close, tight, warm. Hands touched hands, breath found necks, knees banged knees. Usually I felt claustrophobic there, stuffed in a warm church with so many strangers. But this year, the closeness felt different. I felt removed from it. I had something private, a secret that I guarded warm under my tongue like a Communion wafer.
My parents sat on either side of Aunt Jean, who wore a tight red dress and a small, fake smile. Next to her was Dad, then me and Terri. Terri’s was the same dress she wore last year, red with white pompoms dangling off the hem. Her neck was uncovered, but I could see only a faint yellow stain of the hickey.
It was the first time we’d seen each other since the day I walked out of the changing room. We didn’t say a word as the cheerful neighbors crowded the walls and aisles. When the usher asked our pew to make room, we all squeezed down until Dad’s elbow was crunched against my arm and my leg was pressed against Terri’s.
Once touching, Terri couldn’t help but speak. She turned to me with an eager smile and blurted: “So, do you want to see something?”
I knew what she was doing. She was trying to make amends for making me look foolish, for ditching me at the fair. She was tossing me bait, like she had for years, but this time I didn’t want it. This time I knew something my cousin didn’t: that I wasn’t the only one who’d looked like a fool.
I was saved from responding by the organ, swelling with the first few bars of “Joy to the World.” As the stuffed church began rising to its feet, Terri clutched my arm. With her free hand, she pinched her fleshy thigh, brown silk rising like a second skin. “Nylons,” she mouthed, with a satisfied smile.
When the Mass was over, we went back to Aunt Jean’s house. Usually, my family went home after church to hang stockings and leave out carrots for the reindeer. But Mom wanted to be there for Aunt Jean. “It’s a difficult year for her,” Mom murmured, as Dad inched the car out of the St. Lucy’s parking lot.
Aunt Jean’s living room was dressed in tinsel and fake holly. On the coffee table sat a plate of crackers with a limp fan of cheese. By the TV hung two glitter-lettered stockings-one “Mom,” the other “Terri”-which struck me as so sad and so lonely that I kept my eyes averted from them, like I did from people who tripped on the street.
We pretended to have fun, nibbling and drinking and listening to Elvis’ “Blue Christmas.” Neighbors filtered in and out, bearing cards and cookies. Mom told the story about the Christmas Dad threw his back out trying to assemble my ten-speed, and I laughed hard to help her out. Dad cracked a few dumb jokes (Aunt Jean laughed hardest at those) and drank a beer, juggling nuts in his hand like loose change. Aunt Jean drank grasshoppers from a skinny glass, occasionally singing a few bars with Elvis. Terri snuck cheese and crackers into her mouth from the stack hidden in her hand.
By eleven, the neighbors were gone, the crackers were gone, and Aunt Jean was about to go for her fifth refill when we heard a knock. Mom sat up straight, like a soldier on guard. Dad’s beer stopped halfway to his mouth. Aunt Jean stood, brushing crumbs off her lap, and teetered toward the door. I could hear the screen door yawning open and the sound of a sloppy kiss. Twice.
When Uncle Ed walked in, you could tell he was surprised to see us. “Merry Christmas, folks,” he mumbled. He’d dressed up for the occasion, in pressed jeans and a red sweater. He wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath, and the red knit was tight against his stubbly pink neck.
Dad nodded and said: “Ed.” I smiled at my knees. Uncle Ed was carrying a sloppily wrapped present, which he handed to Terri. “Here you go, honey,” he said, pushing his sleeves up and down.
Terri paused for a minute, scanning the room for a cue that she could unwrap it. When Aunt Jean said, “Go ahead, hon,” she tore into the present like a dog into meat. She flung the red bow aside, skinned the wrapping from the sides. Aunt Jean watched her with a flushed smile, but I knew it wasn’t the present she was excited about. Terri pried apart the stapled box flaps and pulled out a life-sized, blond Barbie doll head. Just a head. It had hair you could style and cut yourself, then pump to make more grow.
