I have a skeleton inside of me.
The bizarre, creepy quality of that thought never wanes. As a little girl, I used to catch my mom gossiping about our next door neighbor, a lady named Rexy Van Bibber who wore nothing but medium gray and ordered Chinese carry-out almost every weeknight. After my sixth birthday party, which, as always, consisted of a can of paprika, two large tubs of sour cream, my mother’s Hungarian relatives, and Daddy’s deaf father, Grandpa Joe (who did, in fact, look alarmingly like Jack Albertson in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Mom was at it again over poor Rexy. This party, as always, also included gallons of red punch and mouth-blown balloons hanging from the dogwood and maple trees in the yard of the rectory. After the Duncan Hines Red Velvet cake with creamcheese icing, the mismatched candles, and the strong European coffee, we’d relax out on the buckled brick patio and soak up the purple evening.
I’ve always loved evening. Even back then, as a chubby, bug-eyed little girl who also loved a good joke, that time of the day sobered me and filled me with peace. I know now it’s due to the fact that the clock never stops ticking down and the time for making the day’s mistakes draws to a sweet close. Even the circumstances in which to make these blunders fly away, for in the twilight we simply sit and breathe quietly, cross our fingers, and hope the phone won’t ring or the Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t come to the door. Good grief, if their spiel doesn’t usher in the loss of all your good intentions, I don’t know what does. Must be nice to be one hundred percent right one hundred percent of the time. I’d settle for fifty-one percent myself.
That night, Mom sat and stroked the inside of my forearm. Rexy materialized for a moment at her back door to let out her Persian cat.
Mom leaned forward. “Have you noticed the way that Rexy Van Bibber always looks both ways as soon as she steps out her front door? I think she’s got a skeleton in her closet.” Then she turned to my father, who rocked slowly on an old sliding cedar davenport Mom had painted lime green the year before. The paint didn’t weather winter too well. “What do you think, Carl?”
With a twist of his head Carl Bauer listened for the perfect A as he turned the peg on his guitar. Satisfied, he closed his eyes, eyes that had seen my face only until I was six months of age, and even before that, I was just a blur. “Well, Kathy, I don’t know, babe. She seems fine to me. A little odd maybe, but certainly not the brooding, mysterious type. You know, just eccentric. Probably nothing more than that.”
“Well, I think she’s got a skeleton in her closet.”
Dad shook his head. “Whatever you say, babe. But everyone has some sort of skeleton in their closet, don’t you think?”
“Not her kind.”
So that’s where some people kept their skeletons. The simplicity of the arrangement amazed me. And it made perfect sense to my six-yearold mind. Skeletons, being such ugly things after all, hardly deserved the light of day. The next morning, I proceeded to investigate all of our neatly arranged closets. My mother, Katherina Bajnok Bauer, boxed and labeled everything. She’s kept Sharpies in her pocket ever since I can remember.
Red for her own items, black for Dad’s, blue for mine. And my sister Tacy’s birth commissioned that final pen in the Sharpie four-pack, the bright LEGO green, lined up in the confines of her pocket according to age, of course. I never saw her without them back then.
I began the search for my skeleton in the cool recesses of my own closet. Good move, right? I mean, if skeletons lurked in closets, surely they lurked in the closet of their owner. Rexy’s obviously spent a little time there. And if Mom was right, it was a doozie. Did she hang it up in one of those vinyl zippered clothing protectors? Or did she arrange it in a box?
The scent of lavender sachet pillows, lemon oil, and cedar weighted the air inside my narrow walk-in closet, and the light bulb discharged a soft, pulsating pink. Clothes, in order of length, subcategory color, subcategory fabric, lined the right-hand side of the skinny cubby: coats, long dresses, dresses, pants, skirts, sweaters, shirts, shorts, and socks. Yes, Mom even hung up the socks, three pair secured by clothespins to one wire hanger. I did have an underwear drawer though. “Some things aren’t meant to be hanging in plain view, Lillie,” Mom explained the day I asked why boys are allowed to go without shirts but girls aren’t. “That’s why we have underwear drawers.”
Which explains why women don’t hang up their bras either, I guess.
And these days, mine would take up way too much closet space anyway.
I owned lots of clothing. We all did. Parishioners donated bags and bags, and Mom drew up a chart ensuring we wore at least a few garments from each donor regularly so they’d feel good about their largess. The rest—torn, stained rags, really—she threw out, knowing firsthand how insulting receiving such tatters could be. “It’s not good enough for us, but surely, it’s good enough for the rector’s family,” she’d say with a shake of her head.
