Chapter 1 Good Girl
My grandfather Pete, a second-generation Italian immigrant with large capable hands, used to tell a story about me sitting on his lap eating waffles when I was two. When he lifted a forkful of buttery, syrup-glazed sweet to my mouth, my lips parted baby-bird-like. “Zoop, that waffle was gone!” he’d say. “And I’d give you another and ‘Zoop!’?” he teased. When he wasn’t fast enough, I grabbed waffles with my fists.
Although he laughed and told the story over and over, it was clear from his bemusement that I had somehow broken the rules.
That appetite landed me on the outside of what passed as appropriate for girls in my family. My taste for life extended well beyond food; I had a tendency to charge at the world, to take it all in. “My little bull,” Barbara, my petite pearls-and-diamonds grandmother, called me. My knees were always scuffed, my elbows rough and dry, my shoulders and feet too big, my hair full of knots. I wanted to rub up against things but lived under an umbrella of expectation: Why wasn’t I more refined? More girlie? I licked the sidewalk because
I liked the taste of dirt, and I dug up worms after a strong rain so I could watch them tunnel and wiggle in the plastic tub in the garage where I kept them. I was certain the world held mystery and I yearned to gather it by the fistful. When I was four, I jumped up and down on my parents’ bed in front of the vanity in our Sunnyvale, California, trailer, telling my mother one day I would leap into the mirror and go live with the little girl I saw there. Later, I raced invisible friends on roller skates around the outer elbow of the Bay Area cul-de-sac where we lived for a few years, kicked around the West by my father’s Air Force career: me; my brothers, Chris and Steve, who bookended me in age; my parents; and our dog, Mitzi.
“Go put your clothes on,” Grandpa Pete shouted, as I ran naked through his house at age three, five, seven. Such exuberance was troubling.
Once, lamenting that I was the opposite of dainty, Barbara, who never stopped trying to coax my hair into curls and my hands into my lap, stretched my fingers into a chord on a toy piano I’d gotten for Christmas and exclaimed, “These hands, these chubby little hands!” as if the shape of my limbs was a character flaw for which I should be accountable.
My future appeared in the form of two dolls I was given: one, a nun in a black and white habit, the other, a bride, dressed in veiled white lace. I placed both quietly in their boxes on a shelf in my bedroom until the day I chopped the head off the bride for an art project and buried the nun in the backyard.
I hated dolls.
Even though I saw women burning their bras on the nightly news, my family, led by the old-world swagger of my Italian father, remained impervious to the social revolution whose epicenter was a mere fifty miles up the Bay Area coastline from our first house. Instead of hippies and Haight-Ashbury, I knew about Vietnam and the Zodiac Killer, a faceless monster I worried haunted the bushes on my way to school.
We had moved to Milpitas, California, located off the Nimitz Freeway at the “stinky exit”—so named because the air was thick with the peaty smell of cow manure and salt marshes—just before I began elementary school. The hills were rolling and green, if always vaguely obscured by fog and—even then—smog. Our gold stucco house tucked inside the last court on the edge of the housing development was palatial compared to the trailers we’d lived in—first in Nevada, where I was born, and then in Sunnyvale, where my father was later stationed. For the first time, we had our own washing machine and dishwasher, and my father made much of the fact that he’d gotten to choose not only the color of the house but the avocado-green appliances and two-toned shag rug. We were coming up in the world!
I learned to roller-skate and ride a bike on Moon Court, playing for hours alone with my cartoon friends, Marine Boy and Little Audrey. Girlfriends were scarce. I had only Irene, a blue-eyed beauty from Texas who lived next door, but she was several years older. She had long lashes and dark hair that curled slightly around her freckled face and was Texas polite, saying “yes, ma’am” or “sir” to
my parents. She invited me over to play dress-up with her Dawn dolls, the shorter, more glamorous version of Barbie, but I couldn’t sit through more than one costume change, even though I longed for Dawn’s hot-pink evening gown with the sparkly silver bodice.
