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Authors: Gina Frangello

Slut lullabies

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Slut Lullabies

Gina Frangello

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Published by Emergency Press

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Copyright © 2010 by Gina Frangello

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

eISBN 978-0-9830226-6-4

Contents

Slut Lullabies

How to Marry A WASP

What You See

Secret Tomas

Trilby in Brasil

Waves

The Marie Antoinette School of Economics

Attila the There

Saving Crystal

Stalking God

Slut Lullabies

I found out my mother was a slut from my best friend, at a bar with my secret Greek boyfriend who was possibly a homosexual and his uptight brother who pretended to know nothing of our affair. I was high on myself that evening. It was a buzz I got rarely, the way somebody who hardly ever drinks gets plowed after one sip. At eighteen, I had progressed from being a girl who never attracted much attention, to a woman who never attracted much attention—so this kind of evening, featuring me as the heroine of an illicit liaison, flanked by single, sexless friends who suspected but could not confirm my “other life,” made me feel like a tingly imposter with all eyes upon me.

I was dancing, I remember that. My best friend, Sera, and my lover, Alex, were dancing with me—not with each other, or alone, but each trying to be my partner. Sera was fiercely jealous of Alex, not because she was either attracted to him or because she didn't like him, but simply because he claimed my attention, and she was not accustomed to having to compete. She was used to being the flower around which all the bees buzzed; used to feeling magnanimous for allowing me to be the Queen Bee fed of her charm, wit, and loyalties on a priority basis, while others had to work hard. Alex's older brother, George, was hot for Sera, but this was of little consequence since he was a prematurely balding, stoop-spined twenty-two-year-old, who worked at their father's dry cleaners fifty hours per week, lived above the store, and had skin the color of flour-coated dough. If you yelled to him, “Hey, dude, where'd you put the beer?” he would reply in a Spock-like voice, “I believe it is in the vehicle.” He was weird, and while marginally sexy in a dark, mortician kind of way, definitely not Sera's type.

Sera and I were fond of bars. Though I was not prone to getting drunk on my own sexual power (even the phrase seems absurd), I was quite known for getting inebriated on just about anything else. We'd had fake IDs since age sixteen, but we'd started drinking when we were twelve, stealing from my mother's bottles and picking up an extra pack of Benson & Hedges when she sent us to the store to buy hers. We were not “fast girls”—Sera was a virgin, and Alex was my first lover—but like many young women who came of age in the mid-1980s, we were heavily into partying, dancing, dressing to the nines even to sit around at McDonald's or study hall, and doing “everything but” with guys we picked up at parties, since dating per se (the way Sera's mother described it at least) did not much exist among our crowd. You made out once, and then you either automatically became boyfriend-girlfriend (which did not necessarily involve dates), or you carefully ignored each other for the remainder of your teenaged life.

“I'll stop the world and melt with you,” Sera sang, shimmying her shoulders on the dance floor. Alex had told me once that he could tell she'd be good in bed because of the way she moved her shoulders when she danced. She was uninhibited, he said; he could tell. Since I was the first girl he'd ever slept with, I was unsure what made him such the connoisseur, but felt both oddly proud of Sera and flattered that he might be trying to make me jealous. “There's nothing you and I won't do!” She pointed at me and threw her arm around me—this song was laden with significance for us as it had played constantly in the discos during our senior trip to the Bahamas a few months prior. But my time in the Bahamas had been spent stealing away from my friends to sneak to Alex's room—he had even sprung for a single so we could be alone—and that Sera didn't know it made me feel treasonous to both of them, no longer giddy with my wriggling, sex-kitten abandon. So I stiffened, drew my arm away.