Floor-to-ceiling shelves checkered the left side of my closet. Shoeboxes labeled in alphabetical order rested in neat stacks. Having been taught to read in kindergarten, I closely examined the S stack, but no mute bone-filled shoebox dwelled there between the Scenery for Puppet Stage box and the Supergirl Dress-Ups box. No box with Skeleton written in incisive, voltage-blue Sharpie letters resided in this proper little nook of our tidy, tiny manse.
Now embarked upon a mission, I hurried down the hallway and into my parents’ small, sea blue bedroom.
Maybe parents conferred skeletons upon a child’s eighteenth birthday, which might mean my skeleton waited, gathering a minimal amount of dust, in their closet. The same shelving configuration latticed the righthand side of the long, narrow space. My fingers slid over the smooth surfaces of the S boxes. No boxes marked Skeletons there either. What else might they be marked under?
Family. F-f-family. F-f-f-f. F-f-f-f. F.
So I checked the Fs for Family Skeletons because, knowing my mom, she would have grouped them together to save space.
“What in heaven’s name are you looking for, Lillian?”
“Just standing here, Mommy.” I shoved my hands in the pockets of my purple overalls and turned to face her, belly thrust forward, feet pigeoned.
Her chapped fingers fluttered back to the nape of her neck where they tightened the knot of her navy blue kerchief. She wiped her hands beside the sharp creases down the legs of her Monday-Wednesday-Friday maternity pants. The aroma of Tide, Mr. Clean, and Clorox puffed out with her movements along with a slight hint of Tabu talcum powder.
“You can’t fool me, Lillie. You’re up to something.”
And then, heavily pregnant with my sister, she knelt down on her haunches and settled my squishy, six-year-old body onto her diminishing lap.
I have no beefs with Carl and Kathy Bauer’s parenting skills. Other than high expectations, they hardly ever stormed and raged, except for the time I missed Ash Wednesday Mass because I’d lost track of time at the school library. “Lillie, it’s a holy day,” my father reminded me after mass, during which I’d made a commotion as I ran from the rain into the church, my feet sliding right out from under me there in the center aisle.
“I would think you’d learn to take my responsibilities as priest of this parish into consideration.” Of course I felt bad. Who wouldn’t? When you see a man set his life aside for God, it leaves you almost no leverage for a great retort. Ever. Ever. Ever.
Besides that, my tailbone hurt for weeks and I ended up with a B on that paper I’d been researching.
As I sat on Mom’s lap, I pressed my nose into her full white blouse, the Peter Pan collar ruffling my bowl-shaped bangs. She ran her rough fingertips up and down my slick blond braid. “Come now, Silly Lillie, you know I have mother magic. I can find anything.”
Keeping my face buried, I whispered, “I was looking for my skeleton.”
I gazed up into her face. “My skeleton.”
“In the closet?” She pressed a hand against her mouth, but amusement bounced around in her sweet nutmeg eyes.
“It’s not funny, Mommy. Rexy Van Bibber keeps hers in a closet so I thought maybe that’s where you kept mine, too.”
Fifteen minutes later, after hefting open the Britannica, displaying several diagrams of the human anatomy and explaining the term “a figure of speech,” she phoned the church office.
“He’s with a parishioner? Oh. But listen to this, Jean.” Her laughter, probably mingling with the church secretary’s, rustled my eardrum tissue all the way from the old, metal-cabineted kitchen to where I sat on my bed upstairs, examining the knobby bone-bumps on my wrists and ankles.
Well, Halloween never seemed quite as scary after that, I can say. At least not the part skeletons played. And even then I leaned toward jacko’-lanterns.
I have a skeleton inside of me.
The thought pops up with alarming frequency on first dates, especially those destined for some hall of fame of weirdness, or on nights most likely to make a girl feel she’s having an out-of-body experience.
So when Leslie Ferris, the newest male member of the “happening” singles social group I joined a year ago at Chesapeake Bay Baptist, reaches out his hand across the table at Della Notte, I see a skeleton hand. How can I possibly put my skeleton hand inside his skeleton hand? Talk about bizarre and creepy. Holding hands on the first date? Sure. But not with this guy. And a second date? Perhaps a few more minutes will open a previously unseen rose, but optimism isn’t exactly blooming here in Little Italy’s newest, sleekest restaurant, its wide curved window the only smooth thing about the evening thus far.
