It is Saturday afternoon and I am in the playroom. I am eight years old. It is the only room in the apartment I am officially allowed to spend time alone in bedsides my bedroom. It is a large space with sand-colored wall-to-wall carpeting and big toys. There is a wooden jungle gym, a life-sized black horse with a mane and tail made of real horse's hair, and a giant red and yellow plastic wheel I can crawl inside and rock back and forth in. The toys should be fun but I can never seem get things going. I always feel like I am first to a party no one else remembers to come to.
I am an only child, but completely lacking in the mythical powers of only-child imagination. Unlike Eloise, I cannot make a day of tending to a doll that has broken her head, or feeding raisins to a turtle. I have a nanny, Stacey, but she is twenty and is not from England, but a trailer park in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The highlights of her job are driving the Pacer my mother Babs has given her to use, reading Cosmo and smoking Virginia Slims in her room, rather than anything to do with me. I do not blame her. I am a little girl who offers no easy conversation and does not do tricks. I do not like ballet, do not want to be a princess when I grow up, and think cartoons are stupid.
My mother Babs is never bored and she has many things she does that are very creative. Her top three activities are her parties, scrapbooks, and Christmas cards. I am always in the scrapbooks and the Christmas cards, so I am glad Babs considers them important.
That day, after I hang upside down on the jungle gym for about five minutes, fall off the death-horse twice and hurt my arm, and spend as long as I can counting the stripes on the lime green couch, I decide to venture into the living room. I know I am not supposed to go in there by myself, but it really is the best room with the most for me to do.
The living room takes up one whole half of the apartment and is two stories tall. Instead of a wall, there is a huge pane of glass that goes floor to ceiling and looks out over Lake Michigan. It's like hanging from the sky in a Lucite box. You can watch the cars go up and down Lake Shore Drive right up to North Avenue and see the people sitting on Oak Street Beach. Babs loves it when other people tell her how drop-dead the view is, but I know she doesn't really care about it that much. She's much more into her decorating.
After her divorce, Babs redid the living room to look like a nightclub. Babs's friends call it "Club BarBarA" and she has matchbooks and cocktail napkins with this written on them. There is a purple, green, and orange velvet couch that covers the far wall and curves out like a "J" into the middle of the room. There are about twenty silver lamé throw pillows tossed on it with the initials "BB," for Barbara Ballentyne, sewn on them in sequins that match the couch. There is a huge black fur carpet that is soft like a baby poodle. Whenever I am having a really bad day I lie facedown in it, and I can smell Babs's Duchess Golden Lights cigarettes and her Georgette Klinger perfume. I pretend it is one her of her fancy fur capes and not some rug our cat Absinthe often throws up in and other people walk on.
My favorite thing in the living room is the spiral staircase that winds its way up to Babs's bedroom. The steps are big chunks of white marble and the railing is made of a long silver tube that curves from top to bottom like a crazy straw. There are also silver bars that connect the railing to the steps that I love to stick my head through or hang off of.
That day, I decide to risk a trip up to the top of the stairs so I can walk back down them, just like Babs does when she makes an entrance into one of her parties. On the first step, however, I find Babs's scrapbook scissors next to a Majolica cup filled with her cigarettes. I love these scissors: the blades are long and silver like swords and the handles are gold and encrusted with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. The handles manage to be bumpy and smooth like a seashell sticky with sand and sometimes I put them in my mouth and suck on them. They have a metallic taste that is inexplicably sweet.
I pick them up and put them against my cheek. The blades are cold but comforting and rubbing them on my face makes me feel sleepy. I know I am not supposed to touch these scissors, that they are very valuable, but I have the sudden idea that if I get good at cutting things maybe Babs will let me help her with her scrapbooks. Maybe I could even work on them in the playroom and I would have something to do. I don't have any paper handy so I just take a big section of hair in my right hand and cut. I am surprised at how easily it comes off. The snipping sound is clean, powerful and decisive, unlike most of my efforts.