I don't remember the name of the bar. There were so many in those days. I don't remember what Sera and I were talking about, or how talking was even possible in the midst of her singing and competing with Alex for my dancing attentions (funny since I was not a very good dancer; inhibited, I guess you could say), but somehow we got from point A to point B. Point A being that Sera suspected I was “totally in love with” Alex—something in her tone made me bristle as if wrongly accused—and point B being that she did not want to see me make the same mistakes my mother had. “I don't want to see you turn into your mother,” was what she said, by which I thought she meantdivorced. I figured she did not want me to marry Alex because she feared he would divorce me due to his family's disapproval. Though I'd never discussed this worry with Sera, I assumed that, as usual, she had read my mind. “Oh, we're just fooling around,” I laughed, trying to sound worldly and laissez-faire to put her off. But Sera's pointed face puckered like I was something she had bitten into that had gone bad. “Emily,” she said, somber amid the music, “that's exactly what I mean.”

My mother was popular. She had me when she was twenty, so when I was ten years old and she was thirty, she still had girlfriends—all single or divorced—who came over and smoked Benson & Hedges at our kitchen table, wearing silk blouses that revealed tan décolletage. They had bouncy, feathered hair like Charlie's Angels, long fingernails, numerous shiny gold chains, and sometimes three rings on one finger. My mother got us a discount on our rent from Tony Guidubaldi, our middle-aged, married landlord, who also had a plumbing business and more money than most of the men in the neighborhood, even the mobsters. She knew all the bartenders; she never had to pay for drinks, her friends teased. I was proud of my mother. My father had been a heroin addict and car thief. I had a dim memory of watching him shoot up, but my mother said he never did that in front of me and that I must be imagining it based on something I saw in a movie. Mom kicked him out when I was three, and she heard he went to jail shortly afterward. Neither of us ever saw him again. My mother was like the women on the popular 1970s sitcoms:Rhoda, Alice, One Day At A Time. Divorced, independent, spunky. She made Sera's parents, who were only a decade older than Mom, seem about a hundred years old.

Mom was initially upset about Sera, who, when we first met at ten, was bookish and fat. While we spent most of our time in my bedroom playing elaborate imaginary games that involved things like Charlie's Angels living behind my wall and Marie Osmond secretly being my mother, Mom surveyed with anxiety out the picture window of our ground-floor apartment all the cool girls of the neighborhood, smoking their Newports and wearing their Italian jackets with red stars around their last names, emblazoned on the back. These girls, some only a couple years older than I, looked like mini versions of my mother's friends, and Mom ached for me to be one of them so I could have a good life. She encouraged me to dump Sera, saying I would look fat and nerdy by association (though I was a stick and didn't read much), but it was no use. I loved Sera with an intensity to which both my mother and I were unaccustomed—with the intensity Sera would later inspire in all our high school friends once she was no longer fat or buck-toothed or frizzy-haired, although still bookish, which had somehow become acceptable and even made her look a little like a rebel.

Sera's family had bookshelves withThe Brothers KaramazovandHouse of Mirthshoved alongside photo books of Paris with titillating titles likeLove on the Left Bank.Mom kept her Jackie Collins and Harold Robbins novels in a messy pile on her dresser and lent them to her friends when she was finished and never asked for them back. Sera's parents were fat and unpopular, too, but nicer to kids than any of the popular people I knew. They ate ice cream: there were always eight kinds in the house. Mom never had anything in our fridge except her unsweetened sun tea, which guests weren't allowed to touch. When Sera slept over, her parents didn't understand to feed her before she came (it must have been inconceivable to her father, the cook, that hisbella figlia mia, Serafina, would not be greeted at the door with a meatball or a cannoli), so we had to order pizza, if Mom could afford it that week.

Mom stopped going out when she got breast cancer my sophomore year. And although by then she had come to like Sera well enough, remarking constantly on how thin and cute she had become (as though she had not seen her in four years, instead of almost every day), once she got sick she began disliking Sera for a different reason. Now Sera wastoopopular—dragging me to parties every weekend, when Mom could see full well, judging by the fact that the phone rarely rang for me unless it was Sera, that I was invited by virtue of our friendship and not on my own merit. Having a daughter in high social demand loses a significant amount of cachet when you are dropping weight and in pain and have lost one of your breasts. When you are sick, you want your children to be hopeless nerds who have nothing better to do than sit at home with you. Mom was jealous, though when I told Sera's mother that in passing, she winced like I'd smacked myself in the face and said, “Mothers shouldn't be jealous of their children's lives,” as though Mom wasn't ill and deserving of any special consideration. As though she'd been wanting to say something like that for a long time—even when Mom had firm, perky boobs. After that, I didn't like Sera's parents as well anymore.