First of all, Leslie suggested we go Dutch as soon as he flung open the cab door…from the inside. Where did this guy’s mother go wrong? “I hope you understand, Lillie. But let’s face it, a first date isn’t the time to make a financial investment.”
Great. Here we go again. Curse those stupid bra-burning bimbos who sullied it for those of us nurtured by gentleman fathers, those who realize a female can be honored and served and basically elevated on a pedestal and still be a liberated roaring woman too big to ignore. As Saint Paul, via Dad, said, “There is neither male nor female.” But Daddy, now he’s special. He actually reads the writing of female Christian mystics (or rather, Mom reads them to him) and passes the books on to me and my sister. I know what a special relationship a woman can have with her Lord.
So much more intimate in character than a man can experience. My younger sister, Tacy, loves the mystics, or used to, but since marrying that Rawlins McGovern…well, I won’t think about that now.
Second, Leslie asked where I would like to eat, and I answered, “Ban Thai would be nice,” and he said, “I didn’t have that in mind. Let’s eat Italian.” Not, “Let’s eat Italian, okay? ” Not, “Thai food is a little spicy for me. Is Italian a viable alternative?” Just, “Let’s eat Italian.”
I mean, why even ask if my opinion meant so little to begin with, right? And don’t I have some say? I mean, I’m paying my own way here! Obviously he isn’t nearly as enlightened as Dad. It’s funny that someone who cannot see has a clearer outlook on the stuff of life than anyone else I know. It may not be fair to compare other men to my father, but it is my right.
And now, Leslie’s waxing and waning and waxing again about his pet snakes and how expensive mice are getting. But you can get them frozen now, which cuts down on trips to the pet store.
Is he testing me?
Maybe a little socially backward?
Most important, he is nothing like Teddy.
And why does this kind of guy always want to hold hands? Why didn’t that cute architect named Cliff make even one physical advance during the entire bevy of Monday evenings I accompanied him to his church-league softball games?
Baptist guys. So free and easy with other people’s hearts and emotions.
As my Episcopalian father might say, “Nothing a good long dose of liturgy wouldn’t fix right up!” And he’d wink. He’s been blind for more than thirty years but obviously remembers the power of a good wink. I’m glad. I love Daddy’s winks.
But this dating rigmarole hardly proves a worthy antidote to loneliness.
Twelve days of my life invested in Cliff, three months of listening for the phone, all for nothing more than twelve ice-cream cones at High’s Dairy Store and a couple of drives out to Pretty Boy Dam to stargaze. I thought surely he’d kiss me, but no. Not even a peck on the cheek. At thirty-one, I don’t have more than three months to dole out to the noncommittal types. I mean, if a guy reaches forty-two and still lives with his mother, something’s just not right. Right?
And looky there. Leslie’s wearing huge hiking boots. On a date. He retrieves his barren hand. “Earth to Lillie. Earth to Lillie.”
Earth to Lillie? “Yeah?”
“You were wandering off on me there, sweetheart.”
I wore a skirt for this? “Tomatoes do that to me, Les. And alfredo sauce always makes me so sleepy I can’t concentrate.” Which is totally true. See? Should’ve taken me to the Thai place, boot boy.
Times like these I wish I owned a cell phone so my best friend, Cristoff, could call me an hour or so into each date and fabricate an emergency at work.
“Oh. How about some espresso then?”
“It gives me…gas.” Which is totally a lie. I glance leisurely at my watch. We’ve only been together ninety minutes? Oh Lord, somehow I now see the earthly application of a “day is like a thousand years in Your sight.” Or is it the other way around?
“Well, I’ll just get some for myself then. Dessert?”
And heels, too. I even wore heels. “No, thanks.”
“I’m going to take the cannoli.”
The waiter receives the order and Leslie says, “Just bring the check back with dessert. Split it fifty-fifty, would you?”
Fifty-fifty? I didn’t even have dessert! Or espresso. In fact, I just ordered ice water and he got Sprite. And my fettuccine alfredo beggars his shrimp scampi by almost half.
With my chin in hand, I let my gaze journey up his blue buttondown shirt, over the lump of his Adam’s apple, and up to his face. Stopping at his mouth, I peer closely at the scooped bottom lip and I know as sure as I know my own gigantic bra size that scooped bottom lip will never get close to mine. It’s not that it grosses me out. But I am afforded no visualization of a future, nothing, only a swirling mist and a total lack of imagination. “Doesn’t it weird you out to think you have a skeleton inside of you, Leslie?”
