I call my exotic sister Phyllis from the faculty lunch room at 10:30 Los Angeles time — prime rates. That means it’s 7:30 P.M. in Paris, and I can catch her in the few minutes she spends at home between the end of her workday at the travel agency and her evening’s activities — drinks with friends, dinner with different friends, usually without Bennet, whose work schedule rarely coincides with hers. Until the day she died, our mother Theda described her son-in-law as brilliant Benoît, the fertility expert (as opposed to my husband, definitely declassé Don). Phyllis met him at a gyn appointment during her junior year abroad. But no babysitters necessary for Phyllis’ evenings out, ironically enough.
The answering machine goes on after two rings — which could mean anything — and I’m paying again for “Desolés, nous ne sommes pas . . .”
Phyllis and I have only seen each other, briefly, every other August for the past eight years, when Don and I shepherd high school students through a two-week tour of Paris, Chartres, Versailles. But we’ve talked on the phone a little more since our Stephanie decided to take a semester abroad. Fall weather in Paris, how soon it gets cold, that sort of thing.
During August in Paris, the only language you hear is English, all the hotels except those run by the Japanese are booked, and even the waiters in the cheapest restaurants have stropped their condescension to a fine edge, so I guess it’s no surprise Stephanie wanted to have an autumn there without us. We shopped together for her trip, but I could see it had begun to be hopeless. I mean, we’re way beyond “do you really think you can walk in those shoes?” So, I gave a merely inner nod of approval when Stephanie — pointing out the futility of attempting to compete with Paris style — chose jeans with holes, grunge tees and flannel shirts, and I voiced a merely inner “are you sure about that?” when she added a long, drapey black skirt and stretch-lace black top.
I try Phyllis’ number again. I tell myself I’m not expecting anything in particular, though there was a time when, soft in the head, I almost thought my only other living female relative would gaze admiringly at our mother-daughter scene and get teary-eyed. It’s a ritual — announcing the successful completion of a plane trip — and Phyllis happens to live in the city where our daughter’s plane touched down, that’s all. Safely, I found out right away from Air France; Stephanie took two days to call and let us know.
“Hold on,” Phyllis says, as if we talked daily, “I’m just getting my cigarettes, taking off my earrings, trying to locate the fauteuil . . .” She says foe-toy like a regular New York Gaul. The phone clunks to a hard surface. Then a faint metallic ping. Probably the large beaten gold earrings by the black designer with the shop on West Fourth Street who exhibits at MOMA. My ear against the receiver begins to hurt. In ten minutes, I have to teach my ninth-grade civics class, a genial bunch of hooligans, but I’m not feeling very buoyant after this silent morning, Don gone early for a pre-school appointment with a parent, no-one yelling from the shower, “MOM! Pretty PLEASE! Bring me the cucumber shampoo!”
“Mom, oh, Mom,” Stephanie said yesterday when she called, sweeping momentarily back into my life in that voice that means either ecstasy or misery. I could see her collapsing into a chair, throwing an arm over her head, strands of her dark pony tail coming loose from one of those scrunchy hair things. “Chère Maman, je suis amoreuse,” she announced.
“You are?” I said, biting my tongue, thinking of French men on street corners, tilting girls’ faces to kiss them on the lips.
“With Paris, you doofus,” Stephanie said. “I’m like seeing it for the first time. No one’s barking ‘No straggling now! Look sharp! Two more blocks to the Musée d’Orsay.’ ”
I am panning Phyllis’s apartment now in my mind’s eye, while I tap my foot on the linoleum floor of the lunchroom — her phone receiver dangling from the table, she herself nowhere in sight. Phyllis lives in one of those impossible Paris locations — rickety door into an eighteenth-century courtyard, two dark flights up — that reveal surprising splendor. The interior was gutted and everything redone by the previous occupants, but, after they’d started a family, they moved to la banlieue. Ten foot ceilings, dark red velvet drapes, mirrors, gleaming parquet floors with Persian rugs. Her own little Versailles, Don said the first time we saw it. Don teaches mostly Spanish at the high school where I teach social studies.