My mother assumed Alex was my boyfriend because he took me to fancy places for dinner, like Oprah Winfrey's new restaurant, The Eccentric, and I never had to bring any money. No variation of my “we're just friends” speech could convince her. I'd been working at Alex's family's cleaners since January, and several times Mom had come in and run into his parents. Each time my heart throbbed with horror that she might insinuate something about “our lovesick kids,” accompanied by a lewd wink or some other horrible sign. Then Alex's father would fire me, and I wasn't entirely certain that if I didn't see Alex at work every day, our relationship would long survive. (Albeit we were both beginning classes at UIC in less than a month, but all Alex's Greek friends would be there, too, opting to stay close to their clan. I obsessed: what excuse would we make to evenassociate?) But each time Mom dropped by, she was quiet, almost unrecognizably demure. I'd taken my job to supplement her losses when she started taking so much time off work. Maybe she felt shamed, like Alex's parents were giving her charity. Mom was on disability now; I made more money at the cleaners than she did off her checks.

I fell in love with Alex right away. I'd noticed him even before, in the halls at school, but he hung out with the Greek people speaking Greek, and didn't listen to the Violent Femmes or wear black vintage clothing or swallow speed between classes and drink beer out of McDonald's Coke cups. The Greeks were as foreign to us as the Amish—though once I knew them, I realized they only listened to dance music instead of alternative, wore shiny, tight clothing Sera's crowd considered tacky, and drank mixed drinks at sponsored Greek dances without needing fake IDs. Alex had no qualms about his Americanized Italian girl-employee hanging around his Greek friends, but we had to hide our romance in case they told his father. We never held hands in public or made out by our lockers like some couples. To compensate for the lack of visible drama, I wrote him long, moony letters in class declaring my undying devotion and calling us “star-crossed lovers the world aims to keep apart.” When he visited Greece after graduation, I sent him a bottle of Chicago rain, and later, my dishwater-brown ponytail wrapped in a blue ribbon when I got my hair bobbed to surprise him. Alex acted pleased by my new hairdo, but George said the ponytail was creepy likeFatal Attractionand had scared his aunts, who apparently had no qualms about opening their seventeen-year-old nephew's mail.

This had been going on for six months.

You may be wondering what kind of a person Sera was, that she would tell me, her best friend, that my cancer-ridden mother was a slut. You may be assuming that she said it in anger, out of jealousy that she did not have a boyfriend, that she was still a virgin, that I was leaving her behind. And on some level, I guess all of these deductions would be true. But on a more primal level, Sera's motivation had little to do with guys or even teen-chick competition. She purposely upset me so that she could comfort me. She did it because that was what she knew how to do—was what shedid—and, in retrospect, was why so many people loved her. She was the one who would point out that your boyfriend was probably cheating on you, and then take your phone calls four times a night and listen to you cry without ever tiring of your idiocy. She would play matchmaker between stocky, desperate girls and their hot, football-player crushes, and when things went wrong and the girls got burned, Sera would pick up the pieces. Sera would disguise her voice and call your mother pretending to be a proper adult for whose child you babysat, in an earnest attempt to enable you to go out on Saturday night, and then when the plot was ultimately foiled, she would scheme with you about how to break out of your house and concur that your mother was a bitch prison warden. She would get you high and then nurse you through a bad trip. Sera was everybody's mother, but a Mephistopheles of a mother, honing in on and somehow catering to your darker side and secret fears or desires.

