Can you zip me up?
In season five, Betty Draper gets her comeuppance by gaining weight. Her children try to zip her into a dress for the governor’s party, but no luck. The former model, who used to smoke while her family ate, is now her own worst nightmare. Harry still desires her, but she’d rather eat ice cream, maybe Baskin-Robins which opened in 1945. Her new mother-in-law will suggest diet pills, and Betty will finally join Weight Watchers. It’s easy to pack on the pounds when you can’t express anger, like Mad Men can, when you’re taught as a lady to zip it.
Can you help me with this necklace clasp?
My mother always denied husbands were good for nothing. “Play your cards right, and he can buy you the pearls, then help you clasp them,” she mugged for the camera that wasn’t there. Of course my father was a traveling salesman, so he missed much clasping. “Idaho!” she scoffed. “Montana!” Such exotic lands my father ventured to while she stayed home, hosting the garden club and raising the daughter she hoped would turn out right. Still small, I stood on the edge of the bed to secure her locket. When I opened it, both sides of the heart were empty.
Do you mind taking a picture of us?
It’s usually older couples or families who ask, as young tourists are content with their selfies. I’ve fumbled with all kinds of cameras taking my morning walks on the beach. I live in a paradise of palm trees and green parrots, where Telemundo soaps and commercials are sometimes filmed. Once I was an extra in Graceland, in which my Florida beach was transformed into Southern California with graffitied trashcans and tiki huts. I walked back and forth the same one hundred feet as the real stars argued in the sand. Between takes, an assistant kept fussing with Vanessa Ferlito’s hair.
May I use you as a reference?
As a child, I wrote so many fan letters I considered attaching a list of references. Soon, my worship of the stars muscled into every conversation. “Have you ever met a celebrity?” I wanted to know. My grandmother’s window washer used to wash windows for Donna Reed. My father’s boss once had dinner with Raymond Burr’s brother. A boy at school who liked me—I’m still not sure why—got the listing for Barbara Feldon’s agent in New York. “If I can get you an autographed picture of Agent 99,” he asked shyly, “would you consider going steady with me?”
Can you wait five minutes, and I’ll come with you?
He’d met Barbara Feldon as well as Daryl Hannah of Splash. Both women loved poetry, and he pointed out to me where each of them lived. They’d donated to a New York poetry organization where he’d interned in grad school. I was jealous of how he swooned over the mermaid—how smart she was, how beautiful her hair, which was curly like mine but longer. I obsessed about his feelings for her while I waited for him to get ready. He’d found out she was in Grumpy Old Men and decided at the last minute he wanted to come along.
Can you cover for me?
I’ll be right back, I promise. I just have a quick errand to run. Is there a pharmacy nearby? I’m low on cigarettes, and I need to get a flu shot. The T-Mobile store is having a really great android promo with mail-in rebate. The post office closes at five, doesn’t it? I wonder if they still sell stamps at the grocery, but I only like the movie star kind. Did you know tire rotations are free this month with an oil change at Jiffy Lube? Do you want anything while I’m out? I was planning to stop for sushi.
Can you give me an extension?
A student emailed me, “What can I do to make up the work I missed? I just can’t get an F. I’ll write twenty more poems if I have to. I’ll stay up all night, all day, whatever it takes.” I looked at the stack of portfolios I had to grade. I pressed the delete key, but this student was undaunted. Two times, three times an hour, I’d get that same email. Finally I replied, “If you stop writing to me, if I never ever have to read one more word you write, I will consider giving you a D.”
Can I borrow a cup of sugar?
It is a June Cleaver question, a Donna Reed question, the kind of question Roseanne would mock on Roseanne. My mother wanted to be a 1950s housewife in the 1980s. She liked shoulder pads and hounds-tooth jackets, but Frank Sinatra on the phonograph and a television built like a barge. She approved of Nancy Reagan, who said “A woman is like a tea bag—only in hot water do you realize how strong she is.” But sugar was a problem. It made weak women and chubby girls. My mother never took sugar in her tea. My mother never borrowed anything.
Can I borrow bus fare?