No matter how hard I tried to cajole her, Irene wasn’t interested in running or riding bikes or fishing for crawdads in the ditch out back with me. Instead she instructed me on the qualities of a lady, once telling me if I was too proud of my long hair, gremlins would come in the night and chew it off.
This left the other kids on the block—all boys—who wanted to play either chase or doctor, and my brothers, who forged an alliance over G.I. Joes and Army games and model airplanes, bonding over anatomy and naming their penises Mortimer and Charlie. They kept a “pee bank” in the scrap pile on the side of the house in a Mr. Clean bottle. I tried once to make my own deposit, squatting among wet lumber and mud over the narrow bottle opening with predictable results.
In my family, women were parsley on the plate—accessories or helpmates: My grandmother Barbara, a slim beauty with Betty Grable legs, was the elegant accompaniment to my grandfather’s powerful presence; my mother sailed through her life behind a cloud of Salem smoke, always tired. Lethally silent. The adult child of two pugnacious alcoholics, she had learned from an early age to stay out of the line of fire, and denied her own profession by parents who refused to pay for college because she was female, at eighteen she joined the Air Force, where she met my father, “Wally Cakes.” I believe
he was the first man she ever kissed. By twenty, she was married, pregnant, and discharged from the service. Back then, you could be career military or you could have kids. Mom quietly followed my father’s Air Force career from California to Nevada and back before moving to Colorado and Hawaii, all the while working one dead-end retail job after another to help the family make ends meet.
I don’t have one solid memory of her from those early years. Instead, all I have is a collection of images: my blond mother holding up a frilly baby-blue nightgown at Christmas when I was six; Mom in cat-eye glasses standing in front of an Easter ham decorated with pineapple and cherries when I was seven; Mom, neat looking in the shag du jour, posing in a light blue dress suit with her parents in front of a mission in Monterey. But these are photographs from the family album. In them, my mother is a static figure, captured mid–half smile, frozen in time. And that’s how she was at home: a bug under glass. I watched for years as she was pressed flat under the weight of my father’s volatile personality.
“Go put your face on,” my father shouted at her. He harangued, then menaced. Eventually, a decade into their union, he hit.
Dad was handsome, with pouty lips and a shock of black hair combed back from his face. No wonder my mother fell for him. He was larger than life and charismatic, but unpredictable—charming in one instant and boiling mad the next. No one knew when things were going to blow up.
* * *
The stories of my family are the stories of men. I grew up in the shadow their larger-than-life selves cast, coveting the pleasures of gusto and sheer masculine joy. Each lived with the kind of prerogative and independence I would be denied. Plainly put: Men did things, women watched. Their escapades were the mythology of my childhood: tales of my great-grandfather Bernardo, a giant at six feet eight, who guarded the Italian King Umberto and later mined diamonds in Africa and was alleged to have killed two men who tried to rob him by crushing them together inside the circle of his massive arms. He’d come to America with my great-grandmother, who would die during childbirth, and moved out west to mine coal in Utah, later dying of consumption.
Or Pete, Bernardo’s son, a Depression-era urchin who survived starvation at an orphanage by eating bugs off the walls and, at fourteen, herded sheep in Utah. He spent long days and nights in the canyon country near Bryce on horseback, a dog and big blue western skies as his only companions. From an early age, I was haunted by the story of him alone in the wilderness and yearned for that kind of adventure.
My father’s tales were of his misadventures, consisting largely of the naughty things he’d done on his uncle’s Wyoming ranch or to earn a ruler across his hands in Catholic boarding school in the forties. During a lesson on hell, he raised his hand and asked the nun if, after he died, could he go live with the devil? It sounded more fun.
One of his favorite pranks was to take us through the
drive-thru, ordering in a mock Chinese accent only to switch to a swarthy Frenchman or a daft Dutchman at the window as my brothers and I giggled.
Once I tried to emulate my father’s bravado, dramatically telling him a joke going around school about the little red wagon. I reached the punch line, pleased with my performance, giggling uncontrollably, until my father shook me by the shoulders and told me the joke was dirty, forbidding me to speak to or play with the nasty little girl who’d told it to me.