Oh, don't think we weren't on to her. Behind her back—and to her face—we all agreed she was manipulative, controlling. But teenagers are notoriously bad listeners, fickle-hearted, and by and large fairly stupid about the workings of the human mind, or even about how to forge a school absence note that actually looks and reads like it was penned by a fifty-year-old. She was a rare commodity we could not do without, and we did not, really, mind the dramas she stirred up. We liked to be the center of attention, and Sera could make you feel like you were the center of her world—even if it turned out you were one of ten people to call her that night, and you noticed that she rarely called you. Soon she would be majoring in psychology, but she had been our shrink for years, and much later, in therapy myself, I would see that, like all great analysts, she had a certain ruthless immunity to other people's pain, just as a seasoned surgeon fails to gag when slicing through flesh and yellowed, bulbous fat to the blood and guts beneath. She was fascinated by being needed—by other people's capacity for need. That was her fix,herneed, and while I had not really considered the implications of my failing to confide in her about Alex—when being confided in was her prime vocation—I knew that my need for her was crucial to our relationship. She was the rescuer, and I often needed saving: from my mother's stronger will; from the advances of scary asshole boys; from term papers on books I didn't really grasp; from my future without direction. And now from the jaws of my mother's looming death, which truly was inevitable, we all saw. Sera and I had been friends for eight years, and like a married couple, we had our patterns. She would slice open my skin and fat and stir around my guts, and then she would stitch me back together. And I didn't mind, really. My mother had never been that interested in what went on under my skin—nobody had, even Alex. Her efforts made me feel loved.

“Before my dad opened the restaurant, when he was still tending bar at Cagney's, he said your mother slept with every regular at the bar and used to hit on him all the time. She had no pride, he said. She'd go with married guys just for buying her a drink. I don't want to see you like that with Alex, just because he has money, just because he's all Oh-I'll-Take-You-To-My-Condo-In-Athens or whatever. He'll never admit he's even dating you—he's totally going to marry some tacky Greek bitch with big hair—if he's evenstraight! Can't you see he's just using you?”

And I could. I could. I could have fallen right into her waiting arms.

But here is what happened instead: I became hysterical.

In the middle of the dance floor, while the Violent Femmes intoned, “One, one, one 'cause you left me,” I felt my face crumple into a grimace and whines well up between my throat glands. This is what I saw: my father, in a dark corner of the bedroom I would later know only as Mom's, a strap around his arm, tapping, tapping. Then, the arm flying back, strap flailing, as he smacked my mother's face. Some memoriesarefake: I know. I've had flashbacks of various grisly accidents I could never have experienced without being killed: cars plummeting off cliffs and the feeling of free-falling, the claustrophobia of chaos in a burning plane. Other memories verge on dream, like lying in my twin bed at night listening to the radio for so long that the Top 40 station turned into the religious station, muffled voices from my mother's room, the sound of something pounding the wall rhythmically, the squeaking of an angry bed . . . I knew.

Once, I'd even intruded. Once, when I was old enough to know what sex was but young enough to still think it could not apply to my mother—once, knowing Sera got to sleep with her parents when she had a bad dream—I stirred in bed, plotting, gathering nerve, then scuttled across the dark kitchen, conscious of the fact that roaches scurried out of my way, still frightened of me after all the years we'd lived side by side.I had a nightmare, I would say to my mother, and wait for her to invite me into her wide, white-sheeted bed, rumpled with the smooth cool skin ofher. I had the nightmare all planned just in case she asked: Satan lived behind my wall and I was going to have to marry him. But outside her door, I hesitated; I was aware of hunger scraping my stomach, but there was no food in the apartment. I had to pee, but I rarely used the bathroom at night because I didn't like the sight of bugs scurrying when I turned on the light and shocked them. “Mom,” I whispered. “Mommy.”