In an episode in which Carrie realizes she has invested all her money in designer shoes rather than stocks, she vows to start taking buses instead of cabs. Her image is on the side of a bus—Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex—which, in retrospect, seems as ridiculous as a freelance writer with so many clothes. Charlotte gives her the wedding ring from her ill-fated marriage to Trey so that Carrie can use it as a down payment on her apartment that has just gone condo. It’s a loan, they both insist, but we never see Carrie pay Charlotte back.
Can I use your phone?
Clark Kent relied on phone booths to complete his transformation from suit-and-tie journalist to cape-clad Superman. Rosemary Woodhouse secured herself inside the glass box, desperate to reach a doctor who didn’t worship Satan. Maxwell Smart couldn’t even get to work without one. But then the booths began to disappear, and soon even the phones themselves grew scant as weeds in suburban lawns. People wore their mobile phones like jewelry. No one left home without wallet, keys, and cell. Just yesterday I saw an old booth that was missing its receiver, the buttons still shiny but the coin slot rusted out.
Can you hold the elevator?
Florence totters along with her walker grounded with fluorescent tennis balls. We often meet in the mailroom where I chuck my catalogues into the recycle bin before dashing back to my apartment. Florence fumbles with her mailbox key, her slot on the top, a far reach for her hunched frame. I know one day I may be a Florence, so if she asks for help, I always comply. But sometimes, if she doesn’t see me, I sneak away while she retrieves her mail, one piece at a time. I wait for the elevator’s ding, rush in and push “close door.”
Can you pick up the kids after school?
Imagine if I had been my mother, waiting so long for a child, enticed perhaps by the challenge conception had proven to be. And then she won me, like a kewpie doll at the fair, but this one required so much care and feeding. I’d like to say I would have been a different kind of parent, one who didn’t come late every day, who didn’t stop to bargain-shop at one more basement, who remembered to wind her watch. But somewhere my phantom daughter twists herself on a chain-link swing as I linger here on this page, describing her loneliness.
Can you take out the garbage?
Do you ever wonder what becomes of the bag of trash you throw down a shoot or drag to a curb? How it is squished and compacted in a truck, then dumped in a landfill, a hole in the ground where rats and mice and birds gather to peck at your table scraps. But once the trash is buried it mummifies. The average American produces 4.3 pounds of trash per day, which is more than anywhere else on earth. Do you ever wonder if the trash will decompose fast enough? If one day soon there’ll be more landfill than land?
Can you scratch my back?
If someone asks for a back scratch, it’s hard to know what kind of itch they have—literal or metaphorical. Can she reach it herself with a ruler, one long and flexible arm? Or is the itch more ineffable than that? For instance, if someone says you tickle my funny bone, he really means I like the way you make me laugh. Most times that sharp punch to the gut isn’t a fist but a frightening disclosure. I don’t believe there are viceroys in your belly, but if you breathe deeply, you might keep them from flying out your mouth.
Can you pick up the dry cleaning on your way home?
I was an assistant for a woman who sold rugs wholesale in the garment district. I didn’t know much about carpets or the various fibers they contained, but I had a smile and a price chart. My boss demanded one and a half sugars in her coffee, first class aisle seats on the left side of the plane when she traveled the world for more rugs. I picked up her Calvin Klein suits at the drycleaners, the plastic fluttering behind me down 34th Street. I took a special pride in getting all the details right, pleasing her, being her doormat.
QUID PRO QUO
Sometimes you need a good story, so that is the take. Or maybe the give. You can configure even the most unpleasant encounters into narratives in which you triumph. Or gain sympathy in plots in which you lose. The tit or the tat. When young Oprah’s boyfriend threatened to leave her, she flushed his keys—he was a plumber who fished them out. He looked back and became a pillar of salt. Oprah looked forward to her famous future. Pass me the salt so I can pour it into my wound. The favor you grant is the favor granted you.
We movie-goers remember Hannibal Lecter peering at Clarice Starling through the prison glass. “Quid pro quo,” he says. “I tell you things, you tell me things. Not about this case, though. About yourself.” It’s always so alluring to be asked, isn’t it, even when you’re grieved to remember, frightened to disclose? Slowly, she recounts the slaughter of the spring lambs, their screaming that woke her as a child. “What became of your lamb, Clarice?” Lecter presses. We know the answer. We want her to say it, yet we want her to hold back. “They killed him,” she says at last.