Left out of the family heroic narrative and lacking someone to look up to, I developed an instinct for going it alone. I would do it all by myself. Just five and unable to tell time or read, I knew that when Sesame Street ended in the late morning, it was time to go to school. My mother had already left for work by the time I picked up my Josie and the Pussycats lunch box and went to wake my father, who was sleeping off the graveyard shift of a second job. Then, I walked the mile to school.
If I was good . . . I thought, because good was the best thing I could be. Trouble was, being a good girl meant not only being obedient and polite but, most impossibly, being pretty. I was plain and a bit chubby. My front teeth met in an arrow-like point; my smile was an awkward apology. When my dad, who liked to imagine he could see into the future, prognosticated about his children, he said Steve would be an astronaut, Chris a scientist, and I, he’d proclaim as if bestowing the best gift, would be “Miss America 1982.” He might as well have said I’d grow up to be a horse or a swan. His
prediction wasn’t necessarily a vote for my beauty; instead he was imagining the best, most successful thing I could be.
Caught between the competing desires to be a good girl and to get in on the action, between acceptance and rebellion, I zigzagged through my early years like a deer stuck inside a fence. I so often fell short that I thought I must be bad, taking as evidence that I’d once hit my grandmother in the face when she sweetly leaned down to kiss me good night. Her late-night embrace had startled me.
“Oh! Well!” she harrumphed, walking away. Mortified, I aped ignorance when she inquired the next day, “Honey, you didn’t mean to hit your grammy, did you?”
Determined to correct my wickedness, I decided what I lacked in traditional good-girl looks or patience I would make up for in obedience. If I couldn’t be one kind of good girl, I’d be another. Once, promised a whipping by my father when we got home, I dutifully retrieved the belt myself and handed it to him.
But adherence to the laws of my family provided only passing relief. A larger institution promised greater reward: the Catholic Church. The church was the place of a perfection so sweet that saints shimmered with golden halos and my irreproachable grandfather teared up every time he worked his fingers over his black pearl rosary. I wanted to be just as saintly, just as virtuous. When I’d learned in catechism the story of a girl who’d seen a baby in the road and pushed it out of the way of an oncoming car only to die—but die a good Catholic—I was constantly on the lookout for people and animals to save at my own peril. The fact that my
dying seemed to make the act holier made it all the more desirable. After I was told good pious Catholics crossed themselves when they passed a church—any church—I began the practice at seven. Instinctively, I’d come to understand that my lot was to convince others of my virtuousness. So I dutifully said the half dozen Our Fathers the priest gave me for confession after he’d lectured me in the dark closet of the confessional about “honoring thy father and mother,” even though I hadn’t mentioned Mom or Dad, or confessed to defiance. I had obedience down.
My sins were lies and greed.
I stole Neapolitan coconut candy from the store for the fifty-cent Saturday matinee until the day my father caught me and hauled me screaming “No, Daddy, no!” up the aisle to the store manager, who I swear had a cop on hand who showed me his handcuffs and said he could take me away and I’d have to spend the night in the clink. Another time, I convinced my older brother, Chris, already a guilt-ridden child who carried the heavy expectation of being firstborn, that he had broken the washer lid by climbing on top of it.
And, I liked to tell stories.
At show-and-tell, I excitedly displayed the seashell figurine I’d gotten on Fisherman’s Wharf or the strange Easter basket made from a hollowed-out bleach container, topped with a rubber Mother Goose head, lining up my special items weeks in advance. But once I ran through my repertoire, I made things up. I reported with glee that Mitzi, our spayed half basset hound–half German shepherd, had had puppies that wiggled and whined and slept like little balls
of brown and black dough curled up against their mama’s white tummy. Another week it was our nonexistent cat, Midnight, who’d had a litter and kittens that were mewing all over the house. Still later, my mother was pregnant with twins. I don’t know why I saw birth as the answer to my state of affairs—it hadn’t worked out all that well for me.