An arm on my shoulder. I whirled around, terrified, as though one of the roaches had grown to monster size—I yelped. But it was only Tony Guidubaldi, in my mother's striped terry cloth robe, his hand circling my shoulder blade like a broken wing he hoped he could repair. “Whatsa matter, babe?” he asked. “You have a bad dream? You lookin' for your ma?” But I burst away and ran the few steps back to my room, hopping into my sweat-sticky bed, listening to the caller on the radio say,I was saved seven years ago but my son. . . I waited for my mother to come and find out what was wrong—she must have heard me in the hall—but she never arrived. In the morning, Tony Guidubaldi was gone, and after that Mom started letting me spend weekends with Sera. Her parents took us on long drives to the Michigan Dunes, cruising in their green Nova for quaint coffee shops in Cherry Valley, where one could obtain the world's best apple pie. Years later, I said to my mother, “When you were dating Tony Guidubaldi,” and she said, “Don't be crazy. We never dated—he's married. We were just good friends.”

There are some memories that come from a kind of archetype of human suffering: the fear of falling; the hopelessness of trapped limbs thrashing everywhere in a dark, confined space; the itching sting of fire. I went through a stage where I loved all the made-for-TV junkie movies, imagining each addict was my father, and maybe, maybe I have transposed his image, his strap, his slap, on a picture I saw long ago: just actors playing a part. Not my father. Not my mother's face. There are memories that do not belong to us, no matter how real they seem. But for a week, Tony Guidubaldi's watch sat on my mother's bureau, and the following weekend, it just disappeared. There are memories that will always be ours, no matter how hard we will them to go away.

Sera had chased me to the bathroom, where I was leaning, weeping over a sink like I might throw up. “Emmy,” she pleaded, “it's no big deal. So what about your mom? She's not like that anymore, and you're not her—for God's sake, you're avirgin—”

“I've been screwing Alex for half a year!” I screamed. “We go at it everywhere—parking lots at night, the bathroom at work the minute George goes on an errand, the elevator at UIC after orientation. You have no idea—you don't know anything about me!”

“Oh, you're lying just to piss me off,” she said rationally. “You'd never do that; you're totally scared of guys. Besides, we made a pact. Youswore.”

“Duh,” I said. “I fucking lied.”

Even after she'd torn out of the bathroom, I lingered, sniveling and dwelling on my misery. I was just like my mother, who was dying alone at thirty-nine, jobless in a roach-infested apartment we could only afford because she'd boned the landlord for years, along with every other neighborhood asshole. None of them came around now. None of them would probably even show up at her wake, though maybe I'd get it for free if she'd fucked any of the Ragos who owned the funeral parlor. I would spend my college years letting Alex buy me things, shaking my shoulders on dance floors trying to be somebody else while poor George jerked off nights thinking about my tits, and then Alex would marry some Greek girl just like Sera predicted, or maybe he'd come out of the closet someday, but still I'd be kicked to the side of the road as an obstruction to his Athenian pursuit of tight boy ass. I was the world's biggest loser; I would believe anything; the first time I made a move without Sera and look what I did. I was a slut, and my mother was worse than a slut. My mother was already dead.

Back near the bar, Sera and Alex were arguing. I approached them warily, like a tired mother having to break up the public spats of her annoying children one time too many. Alex grabbed my arm when he saw me. He was a lanky, ethereal boy with fine features, too much fashion sense about women's clothing, and a soft, sweet voice; I had never seen him angry before. “How could you tell her about us?” he hissed in my face. “She's the biggest gossip in the whole school. We might as well go have sex in front of my dad!”

Sera pushed his chest. “Who do you think you are, pretty boy, Conan the Barbarian? Let go of her!”

“Mind your own business,” Alex whined like a baby. “Don'tyouthinkyou'vedone enough?”

She rolled her eyes. “Don't be a dork. I'm not going to tell anyone. I'm just mad that Emily broke our pact, so now you guys are going to have to make it up to me somehow.”

“Like how?” I said. I knew she was up to something, but I wanted it to be over quickly so I could go home. Alex had the car. I had no money, as usual.