“Nu,” Phyllis finally says, her voice bouncing off the satellite, through all those miles of space, and I can almost see her exhaling smoke. She is probably still wearing her elegant leather skirt, but has flat-footed it over to the armchair where she has curled up, tucking her stockinged feet under her. Her stomach has the slight concavity of the never pregnant. She’s probably still tan at this time of year, even a little leathery. My sister is a little too long in the tooth and nose for beauty, but handsome in a kind of arrestingly offbeat way, bohemian and reeking of luxe at the same time. “Nu,” she says now, exaggerating our roots, her accents and gestures ever promising what her clothes, furniture, and address deny, making me feel, in spite of myself, a warmth spreading in the region of my heart, a pleasurable expectation as if we were lying next to each other in our sleeping bags at a slumber party. “What’s nu by you?”
“Well, Stephanie’s arrived safely,” I say.
“I know,” my sister says. She knows? “Fuckit!” my sister says, “there’s someone on the other line, c’n I catch you later at home?”
But she doesn’t.
Phyllis is really my half-sister; we have different fathers. That understates it; we’re the products of two different eco-systems, two culturally remote epochs in our mother’s life. Theda left my father, who was a union organizer, when I was six. Until the split, she worked part-time as a bookkeeper in the garment district, packing my school lunchbox and shining my shoes each morning before she walked to the subway. After the split, when she had to work to pay the rent on our tiny new apartment, work became less and less appealing to her, and she entered her Blue Period. Telling me she was going to the library to look at the want ads, she took to going to cocktail parties given by friends of friends, wearing her one black silk dress under her raincoat. It was at one of these that she met Phyllis’ father-to-be. He lived on the Island, in Southampton, and owned an amazingly lucrative gourmet liquor store in the Village, the profits of which he had used to finance two small art galleries — also in the Village — that rarely made a dime. When my mother became very Blue, my father moved me back into our old three-bedroom Manhattan apartment on West End Avenue, where he still lived. When she was remarried and transplanted to the Island, when she had had Phyllis and hired the British nanny, and began buying those awful children’s clothes made by Florence Somebody advertised in The New Yorker, the arrangement kind of stuck — except for my bi-monthly sleepovers. You’ve heard of serial monogamy; well Theda (THAY-ta after she married Frank) practiced serial motherhood.
So, twice a month from the time I was about ten, until I won a scholarship to a large West coast university, I dragged myself from the city into that heady, strangely quiet, suburban air: first the subway, then the Long Island Railroad, then the cab from the station. I felt as if I were a former nursemaid or lady’s maid, hurried up the servant’s stairs for a visit to the Infanta. And she did have royal regalia: a Persian carpet under the four-poster bed, a zoo of Steiff animals rivaling F.A.O. Schwartz’s. Yet, while Theda grew more and more refined, taking up charity work, becoming an occasional docent at the Whitney or the Metropolitan, Phyllis, a precocious wise-ass, seemed to revert to Theda’s East Bronx roots, or Frank’s Brooklyn ones, spiced with the Cockney West End. When Theda left for a soirée, looking like someone outfitted at an airport duty-free shop down to the Hermès scarf, Phyllis, even at seven, riding piggy-back on my back, loudly whispered “Gottenyu! That’s some bloody get-up!” and we giggled uproariously. Of course, after I departed the next afternoon, Phyllis probably led Theda on my fashion post-mortem: “Eh, paisano, what’s with the effing penny loafers with black tights?” Phyllis was like a child born with the huge family shnoz which made everyone look twice at mama’s sweet little sniffer achieved by the wonders of rhinoplasty. And maybe that’s why I loved her so much. She was the kind to take the silver spoon out of her mouth and squint at the silvermark.
But she was also, in all her finery, the very proof of Theda’s arrival, and beyond that, she became the one who could point out how many more places there were for the Tedeschis to arrive at. When Phyllis arrived at Paris, no less, Theda, often accompanied by Frank, visited regularly every fall. Phyllis found Frank some connections with French artists he still regularly exhibits, and he still loves the cachet. Oh, sometimes Frank would fake-grumble about his expenditures on Phyllis’ behalf. Once, after I’d already been teaching in the L.A. public schools for a couple of years, when I flew to New York to visit my Dad for the holidays, Frank made some pointed inquiries over dinner at a Manhattan restaurant about how I’d financed my college education. But when Phyllis said, “Not a chance, Daddy dearest,” he chuckled happily.
Though she never gave up on the French connection, in the years before she died, Theda began to court her only grandchild as well. When she flew out to Southern California, on one of her rare trips to escape the worst of the New York winter, she came by to whisk Stephanie away from the Valley and junior high for a few days of Palm Springs pool and sun. I let her go.
