I Own the Sun
‘Jesus H. Christ!’
Then a weary laconic voice from the Bronx answered, ‘He
ain’t gonna help us none, pal.’
That’s how Theresa Ollivante had begun her op-ed meditation on New York’s suburban kitsch, affectionately titled Musée des Boze Artz
, in which she’d sketched a day out with Clorinda to Rockaway Beach, trapped, stunned by a heatwave, in a grossly overcrowded subway train.
Her Boze Artz
feature was her first published think piece after her discharge from rehab.
, should Long Islanders need reminding, was a TV store surmounted by a vast sign on the corner of 48th Street and Queens Boulevard at the point where the subway train rounds the curve.
Clorinda was offered a seat, of course.
Jump on a train or enter a bar with Clorinda and guys would at once start coming on to her; but never
on to Theresa, who had in due course submitted to a walk-on part as an attendant mute duenna.
ain’t gonna help us none, pal.’
Three schoolgirls, crushed together with Clorinda in the subway car, had joined in the sudden outburst of nervous laughter. The heat inside the car was in the high eighties.
Clorinda had been quick to strike a rapport with the boldest girl and soon their talk turned to teenage daydreams of early marriage.
A billboard whizzed by: oddly attenuated cigarettes for the liberated young woman.
Virginia Slims. You’ve come a long way, baby.
The hippest schoolgirl shook her head.
‘Whoa! Slow down! So wadda ya s’posed to do when ya tire of Mr Right?’
‘Well,’ said Clorinda, with her calculating smile. ‘There are always grounds for alimony.’
‘Yeah.’ The girl’s eyes widened. ‘Reno. Sounds cool.’
(Once, in a theatre crush bar, Theresa had overheard a stranger confide: ‘Life’s all about numbers with Clorinda.’)
‘Jesus H. Christ!’
When the meaning of the profanity had been disputed, Theresa remembered, her good friend Ettie Klein had claimed, ‘It stands for Himmelmeier
, or so some wisenheimer told me in fifth grade. The guy swore it meant an also-ran Messiah whose celestial reach had exceeded his grasp.’
Now, stranded on her beach towel, purged of thought by the nepenthean sun, Theresa heard yet another dime’s worth of A Whiter Shade of Pale
playing from the boardwalk bar.
I was feeling kinda seasick
but the crowd called out for more
She shielded her eyes and saw Clorinda poised, gracile, foot arched, tendu
from first position, sweet-talking a couple of off-duty lifeguards.
Clorinda. A revealing shirred halter-necked swimsuit. Cute. Plenty cute.
Theresa, through half-closed eyes, surveyed the terrain of her own torso and thighs. She regarded her body as of Düreresque proportions. Her narrow chest. ‘It’s as though the Divine Glassblower failed to catch His breath,’
she murmured, ‘and abandoned my rightful hourglass figure when it was only half-formed.’
The music from the Ocean Bar faded as she contemplated the cloudless blue of midday.
A skywriting aircraft buzzed overhead trailing puffs of white smoke, which read:
OWN THE SUN WITH COPPERTONE
Sunscreen lotion! ‘We own more
than the sun,’ she admonished the sky and shuddered.
On her seventh birthday, the Soviets had announced they’d exploded their first H-bomb and her father had removed his pipe to remark: ‘That
’s put some mustard on it! When’re the Reds gonna learn our nukes are three times hotter than the sun?’
Theresa found herself slipping her moorings, lost in one of her frozen reveries, when fair and foul feel almost the same.
A year earlier, Ettie had dismissed her friend’s periodic detachment as ‘a kinda rabid morbidity’ whose paranoiac symptomatology, she believed, owed much to the Cold War. (At that time Esther was studying for her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Columbia.)
Tempted to subterfuge, Ettie had beguiled Theresa to attend an early screening of an avant-garde documentary at the New York State Psychiatric Institute ... a contemporary study of patients confined in an asylum,
In the asylum’s exercise yard, the extended soliloquies of the inmates – many traumatised Vietnam vets – were, Ettie affirmed, pure theatre; essentially, the Theatre of Cold War Paranoia ... a crazed exuberance of prophets and the possessed.
One of the inmates had resembled Theresa’s father. He’d raged, without drawing breath:
‘This is a gigantic pattern! Stockpiling nuclear weapons is like kids with toys. They figure they gotta start playing with those toys. They’re no good! They’re Judases! Even Pope Paul is not without sin!’
If Esther had believed these tormented ravings would somehow grant Theresa a new objectivity to outface the unique oppressions of American Angst, she was gravely mistaken.
After all, since her early teens, Theresa likewise had not been untouched by the gathering shadows of custodial confinement so slipping through the net had, perforce, become a perfected art.
This history of Theresa’s early life was kept a closed book.