My grandmother kept a box of After Eight mints on the dinner table as incentive to clean my plate. My mother bought soft, pastel party mints for bridal showers and promised we’d have them at mine one day. I was nineteen the first time I ate at a restaurant where Andes mints came with the bill. Sometimes Grandma and I ate After Eight minutes at 7:59 and giggled, pleased with ourselves. My mother never suggested a bridal shower when I married a woman. Although unpopular with most people I know, I still eat at Oliver Garden every chance I get.
I often take soaps from hotels—the round ones from Washington Square with the puckered paper gathered under the label; the rectangles from the Marriot in their corrugated boxes; the Basic Earth Botanicals with Lemon Myrtle or the Aveda Refreshing Cleansing Bar from boutique inns. Maids give you a new soap every day, even if that first bar, slick but bulky, is still in the shower. Soaps—even fancy ones—aren’t that expensive, yet each time I use one of these soaps in my own bathroom, I feel like I am getting away with something while keeping my conscience clean.
I’ve never had a manicure. I don’t know what’s happening with my cuticles or if my nail beds are doing well. For most of my life, I’ve bitten my nails right down to the nub. But in college, trying to fit in, I bought some plum polish and grew them out—long enough so they curved downward at the ends. I knew my roommate would approve. When I saw her again, I was living with the woman I love. I had clipped my nails short, to be practical. “My god!” she wailed. “What did you do to your beautiful hands?”
I started painting my nails in grade school because I loved the smell of nail polish and nail polish remover. With my matching nails, I dealt the red and white Bicycle cards for our family game. And when we played poker, my nails matched the chips. My father was a serious player—no talking, no family gossip. I was more interested in the back card’s design, which I tried to recreate with my Spirograph. My mother’s mind was also elsewhere—she was on call at the hospital as an emergency room nurse, where skill and chance were trumped by accidents.
When I tell the doctor I have “zero” drinks per week, she sizes me up, then softens. “Are you a recovering alcoholic?” I shake my head. “Religious reasons?” I couldn’t be more flagrant in my non-belief. “Pregnant, or trying?” At this, I stifle a laugh. The fact is, I just don’t like the taste of liquor. Wine burns my throat, and beer gives me a bellyache. We non-drinkers are rare birds here in Miami. I sucked down three mojitos when I interviewed for my job. I was counting blue herons for a while, but I soon lost count of everything.
When I tell the doctor I have “zero” drinks per week, he knows exactly why. He hesitates to prescribe muscle relaxants lest I get addicted. When I tell him I’m afraid I might become dependent on my anxiety medicine, he laughs, “That ship has sailed.” One Diet Coke makes me want six, one cookie the whole bag, one kiss a make-out session. I try to appear like everyone else as I reach for the bottle opener and pop off the cap, give my sister her Michelob Ultra that she rarely finishes, half of it left warm on the counter.
When I loved a woman, I learned I was a lesbian. When I became a lesbian, I learned I was supposed to love turquoise, tennis, and Santa Fe, jeeps and golf and Ellen DeGeneres. OK, I thought. But then I read a study that said, “Lesbians are the demographic most likely to squander their money and skimp on their health.” Of the reasons proffered, this one lodged in my craw: “The lesbian, devalued by society, learns to devalue herself.” Now, whenever I see a piggy bank, I want to raise my strong arms and smash it with my steel putter.
According to Audre Lorde, “the true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness” regardless of who shares her bed. According to a Lil Wayne song, his bitch’s “clit look like a jellybean.” It’s hard to argue that Lil Wayne is a feminist, but I have to admire his close attention to the clit, which lovers of women should never ignore. I remember the first time I found my jellybean, the sweetest spot in a bowl of sweetness. I was tentative, by myself, in my lesbian consciousness, not knowing all the flavors in which I would go on to find pleasure.
