I am breathless from a morning of tedious phone chatter — talk I have talked before. Long conversations about how the wallpaper is starting to lift in my powder room — a bathroom with a small pedestal sink shaped like a clam- shell and a very low commode. No one will ever powder there; it’s hard enough to maneuver your body, let alone relieve yourself in the miniscule space. Still, I like the way powder room sounds, and Rona Karl has taught me a great deal about home décor since I moved to Wheatley Heights, a place that boasts of nothing taller than an intrusive water tower standing guard as you enter town.
The phone receiver is crushed between my ear and shoulder while I paprika a rump roast slumped in Pyrex. Struggling to stay tuned to the daily Listen to Rona Show, I slice an onion then blot the stinging with a wet dish-towel. Though my focus is blurred, I can see myself dividing.
One of me, appearing confident and cocky, is propped on the kitchen counter─ sleek legs dangling, shaking a head of wavy blonde hair and hissing at the other me, who, appearing embarrassed, tries to continue a conversation. But Confident and Cocky persists like a mosquito on its bloody mission. Blah, blah, tell me you’re into this garbage? Note: There are no signs of crow’s feet sprouting in the corners of Confident and Cocky’s festive, green eyes. Plus, she’s wearing low-slung hip huggers that fit her like a second skin.
“I was thinking, Rona, I might patch the wallpaper myself, with some Elmer’s.” This is how I often pose a question. Her response is predictable.
“Are you nuts, AL-UX? Do you want to ru-in everything you’ve done?”
“Of course not…you know better about these things.”
“Hold on,” Rona says without curbing her exasperation.
I slide the rusty roast into the Magic Chef and slam the oven door. Where is Confident and Cocky when I need her? She was right here a second ago where’d she go?
Stretching the phone cord to its uncoiled limits, I move to the den and begin dusting the bookshelves. My feather duster is held high like a magic wand. Poof! Make just one wish, Alex. Why is that so hard? There was a time when you had fistfuls of wishes— thought all you needed was the assurance of your beliefs to make them come true.
My shoulder bumps an ancient edition of Monopoly, which sends a slew of dependable cookbooks cascading to the floor. I rearrange the wobbly shelf and rub the grease off the cover of The Fifteen -Minute Quiche. Above the culinary section sits a shelf dedicated to the fine art of gardening and how I’ve learned to rescue my roses from the cruelty of mealy bugs and aphids. On the bottom shelf is a tower of decorating magazines, which have replaced all the fine art books and boast effortless projects like silk flower arranging and chic decorating with sheets.
But shoved in the back of the one skinny drawer of this flimsy teak wall unit, wrapped in a plastic bread bag, is my one little secret: an often-scanned, ear-marked copy of The Sensuous Woman by “J”, and the only book I own in the category of self-improvement. “J” offers a woman’s-eye view with detailed information on how to set off fireworks in the bedroom with tantalizing chapters like “The Whipped Cream Wiggle” and “The Butterfly Flick.” I’d bought the book after Becky’s first birthday not realizing I was already pregnant with Lana. So for now, I’m sticking to decorating with sheets, giving much less thought to what I could be doing on top of them.
“Got a pencil?” Rona’s voice blasts through the receiver, and I stuff the book back in its hiding place.
In the kitchen I fumble through the junk drawer. There are sales receipts for items purchased well over a year ago. A blonde Barbie head topples out and land at my feet. Rona’s breathing turns huffy. She has important things to do like removing finger marks from all her wooden railings. Still, I think she enjoys being my personal, household hint hotline, sharing her bible laden with numbers of service people in a ten- mile radius. Plus she never fails to toss out extra tidbits of information or local gossip: like who was last spotted slinking out of the Pickwick Motor Inn with Bernie Salter, the kosher butcher.
To keep Rona as a friend, I try not to scare her by reciting passages that pop into my head at inappropriate moments. Like now: This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. Lately, I fear my world might end precisely like this— talking about absolutely nothing on a lemon yellow wall phone.
“This Maybelline pencil will do,” I say.
“The number is 377-Pari…you mustn’t fool around. Call them now, Alux,”
I love how Rona alternates between her London and Brooklyn dialects—a vernacular that conveniently distances her from her eastern European heritage. “They must come and repair the paper before the girls discover the open seam. Then you’ll be sorry!”
I ponder the tragedy facing the Mylar wallpaper dotted with silver swans curling up the bathroom wall, but my pulse remains steady. I actually feel nothing. Nothing at all.
Excerpt from the Novel