We stood by the rented Lincoln on the last of those visits, while Stephanie ran back into the house for some last minute toiletry.
“So, how was Phyllis this fall?” I asked.
Theda looked up with slight surprise, as if it hadn’t really registered on her that I knew she’d seen Phyllis every year since she had married Bennett.
“She’s into alternative therapies,” Theda said.
“Oh, yes?” I said. I looked at her knobby arthritic fingers with their burnt sienna nails on the door handle of the car. “Help you any?”
Stephanie emerged and tossed her duffel into the back seat.
“Go ahead and put that in the trunk, sweetheart. Here’s the key,” Theda said. She shrugged her shoulders. “A little allopathy, a little homeopathy. So what can hurt?” Then she studied my face. “You have black circles under your eyes. You could use a little sun. Sure you don’t want to come?”
I looked at Theda’s low loose grey-blond chignon tied with a black grosgrain bow, saw the visions of collagen dance in her head.
“Thank you, darling,” Theda said, as Stephanie handed back the keys.
Dear heart, did I want to go? No, it was too late. Nope.
“No sunning without gobs of sunblock,” I said to Stephanie, hugging her and kissing her forehead. “No sunning at all is okay, too.”
I’ve had a recurrent dream for years now of lolling next to another female in an identical sleeping bag and flannel jammies on a Persian carpet. I am saying “Do you remember when . . . ?” Sometimes, then, the scene switches to East Africa. We are female age-mates lying close on the grass, being initiated together like the Nuer or Masai boys I’ve told my senior honors class about. All our lives we will loyally defend and support each other, even against our families. Her ear dangling many rings, Phyllis, actually eight years my junior, leans towards me conspiratorily, like a twin sister. “Don’t tell her I found out — Theda’s hot-footing it to the cocktail circuit,” she whispers. “Library, my ass.”
“Frankly,” Phyllis says to me, when I get her in, two days of no returned calls later, “this perimenopause stuff sucks. I don’t bleed at all; I bleed like a stuck pig. Bennett says I could start the hormones now. Gott in Himmel! Hormones yet! Maybe it’s time for a little drainage lymphatique. What a day! There’s blood all over the bidet. Excuse me a second…”
The phone clunks to a hard surface. Indistinguishable voices.
“Mom, is that you?” Stephanie’s voice asks a few seconds later.
“Stephanie! Where are you?” I am momentarily totally confused.
“Now where would I be, Mom? Aunt Phyllis invited me over. She’s taking me out to dinner.”
“She’s taking you out to dinner?” I repeat. Second your Gott in Himmel. “How did she find you?”
“Mother, she lives in Paris,” Stephanie says, “she’s lived here for 20 years.”
“And where are you going to dinner?” I meander on.
“Someplace with out-of-this-world mousseline des crustaces.” Stephanie sighs. “Pauvre Maman.”
I remember how she comes up behind my chair while I am grading and puts her arms around my neck. Poor Mom. “What’s that?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” she says. “Something with shellfish?”
“You still there? Sorry, a wee emergency,” Phyllis says. “I was in desperate need of a mega-tampon — you know, the kind that gives you toxic shock.” She giggles. “Maybe it’s time for me to think about having that kid –”
“– or adopting one. But what a hassle — all those diapers, all that throw-up. Ready-made would be better. About ten. Old enough to hold my purse while I try on gowns and breathe out, “Oh Mother, you look beautiful.”
“You’re on, then, Aunt Phyl?,” Stephanie asks.
“Yes, dear,” Phyllis says. “She’s a sweetie, your Stephanie.”
Have you noticed it’s always girls they want — these late-bloomers?
I want to say something like “Yes, I know, I know,” or alternatively, “Get your filthy mitts off.” But I don’t say either.
“Mom, we went to Berthillon!” Stephanie suddenly remembers. The most famous ice cream parlor in Paris has the panache to close during peak tourist August so Don and I can never take her when we’re there. “The chocolate is like melted brownies,” Stephanie says, “so good you could die.”
Time is slipping by.
“Are you warm enough?” I ask. “Do you have enough sweaters?”
“Now, now, mother,” Phyllis says. “Not to worry.”