Some critics panned Bridesmaids as anti-feminist. “Just what the world needs: another movie about a single woman who envies her best friend’s perfect life.” Though I prefer my humor sans scatology, I’ll make an exception for the scene at the bridal boutique, that unflinching depiction of ladies coming uncoiffed. It isn’t all wine and roses, our female enterprise. Notice who fares better in this allegory of dietary angst: not the perfect bride who shits in the street wearing some designer’s death-ruffle gown. Her single friend, sweat-soaked, doubled over with stomach cramps, doesn’t give in. She bravely eats a Jordan almond.
On our honeymoon we flew into Hurricane Andrew. If there was news of its approach, no one up north paid much attention. I was probably busy tending to bride duties as the resort where we had reservations was evacuated. Our rental car had been given to someone else, the Avis employee incredulous—“I simply can’t believe you flew in here when everyone else is trying to fly out.” Our baggage tags were shaped like the palm trees that soon would be uprooted. Sixteen years later our marriage would be destroyed by our lack of preparedness, unrelenting naïveté and high winds.
“The best match is a book,” my mother used to say. She was a reading teacher who wanted me to score high on standardized tests. She was a fearful Christian who wanted me to avoid sex. But what becomes of we literate virgins, too Protestant to become nuns? When I felt like kissing, I smoked a cigarette. When I felt like smoking, I read a romance. When I met Angie, I wanted to strike all the matches at once, the way suave men in the movies did. I singed my fingertips trying to say, Hey, I’m on fire for you.
Nabokov hated the way Americans pronounced Lolita, that long “o” offending his sensibilities. He said the first syllable of his character’s name should begin the way lollipop does. It takes a great writer to make a pedophile’s angst and longing sympathetic. Nabokov didn’t need to have sex with a young girl to write of it convincingly. The FBI recently arrested an acquaintance for having downloaded child pornography onto his computer. I told myself maybe he just watched—ashamed, tormented, never acting on his desire. I thought of Humbert Humbert, trying to feel compassion, but I felt none, not a lick.
My friend’s father went to prison for molesting children. Just before it happened, she stopped returning my calls. I always knew this friend was beautiful—her full red lips and ruddy cheeks without a stitch of make-up—but the boys she liked only fell for a certain type. “My thighs are too big, and my breasts are too small,” she sighed. This was the friend who taught me to Nair my legs, to dance the Macarena, to use Vaseline instead of lip balm and pocket the extra cash. This friend’s father never touched me. This friend always feared he did.
Paulette’s stepfather barged into the passenger seat as I idled in the driveway. “Take me to the golf course,” he demanded, a club between his legs. “Dad!” my friend screamed, the curling iron still wound in her hair, the cord dangling. He smelled of bourbon as he leaned into me, honking my horn. Paulette opened his door. He tried to hit her with the club, then tumbled partially out. She dragged the rest of him, burning his arm. She jumped into the car, crying “Go!” “I didn’t know your father golfed,” I said, my tires crunching over his shot glass.
In 1964, years before they became my mother and father, two college students went on their first date at Yen Wor Village. He tried to impress her with an order of steamed prawns, hot mustard, and sesame seeds. She excused herself twice to the washroom to freshen up. At the end of the meal, two fortune cookies came with the bill. What prophesies, I wonder, were printed on those tiny slips of paper? Hers: You have a knack for getting exactly what you want. She smiled, blotted her lips. His: You like Chinese food. He smiled, picked up the check.
Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade have published collaborative essays in Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Connotation Press, Green Mountains Review, Nimrod, No Tokens, Passages North, poemmemoirstory, Quarter After Eight, The St. Ann’s Review, and StoryQuarterly.
Denise Duhamel is the author, most recently, of Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other books include Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009), Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005), Mille et un Sentiments (Firewheel, 2005) and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001.) Her work has been anthologized widely and appeared in literary magazines such as American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, and New Ohio Review. She was the guest editor is for The Best American Poetry 2013.
Julie Marie Wade is the author, most recently of When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014) and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2014), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir. Her other books include Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), and the forthcoming collections, SIX (Red Hen Press, 2015) and Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016). She has received an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.
Duhamel and Wade teach in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.