“Thank you, Daddy!” Terri said. It sounded strange to me. Since September, my uncle had been so completely reduced to blunt, bad “Ed”-a man whose entire history would forever consist of only a Volvo, a hand, a butt, and a twenty-two-year-old– that I’d almost forgotten he still was Terri’s daddy.
“Ed, that’s sweet,” Aunt Jean said. She flicked a glance at Mom, then dared: “You want a beer or something?”
Uncle Ed’s eyes skittered from Mom to Dad to the two limp Christmas stockings, then settled on the carpet, which was littered with crumbs and shreds of wrapping paper. “Nah,” he muttered. “They don’t want me here.”
He turned and headed for the door. Aunt Jean hurried after him, half-running. From behind me, I heard low murmurs and the sound of the screen door slapping shut. Then my aunt was rushing past us, leaving a trail of chilly air in her wake.
Mom went after her. Soon I could hear raised voices from the kitchen and the sounds of Aunt Jean crying. Without a word, Dad picked up the remote control and turned the TV on. Loud. In those crowded quarters, it was a valiant attempt on his part to respect the women’s privacy and, more importantly, preserve his own.
Terri just sat there, gazing at the doll head in her lap. She placed a hand on it, like priests did when they blessed new babies, and let the blond hair slide under her palm. She looked so sad and so alone, I couldn’t be angry at her anymore. I wanted to make her feel better, but didn’t know how.
“Hey, Terri, want to see something?”
Her head snapped up, maybe embarrassed I’d been watching her. “What?”
“I can make a French braid. For the doll.” I tried to sound nonchalant. “Want me to show you how?”
She shrugged. “I guess.”
Terri put the doll on the floor. We knelt down beside it. For a moment, it felt like we were little kids again. I showed her how to start with the hair at the top, separating and twining the thicker strands, then working my way down the back. I twisted the hair as carefully as I could, creating perfect braids, then weaving all the individual pieces into one final twist.
When I was finished, Terri said, “Let me try.” She raked her fingers through the doll’s hair and started over.
She was too eager, as I knew she would be, her chubby fingers plying the hair too fast. All of her strands were too thick or too thin, too short or too long, but I didn’t say a word. As Terri worked, her breaths were measured and serious. When she finished, I said her braid looked good.
As Terri unbraided the doll again, Mom appeared. In one arm, she was carrying our coats; the other was around Aunt Jean’s shoulders. My aunt was smiling thinly, but it looked better than the fake smile she’d worn before.
“Ready to go?” Mom smiled. “It’s almost Christmas.”
It didn’t feel like almost Christmas. Any other year I would have been in bed by then, willing myself to drift into sleep, but I felt too old for that now. Too aware of other things. As we zippered our coats and said our goodbyes, every gesture felt extra weighty. Mom hugged Terri tightly. Aunt Jean ran a hand over my hair. Even Dad gave Aunt Jean a peck on the cheek.
I faced Terri by the door, wondering if I should hug her too, but decided that would be going too far. Instead I said, “Maybe sometime I’ll show you a French twist?”
“Okay,” she shrugged.
Outside, it had started to snow. Hartel Street blinked and blazed and glowed. A red-lit WELCOME SANTA sprawled across a neighbor’s roof. In the dark, the boys’ hockey nets were crouched on front lawns, waiting for the next game. By the time Dad had brushed the snow off the windows, it was nearly midnight. Our tires whispered through the cramped streets that would widen as we neared the city line. I watched the row houses slip past my window, rooftop after rooftop, wondering if the Northeast Philly girls were inside them, tucked in their beds, falling asleep.
But when our car stopped at a red light, there they were: a furtive clump on the corner, in long fuzzy scarfs and fur-trimmed leather jackets. They stood close to keep warm, stamping their feet in their sharp-heeled boots. Their heads were lowered around the orange glow of a single cigarette. The flame trembled and caught as I watched, one cigarette and then the next and the next, lighting their faces, spreading from tip to tip.
ELISE JUSKA’s* first novel, Deep, is close to pub-
lication. She lives in Philadelphia and teaches at The University of the
*Asterisk indicates a new contributor.
Copyright Hudson Review Spring 2002
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