* * *
On the weekends, my brothers and I did what my father wanted to do: fish, go to the base to watch the fighter jets in air races, bet on horses, bowl, see the newest sci-fi film, scour rose beds and parks in Sacramento for the Bee’s annual treasure hunt, where my father was sure This year! we’d be the ones to decipher the weekly clues and find the object that proclaimed us the “lucky winner!” of a huge cash prize. Dad was certain that his big payout was just one bet, one stroke of luck away.
My father, who boasted he couldn’t get lost in the woods, was a born outdoorsman who hunted elk and deer. Above all, I loved camping and fishing with him. Our trips were expeditions in which Dad packed the station wagon full of coolers and sleeping bags, aluminum chairs, fishing poles, our fifty-pound tent, and always, a huge batch of spaghetti he’d spent the entire day making. I learned to shoot a .22 and gut a trout and spot deer. Nature, I understood, was simultaneously glorious and dangerous. At night, inside the thick skin of our canvas tent, I’d lie awake breathless, half-terrified,
half-awestruck that I couldn’t see my hand waving just inches from my face, and imagine my fingers drifting like stars in the night sky while my dad sat by the fire on bear watch with Mitzi and a .30-.30, sipping Crown Royal.
When morning came, there would be fried trout and rosemary potatoes and sunny-side-up eggs cooked in bacon grease for breakfast with blackened campfire toast as smoke drifted through the forest. My brothers and I combed the campsite for claw marks and overturned rocks from the bear my father scared away or deer and rabbit tracks in the mud.
On those trips—the only vacations my family would have—my father filled our heads with stories about trolls who moved around at night but turned to stone during the day, or an island-size bass that lived in a lake we fished. Whenever we saw the island that was the bass’ gravel and shrubbed back, I swore it had shifted spots. I would grow up to tell stories of my own, in Girl Scouts and later as a camp counselor during college: ghost stories about the “albinos” or the bucket-headed man who lived among trees. Even though the tales were meant to scare, I understood that out there, beyond streetlights and pavement, things were different.
My father’s favorite pastime was “to go see the horsies” at Bay Meadows on the days when my mother worked. I remember watching palm trees sway across the track and drinking soda while Dad and his friend Uncle Stan drank bourbon and Coke from frosted cups and talked in code about each race. The track grounds smelled of cigar smoke and were littered with faded yellow and blue and red
tickets—a color for each place and type of bet—and my brothers and I picked them up looking for accidentally discarded winners. Bettors roared, “Come on, seven! Go, three!” The announcer trilled the “Daaaay-leee Duuuuub—ble!” along with the sound of the track bell. Between races, I turned the language of the track over and over in my head: exacta, win-place-show!, trifecta, and my favorite, quinella, a beautiful word that sounded like a luscious dessert made with vanilla ice cream and some kind of elaborate cake. Dad held his race book tight in his hand and made notes with a pencil while studying the odds board before he placed his bet—always at the last minute—while I picked my winners by looks—a combination of silks and color of the horse—a method that on at least one occasion would have earned a huge payout and propelled Uncle Stan to buy my picks for the next three races.
I recall my father’s friends, a gang of Air Force guys—all young, all in their twenties—almost more than I can recall my own. There were the “Uncles”: Stan was a card player with thick black glasses and clearly the brains of the bunch, who called my brothers and me “critters.” Don had a blond Afro and a funny way of flicking his fingers when he talked. He would eventually marry my mother’s sister, Mary Ann, and become my real uncle. Last was Aunt Paul, a sweet man whose given name was Lester, nicknamed Aunt by me because we already had too many uncles. Larry Harmoney was the big redheaded guy who once vomited on the juniper in the front yard during one of my dad’s bagna càuda parties, causing it to turn gold and double in size. He shot the ducks and pheasants we
roasted for Super Bowl Sunday, the kids put to the task of plucking the scalded carcasses. At the center of the group was my father, a man who bowled with a butterscotch-colored ball inscribed with the word polata, Piedmontese slang for testicle, and had a bag of dirty jokes for every party.