“Well, we were supposed to lose our virginity at the same time,” Sera said. Then, with a flourish in Alex's direction, “We vowed ages ago. But now I'm going to have to wait till I get to Madison, because there's nobody here in Chicago I want to sleep with. I'll have to start college a bitter virgin.” She laughed—suddenly, she did not sound bitter. “The sooner I get laid, the less likely I am to be angry that Emily is so selfish. Then I'd have a secret to keep, too.”

“So go screw George then,” I said irritably. “He's totally in lust with you.”

“Eeew,” Sera said flatly. “I think not. Alex here got all the charm in the family. Alex, by the way, are you gay?”

“Huh?” Alex said.

“Bi, then?”

“Why are you asking me that?”

“Well, I wouldn't want my best friend Emily to get AIDS. If you're bi, I hope you use protection.”

Alex stared at me desperately as if for help. My arm felt bruised; I looked away. I wondered if my mother had fallen asleep on the couch watching TV as usual. I wondered what kind of girl goes out partying, losing her panties in the parking lot of her high school while her bald, breastless mother falls asleep toThe Tonight Show.

“Youarereally cute,” Sera said to Alex. I noticed then that she had never become truly pretty—that despite her new, nice figure and smooth hair and post-braces teeth, her face was somehow already old, lacked the dewy innocence of youth. We all worshipped her for being smarter and braver than the rest of us, but guys feared her for that, too. Brains don't go far toward getting guys in high school. Sera had never had a boyfriend—never even seemed to fool around with anyone we knew all that well. Our guy friends asked her advice about their naive, girlie-girl girlfriends while Sera collected dust like a spinster aunt. She must have hated us all: normal girls deemed stupid enough to date by the wannabe studs who were intimidated by her mind. Maybe she had a right.

“Emily and I always shareeverything,” she sing-songed. My eyes bugged. I glanced at Alex, but as I'd failed to come to his rescue a moment before, he refused to meet my eyes now. “I don't like to feel left out.”

“Come on,” Alex laughed. “You're never left out of anything. You know everything about everyone. What do you care what Emily does with a guy like me? I thought I was, like, totally beneath you.”

“Well, if Emily thinks you're so great, maybe I should reconsider. She's a very smart girl, you know.”

Alex didn't even turn in my direction at this compliment—if that was what it was. His body leaned in closer to Sera, and I thought then: he is either totallynot gay, or he is way smarter than I thought. Brighter than I was, apparently. Alex's laugh was suddenly throaty; I turned away, speechless. Maybe Sera would not really go through with it—maybe she was only trying to show me what a dog Alex was—how he'd jump at the chance to put his dick in any hole, even right in front of me. I was convinced. How could I let her know? How could I beg her, right in front of him, not to take it too far?

“So if you and Emilysharesomething, and it's both of your secret, then you'd keep it together and not tell anybody else, right?” His eyes were seductive—never, even in the moments before climaxing, did he look at me that way. Even under the stars, on the beach in Freeport where I lost my virginity, his eyes had been confused, ambivalent, worried. I remembered how the first time we'd tried to put a condom on his half-mast penis, it kept popping off and flying around the room, and how we chased it, naked at the shabby Tip Top Motel on Lincoln, time and time again, until his erection was lost and the condom was dry, so we just watched videos for a couple of hours and then went home. I did not knowthatboy could becomethisman. Always, I had imagined us as partners in crime: children throwing rocks at old ladies' windows, wild but harmless. I couldn't pretend I hadn't known Sera capable of treachery, but Alex . . . Maybe this was why Sera would win—would always win. I did not understand people; I looked at surfaces; I believed what I wanted to believe: in a grown-up mother who would invite me into her safe bed, in Charlie's Angels protecting me from behind my wall. Sera believed in turning human need to her advantage. And need would always win out.

I walked out of the bar.

George was leaning against the brick wall of the building, smoking a cigarette. I had never seen him smoke. His dark eyes were in the shadow of the neon sign; he looked like a Gothic vampire, or a detective in a 1940s film. His gaze flicked lazily over me, then back toward the distance, as though he were trying to figure out where he was supposed to be instead of here.

“Do you have any money for a cab?” I asked him.

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