Unseen even by Ettie.
And those pathological memories Theresa denied equally to herself, aware only of an abiding mood of mistrust and fear because, although the death of one’s parent is not, legally, abandonment, an orphanage or foster care would have been Theresa’s prison had not her paternal grandmother taken her in.
The grandmother’s death and the teenager’s subsequent bamboozling of the child welfare officials to convince them her guardian yet lived should tell you she was no stranger to masquerading for half a decade in a House of the Dead.
‘This is a gigantic pattern!’
Theresa heard again those words in the voice of her father.
The skywriting trails had dissolved in a quickening onshore breeze.
She had been sixteen years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis and still she could not hide from a sense of desolating dread. Aleksy, the neighbour’s kid had been six.
That day, Theresa had set out with little Aleksy for Corona Park; it was the morning his father had taken his mother to Mount Sinai hospital for her annual physical. Both second generation Polish-Americans, she was a store detective in the city and his father was the boss of a maintenance crew for Manhattan’s wooden water towers.
So timid six-year-old Aleksy was used to inclining his earnest bespectacled old-man’s face to study the New York skyline; an elevated inquisitiveness came naturally to him.
‘Them kids down the block.’ His small hand tightened in her clasp and he nodded in the direction of the apartment house on the corner of her avenue. ‘Real mean kids.’ He pointed to a third floor window and balcony. ‘Say they wanna kill all the bad guys.’
‘How’re they going to do that?’ Theresa had asked with a smile. (The two boys who lived on the third floor – Lee and Frankie – she knew to be aged seven and nine.)
Aleksy had pointed to the upper window.
‘Got stuff up there to be throwed down on the bad guys. Th’other day Frankie says as how he’s gonna fix ’em. The bad guys. Says as how them guys are gonna get throwed down on them eighteen hunnerd poisoned bricks.’
‘Stockpiling nuclear weapons is like kids with toys.’
Theresa whispered to herself.
She opened her eyes. Clorinda, she saw, was now playing volleyball with the lifeguard crew.
She shivered. An authentic prickly sense of doom had been induced in her by her recollection of Aleksy’s child’s-eye view of imminent annihilation falling from the sky.
The breeze had freshened and a chill ran along her forearms. Goosebumps had risen along their lengths, and Theresa had a sudden image of her grandmother, in the late afternoon before her death, intent on her depilatory beauty routines, which had
remained unchanged for over sixty years.
On her grandmother’s washstand had stood a flask of pure alcohol and a lighted candle.
Her practice was to apply cotton wool pads dipped in the alcohol, swab her arms and then apply the flame.
In the darkened room blue tongues of fire had flickered up her limbs and Theresa had thought then, once again, that her grandmother on these occasions resembled nothing so much as a blue-shimmering Rorschach Vishnu of an omnipotence undiminished by two withered arms extended in mirrored accord ... her very own Vishnu: divinity, saviour, protector whenever her world was threatened by evil, chaos, and dissolution.
Theresa’s tender memoir of those times, The Girl Who Got Away
, an ‘experiential self-narrative’ assignment for her therapist, still reposed in the washstand drawer.
In the weeks and months that followed the loss of her grandmother, Theresa had taught herself to inhabit every mannerism and inflexion of her late guardian closer than her own skin.
But now when she attempted to recall her grandmother’s warm presence any memories of her aura dwindled to a blue flame. She had finally confessed as much to Ettie.
‘Blue flames come from burning bones,’ Ettie had suddenly declared in an undertone, after the screening at the Psychiatric Institute. (A seeming non sequitur except Theresa had been seated with Esther in their favourite soda fountain; if you looked closely at the forearm of the proprietor you could see a six-digit number tattooed there.) But Ettie was not
speaking of the charnel fire-pits in the hell that was Treblinka nor of all the other death camps of the Shoah. No
Ettie’s resolutely skewed meta-ethical cure to objectify Theresa’s anomie was imparted when she matter-of-factly went on: ‘I’m speaking of Hiroshima. A mile from the hypocentre blue flames burned in the ruins from the remains of the dead. Now one nuclear bomb alone can vaporise six million of us in seconds.’ She had swept her hand in an arc to embrace the New York cityscape.
‘Then what should I believe? What should I do?’ Theresa’s lips were parched; there was a catch in her voice. Ettie had squeezed her trembling hands as if she’d never let go.
’s ever a bystander,’ Esther had counselled, ‘in our military-industrial wonderland.’
She sensed a shadow pass over her.
Two muscular hands seized Theresa’s wrists and raised her from the beach where she lay.
‘Hi there, slouch. Time for a dip.’ A rich baritone. Hearty laughter. Clorinda squealed.
Behind Theresa’s eyelids the blue flames of soullessness melted momentarily in the sun.