Because Dad was the sun around which so many orbited, my brothers and I were often left, moonlike, waiting for his return. I’ve waited at ball fields and dog races, outside grocery and department stores, in “kids’ areas” at casinos with a handful of quarters for games and snacks while my parents gambled the afternoon away, and at other people’s houses while my dad played bridge or watched football and drank Carlo Rossi and Gallo red burgundy by the gallon with his friends, singing “Aye-yay-yay-yay, suck my juan-nachee.”
Huge chunks of my childhood yawn with boredom—not the generic kid kind where we’d complain, despite toys and friends, of “nothing to do,” but the kind developed in killing time. My brothers and I made up a game called Bridge-Break-Alligator-Eat for those days Dad left us in the car while he shopped for groceries at the base commissary—“Only one kid allowed in at a time!” he’d say, and that meant he’d simply leave us all, rather than pick one to go inside. In the game, the person acting as the bridge spanned the divide between the front and back seats of our station wagon while the “break” crawled across his back. The alligator waited in the foot space of the backseat, all of us chanting, “Bridge break alligator eat!”
Dad was our master of ceremonies at home too, declaring that we were going to Dairy Queen or the drive-in. “Put your pajamas
on, get your pillow,” he announced, emcee-like. In our house, he was head cook and doctor, pulling teeth with a pair of metal pliers and a handkerchief, a bit of bourbon rubbed on the gums.
He was also our drill sergeant.
On Saturdays, my brothers and I woke early to try to get in as many cartoons as we could before my father started yelling orders. Armed with Windex and paper towels, a broom and the vacuum, we cleaned the house, the garage, our rooms, performing our appointed tasks dutifully. If we didn’t work fast enough and with enthusiasm, Dad threatened and bawled.
“Move!” he’d say. And we jumped to. Menace was Dad’s management policy. All he had to do was snap the belt or threaten to give us “something to cry about,” sometimes turning one of us over his knee, pants pulled shamefully down. As we grew older, the belt was increasingly replaced by his massive hand.
While my father proudly relayed the story of how I potty-trained myself when I was less than a year old, I only remember seeing Dad standing over my older brother, yelling at him “to go to the bathroom” at the end of the long hallway in the Sunnyvale trailer. When Chris hesitated, my father’s hand snaked out and slapped his two-year-old son. I’d barely begun to form words, but I recognized danger, and instinctively avoided the need to be taught.
One such lesson concerned matches. As my father tied a rubber band around my pinched fingers and placed a lit match at the center, he demanded: Are you going to play with matches again? “No, Daddy!” I cried. He kept at it, staring at me with gold-flecked
green eyes not unlike my own. The flame crept down the wooden stick. The heat began a slow burn on my fingertips. “No, Daddy, no, Daddy!” I screamed.
Love was punishment.
* * *
By the time I’d entered third grade, well before the apricot and cherry trees my parents planted in the backyard had matured enough to bear fruit, my father was transferred and my family moved from Moon Court in Milpitas to Poteae Drive in Colorado Springs, where the wide Colorado sky and edge-of-the-prairie existence swallowed me. I could imagine no more beautiful sight than the snowcapped mountains rising to meet the sky from the wide bowl of the grasslands in winter, or the veils of shadows they cast in the summer.
My parents bought a split-level house in Cimarron Hills, my fifth address, surrounded by empty, weed-filled lots in a sparsely built edge of the development lined with rolling fields that stretched toward Kansas.
By fifth grade, I had become a Goody Two-Shoes, a model student, diligent, attentive, helpful—the teacher’s pet—and a Girl Scout, earning merit badges as a Housekeeper, Observer, Dabbler, along with those in Home Health & Safety, Hospitality, and Water Fun, but all that would change as I increasingly felt like a Victorian heroine locked in the drawing room while I watched the lives of my brothers with a curious mixture of rage and envy.
They earned money with a shared paper route and Chris went out for football, while Steve played Little League baseball. Their chores were outside—they mowed the lawn and weeded, they walked the dog. Me? I babysat, a job that consisted of killing time. My chores ranged from mopping and polishing furniture to cleaning the bathroom—“girl stuff.”