“There’s a skeleton inside of you.”
He wipes his lips, eyes darting. “I’m not following you.”
“It’s not just bones. It’s a skeleton. Like, a whole skeleton. Right there. Inside your own body.”
“Are you okay, Lillie?”
I dig a twenty and a five out of my purse and lay them by my plate.
It’s all over! Nothing left to see, folks. Move along! Move along!
“See you at singles group on Wednesday, Leslie.”
And I stand to my feet, the sole survivor turning away from the wreckage. But I lied again. I’m not going back to that group. I’m desperate enough without hanging around more desperate people.
I’m not sure what he says to my back. Soon enough, the city streets swallow my deed, and my insignificance strengthens with each step homeward. I’d held out such hope for this one. And for the life of me, I sure can’t see why. Daddy’s obviously not the only blind one in the family.
I let myself into my old row house after the excruciating, high-heeled, thirty-minute walk home, and I proceed to pump out a few zippy miles on my exercise bike. Hey, I’m plump, not out of shape. Afterward I feel energized enough to reward myself by taking out my contacts and whizzing up a raspberry soymilk shake.
Not that I’d tell anybody else I enjoy the nutty taste of soymilk. It makes me sound so…so natural.
I slide in my socks on the smooth hardwood floors of the hallway back to my bedroom where my planner lies open on the bed. Only nine thirty, and I had blocked out another two hours for this date. Good. Plenty of time remains for a phone call.
Cristoff will love this one! I reach for the phone on my nightstand, dial the number of the apartment on the upstairs floor, and wait for my best friend’s answering machine to click to life.
“My smile is wide. My hat is doffed. You’ve reached the pad. Of me, Cristoff. So leave your words and make them few ’Cause I’ve got better things to do Like make a return phone call to you!”
I can’t help but roll my eyes every time his greeting chirrups in my ear. Not only does the poetry induce nausea, Cristoff almost never returns his calls.
“Another disaster to record for your book, honey,” I report. Yes, report. Cristoff records my dating exploits, in novel form, naturally. Talk about horrible. Passive verbs litter the pages and the words surreptitiously and suddenly appear over and over again. Daddy would be appalled as would all my undergrad professors, who were heartbroken when I got my MBA instead of an MA in literature. But Cristoff ’s writing, as well as old movies and Bible study—he loves that Kay Arthur with a passion—keep him home at night, away from the bars and a possible third detox stint.
He’s also working on a memoir. He hasn’t let me read it, and I don’t ask for the privilege.
“Hey, honey, it’s me. Pick up.”
He does. “How bad was it, sweetie?”
Cristoff ’s voice soothes the open wound of singlehood. Cristoff loves me and I love him. Oh, not in that way, of course. He’s the brother I never had. I’m the platonic partner he needs these days. What a family life he endured growing up! Some things you refuse to think about for long or you’ll lose your faith, if you know what I mean. We’ve had this “honey/sweetie” thing going for years, as though we’re Lucy and Ethel.
Unfortunately, he’s Lucy, which makes me—
“I’m lying in bed with a raspberry shake.”
“How many prayers of forgiveness so far?”
“So he was the jerk this time?”
“Just calling it like I see it, sweetie. You can be a little…well, disconcerting…to the lesser man, of course.”
Sounds good to me. Too good. “Oh please. Let’s face it. I’m a geek magnet.”
“And you know you write people off too quickly.”
“Only when they deserve it.”
“And when Miss Thing cops an attitude.”
“Okay, Gilbert!” Cristoff hates being called by his first name.
“You need me to come down? It’s only nine thirty.”
“Nah. Tomorrow’s Friday. It’s going to be a big day for both of us.”
“You know I’ll come down if you need me to.”
“I know, honey.”
“And you even wore a skirt.”
“I know. Heels, too.”
“Really? Wow. High hopes, huh?”
“Yeah. Bummer, right?”
He yawns. “So what happened?”
“I walked out on him. Just left him sitting all alone in the middle of Della Notte.”
“You’re usually not rude. He must have deserved it then.”
“Not really.” I sip my milk shake and pull off my glasses. “He was just a goofball. There’s no crime in being a goofball.” And I sigh, rubbing the bridge of my nose.
Cristoff pauses, then says, “You posed the skeleton question, didn’t you?”
“I’ll be right down.”