Once the hair is severed from my head, I look at the scissors and panic. There is hair in the blades and I am sure I will get caught. I bundle the strands I am clutching in my fist into something like a bird's nest and stuff them under the corner of the rug. I wipe the scissors carefully with the corners of my dress and put them back on the step. They look clean to me and I am almost convinced I will not be found out. I'm too worried to risk any more time in the living room, so I decide to go find the grown-ups.
Babs is in the kitchen talking to Harriet, who comes over almost every Saturday afternoon to drink Bloody Marys and eat eggs. They are both smoking and ashing into their plates, standing over the white Formica island. Babs is wearing short white shorts and a Playboy Bunny tank top, which is white with the silver bunny head in rhinestones.
Babs has blond hair she wears up in a messy French twist and brown eyes that are cut through with tiny shards of green. Babs is beautiful in Grace-Kelly-kind-of-way if Grace Kelly drank vodka in wine glasses and hit little kids. Babs only slaps me in the face when she is really, really mad, but there is still something physically scary about her. She is very tall and I can't just touch her whenever I want. I can kiss her at bedtime but that's about it.
The day I cut my hair, Babs is barefoot and her toes are painted a glossy orange. I love Babs's colored toes. They make me think of my favorite candy, Chuckles. Once, when I was about six, I asked Babs if I could sprinkle sugar on her toes and she said, "Don't be an idiot, Bettina."
I slide down in a corner of the kitchen where Babs and Harriet can't easily see me. I know they will eventually, but for now I just want to hear them talk. Sometimes when friends are over Babs is really nice to me and even does things like say "Hi, Loafie." "Loafie" is really short for "Meatloaf" which came from the fact I was such a chubby baby. It isn't the best nickname since Babs hates fat people and fat children especially, but it sounds friendly and soft like a pillow. Also, I am now one of the skinniest girls in my grade, so who cares what I looked like as a baby.
Harriet is not pretty like Babs, and this is probably why Babs is friends with her. She has curly hair with grey in it and big teeth and laughs at whatever Babs says. Harriet is just a daytime friend. She is never invited for dinner when other people come. I am sure Harriet thinks if she just keeps showing up, Babs will bump her up on the roster, but I know this will never happen. Harriet bites her nails and her thighs puff up where her shorts end. She has hair on her toes and never uses nail polish. Harriet only gets to come over because none of Babs's other friends are divorced yet. Harriet also has no children so she only has to leave when Babs wants her to.
Even though Harriet just gets eggs on Saturday, I hate her. She stepped on my hand once with her ugly brown sandals and she did not say sorry.
That day, of course, Harriet spots me immediately. She can feel my kid vibe and it bugs her. She wants me out. Of course, she pretends otherwise: she cocks her head like a dog, opens her eyes really big and turns up the corners of her mouth and says "Hi, Bettina!" Harriet can't even pull this niceness off and her facial contortions just make her look like a scary clown.
Babs looks at me sitting on the floor and says, "What the fuck have you done to your hair?" Babs says fuck all the time. It is not always a mean word, but today it is.
"Nothing," I say. I have forgotten about Babs's scissors while thinking about Harriet. I have not seen myself in the mirror so I am surprised she can tell. I touch my right ear and all I can feel around it is air.
"Bettina, lying isn't going to fly, babe." She says this flatly and turns to run water over her lit cigarette before throwing it in the trash.
I say, "Nothing," again, hoping that somehow saying this twice will make it not a lie but it doesn't work. Babs still looks mad.
Harriet turns to me with her arms folded and acts concerned. She holds her cigarette out to the side and squints her eyes like this development is deeply troubling to her. I know, however, she is quite excited and I have done her a big favor. She is suddenly on par with Babs, since, unlike me, she would never be stupid enough to cut her own hair.
"It's not fucking nothing," Babs says calmly. "Your hair looks like shit and we have the Christmas card picture next week." Harriet shakes her head slowly.
I did not know that the Christmas card was happening. I start to feel really worried. Babs doesn't walk over and touch my hair, like suddenly I am hoping she will. Maybe she can pull at the ends, rearrange it somehow, and it will look ok. Instead, she keeps standing there, assessing.