In Boy Scouts, my brothers went on camping trips and slept in a tent, while in Girl Scouts, I learned to square dance and make paper flowers for people who lived in the old folks’ home. Before our troop went on a cookout in the woods, we spent weeks making a “sit-upon,” a pad tied by strings around the waist so we wouldn’t get dirty when we sat on the ground. Inspired by those early camping trips with Dad, I dreamed of sleeping alone in a pup tent and tracking animals in the woods. I wanted to learn to whittle and cook biscuits over a campfire and identify plants.
As soon as I joined Girl Scouts, I began begging my parents to send me to summer camp, where I would live in the woods for a week and become a real woodswoman, but there was never enough money. When I was twelve, they promised.
In the meantime, I’d climb the hill on the lot to the west on early-summer evenings when the sun slanted across the fields and bats twirled recklessly in the darkening blue sky to sit in the dirt at the quieting of the day. Tall weedy sunflowers and Russian thistle, plants that would dry out and tumble end over end only to gather on wire fences on windy autumn days, crowded my wide shoulders.
I was sure I’d landed in the wrong family.
The hot day exhaled, when suddenly, a strong hum, like air blown through a long tube, like a radio coming suddenly into tune, filled my ears. It was not the first time I’d heard the sound. I closed my eyes and held my breath, lifting my head hopefully to the sky.
What I told myself was this: Long ago I’d come to earth with my alien family—my real family—and I’d gotten lost or separated, but then time had run out and they’d had to go back home. Somehow, I’d found my way into this family—people who too often regarded me suspiciously or with bewilderment and openmouthed shock. What’s she doing now?
I knew the sound in my ears was the voice of my kin, people who were just like me, trying to tell me how to get back home—only I’d forgotten the language. If I concentrated, I told myself, I would remember. If I held my breath, the words would come. And so I remained perfectly still, digging my fingers and toes into the cool earth as the first stars appeared in the sky, and tried to remember the language of my birth.
* * *
My mother went back to school to study art—the profession she’d hoped to pursue when she was eighteen—and suddenly the house was alive with her projects: sculptures carved from plaster molded into milk cartons and wire mobiles hanging from the ceiling. Mom played Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Jim Croce and danced with me in the living room. She bought me my first pair of
bell-bottoms and taught me how to macramé. She painted a metal watering can yellow and dotted it with flowers for the garden and planted corn and zucchini out back.
My parents fought more.
One day, out of the blue, my father asked me how I would feel about having a baby sister.
“I’ve always wanted a sister!” I gushed.
A few days later, my parents broke the news: We would be a family of six.
But my childhood fantasy that new birth would make my life more exciting turned out to be like gulping down a cold glass of milk only to find it had soured. I was thrilled at the prospect of a new sibling, sure she was a girl, and I eagerly watched as my mother’s stomach blossomed into a big ball.
My sister’s birth was difficult for my mother, who had high blood pressure and, at thirty-five, was considered high risk. She had to be hospitalized at the Air Force Academy. For two and a half months, I waved to Mom through the window of her room because my father said kids weren’t allowed on the ward. In the end, Nancy was born a squalling child—only five pounds, five ounces—and difficult to calm down, as if sensing just exactly where she’d landed.
I turned twelve three weeks before she was born.
There would be no Girl Scout camp. Instead, the summer before junior high, I was the designated babysitter, simply adding one more item to my list of chores inside the home, as I fed and changed and
played with my sister while my parents tried to repair their marriage through counseling and in a series of evenings out.
I had gladly accepted the responsibility of my sister—it made me feel important, adult. No one questioned my default position as nanny, not even me at first, but before long I knew I was trapped. I’d devoted years to trying to be a good girl, to anticipating the needs of others, doing as I was told. Where, I thought, had it gotten me?
That summer, as I watched my brothers, free to ride their bikes or visit friends while I sat with Nancy, something in me broke.
That’s when I decided to stop.
The decision was like a bomb detonating in my head. After too many years of acquiescence, of yes, I would begin deliberately, defiantly to say No.