Lovers & Latchkeys: Tales From a Greenwich Village Girlhood

Honor Thy Father

MY FATHER and I are on our way to our weekly shrimp cocktail and ravioli feast, to be finished off with a tortoni ice cream cupcake, dusted with almond crumbs. Or maybe the pale green slice of spumoni, with its surprising nuggets of candied fruit. Our destination is the little Italian hole-in-the-wall bistro a few steps down from street level near the Charles Street “apartment” that is my mother’s current stopping-place. She has one bed-sitting room, and I have my own, two floors above. (The bathroom for each floor is in the hall; a water-closet containing the toilet, and a room with a bathtub where you literally step into the tub when you open the door. There is no visible floor space. The walls of these tiny rooms are painted shiny Chinese red—for good luck? To obscure bloodstains?) I am allowed to have one pet in my bedroom—a white mouse named Melvin who lives in an old fish tank, atop an ever-mounting pile of cedar shavings.

Rather than clean his abode, I tend to dump fresh shavings in on top of the old ones; an early sort of home ­composting. But clearly, if I want to prevent his escape over the top, I will have to reduce the level soon. Also, the reek of mouse pee is becoming too pungent for even a twelve­-year-old to ignore. It’s a wild taste of freedom, my own room on the top floor of a Charles Street tenement. My mother two whole floors away! (This unparalleled freedom is my secret compensation for the nickname “Rolling Stone Riddle” that has been given to me as our frequent moves become common knowledge among my less-sensitive peers.)

On the shelf next to Melvin’s holding tank I keep a candid black and white Brownie Kodak snapshot of Peter H. taken near the fountain in Washington Square Park. Peter, attired in a spotless white t-shirt and half-unzipped black leather motorcycle jacket, is slouching the best James Dean slouch he can muster. Peter, Peter, Peter. He is my black hole of adolescent lust crystallized onto a 3 x 4 glossy piece of paper. He is terrifying. He, too, is twelve.

Nights, while Melvin soggily rustles in his springy campground, no doubt plotting his break-out, I gaze at Peter’s picture and marvel that this boy/man had actually danced a slow dance to Earth Angel with me at our crowd’s most recent Friday night record party. I worry a bit about what might be expected of me next time—some of the girls said they could feel “it” when their partners pushed up close against them during slow dances. In the meantime I can admire his garrison belt, his t-shirt, his thick dirty-blonde waves.

Of course, of this nothing is revealed to my father. Rather, at dinner tonight I am expounding on my latest take on the Ten Commandments. (I was experimenting with Methodist Sunday school, mostly because of the young basketball-playing minister at the Eleventh Street church that my classmate Judy had dragged me to one memorable fall Saturday.) I tell my dad that I don’t see why one should automatically honor one’s mother and father—Is that last shrimp yours or mine?—if they weren’t truly worthy of respect? I mean, after all, why should it be an automatic deal?

My father has a strange expression by now. He is pretty silent and doesn’t really rise to the bait of my question. He just keeps eating and then he orders another drink.

The ravioli somehow aren’t so good tonight. They seem to encounter a lump in my throat. Ditto for the tortoni. The almond crust tastes like sand. Some words cannot be taken back, ever.

Alone once more in my room, I take Peter’s picture off the shelf, then put it back. It’s Sunday night, with the school week stretching out before me like the African veldt in a story by that writer guy my mom likes. Before I will allow myself my nightly half-hour of gazing on Peter, I will clean Melvin’s cage. Yes! All things will be new and clean. I will redeem myself. I will earn the privilege of sinking into my fantasy world.

Nothing in this world came free. You had to earn your pleasures, your self-respect. The respect of others.

Even the respect of your own kid. My father should know this by now. Shouldn’t he?