Saturday, almost lunchtime in L.A. I am wondering what Stephanie is doing her first free Saturday evening in Paris without her mom and dad. She’s described her roommates in a letter we received this morning. There’s Nadia, who lives in Abu Dhabi, and Marie-Thérèse, a.k.a. Mimi, who has an Aunt in Lyon, and Tracy from Minnesota. “I cannot believe these girls,” Stephanie wrote, to make us feel good. “Get this,” she said, “Nadia has a lingerie consultant at Printemps who’s already called her up to describe the new line!” Where does a nice girl from Abu Dhabi go on Saturday night in Paris? And does she go with her roommate from Canoga Park? I have only a number for the concierge in the residence for women. No answer. I call Phyllis.
“I’m just fine,” she says, “you? Speak up, I can’t hear you.” There is lots of noise, some clinking, some music.
“Stephanie? I think she’s still here somewhere. What a bubeleh! Hold on, I’ll have someone look.”
“. . . Life is Sweet? No, I haven’t seen it . . .”
“. . . Darling, the most wonderful mousseline . . . I’ll reveal the name if . . .”
“Il y a quelqu’un? Non?”
The line goes dead.
I go into Stephanie’s room. It is preternaturally neat in her absence. On top of her bookcase is the flowered hatbox where she keeps her lifelong collection of soaps. She says she probably isn’t going to collect them anymore. In any case, I should use them, piece by piece, when she goes to college, always keep nice soaps in the bathroom, she doesn’t mind. I take the box of soaps and sit on her bed. Soaps in the shape of crayons, teddy bears, ducks, birds, pearl soaps, aromatic bath beads, bath salts, Metropol soap from someone’s trip to Russia, Kuala Lampur soap, French milled, jabon, seife, savon. Now my daughter’s head is turning in the land of heady scents, lavande, tilleul, vetiver, the land where ice cream flavors are called perfumes, where there’s an entire aisle in the supermarché devoted to shower gel in 23 flavors. I bury my head in her soaps, sniffling. Practicing. Dialing.
“Phyllis, what do you mean you think she’s somewhere around? She’s my only daughter, Phyllis. I have just been in her room inhaling her soaps. . .”
“There there,” Phyllis says, “there there.”
“What are you made of, Phyllis,” I say.
“Right now too much merlot and a whole lot of smoked salmon,” Phyllis says, and giggles. “She went home; I called a taxi half an hour ago. I offered her the maid’s room, but she turned me down. Your daughter is a little meshugge, you know, you should pardon my French.”
“I thought –” I say, about to spill my humble beans to a person who disdains anything but haricots verts à la crème.
“Think again,” Phyllis says. “And now, I must attend to my guests. I believe one of them is puking in the aspidistra. Wiedersehen.”
I have the feeling she has turned her back on me in the very room I am standing in. And I know, nonetheless, if she let me, I could hold my arms out to her, as if — half-sisters glued together — we could somehow still make a whole sister.
“So, how was the party?” I say to Stephanie when I get her in late Sunday night, cold-sober Monday morning before class Paris time.
“Fifty people I didn’t know, and I wound up spending the whole time in the kitchen talking to the caterer. At least he was friendly.”
“But — Phyllis — I certainly got the impression she liked having you around.”
“Yeah, but it’s not my scene, Mom,” Stephanie says, and launches into her imitation. ” ‘Oh puleeze, stay, Steffi!’ ” Stephanie says, warming up. ” ‘I have this divoine cream we can both try. Tserrific for those cottage cheese thighs. You should see the tushes on the goils in the gym who recommended it.’ ”
I giggle shamelessly. Last night’s dream flashes by again; it was Stephanie in her jammies in my own age grade! Then, somewhere between happiness and sadness, I plunge foolishly down the wrong path in maternal nonsequitor.
“Well, before you know it you’ll be home for the holidays,” I say, thinking of us, arms linked European fashion, late Christmas shopping at the mall.
Stephanie is quiet. “Chère maman,” she begins, her voice ginger with adult knowledge. “I’ve been thinking . . . I might not make it home. Mimi has invited me to her aunt’s in Lyon . . .”
“Oh,” I say.
Loyally, she rushes into the breach. “Know what Aunt Phyl said when I nixed the maid’s room for the rest of the weekend? Which, by the way, has bunny wallpaper and clouds painted on the ceiling.”
“No,” I say, registering, oh, yes.
“Get this,” Stephanie says. ” ‘But dahlink! We could have so much fun going to Estée and Helena and Calvin and Ralph. Just us two girls.’ ”
“Oh, Please Stay!” originally appeared in Potpourri.