June 5, 1943
I’m really quite unremarkable when you see me in right profile. My chin is weak, and my nose is slightly prominent, but most people would probably find my appearance inoffensive from that angle. The problem, Dear Reader, is the left side of my face, where my upper lip, lower eyelid, and entire cheek are misshapen, rough-textured, and dark purple, the color of clotted blood. Some 20 years ago my father took one look at his newborn daughter and ran off. I can almost understand.
It didn’t take me long to sense that something was wrong. I noticed early on that people seemed startled when they first saw me, for just that instant before they regained their composure. Mother sheltered me as long as she could. She distracted me with frilly little ballerina dresses and furry slippers with cute bunny ears, and she hung our only mirror high on the wall. One day I dragged a chair up to the mirror and climbed up. I suppose that was when I first learned to turn my face instinctively whenever anyone came near.
Mother is an educated and cultured woman, a concert pianist of international reputation, and she taught at a music school in Manhattan that I’m sure you’ve heard of. She’s also a kind and loving soul. She probably still believes deep inside that somehow it’s all her fault. She cut short her career to home-school me, and I’m grateful for the broad and thorough education she gave me in the arts and sciences, and particularly in music. The Baroque composers are my favorites. Bach most of all. His preludes and fugues are so structurally perfect, so mathematically precise.
After my father left, we went to live with my maternal grandmother on the North Shore of Long Island. Several years before, Nana and Grandpa had bought an old, weathered wood-frame house with a storefront. They painted the façade fire engine red and opened a penny-candy store, mainly because stocking it required only a minimal investment. The profit margin was slim, but they managed. I never did know Grandpa. He died a few weeks after I was born. Since we came, mother has been helping out with expenses by giving piano lessons to several children in the neighborhood.
Some might consider the store quaint. It’s long and narrow, with a 12-foot-high tin ceiling, three hanging leaded-glass lights, a ceiling fan, and raw wide-plank flooring. A glass display case over the counter holds trays of Tootsie Rolls, gumballs, candy cigarettes, and the like. The store is musty, like most old buildings near the shore, and if you have a keen sense of smell, you may still detect a trace of Grandpa’s Blue Boar Rough Cut pipe tobacco. (Nana keeps one of his old tins on her dresser as a memento.) We live in the small apartment upstairs. Nana and Mother share one bedroom, and I have the other to myself.
It’s late now, and it’s been a long day. But before I put down my pen, I want to clarify one point: What you’re reading here is nothing more than random scribbling, and certainly not a diary in the making. The distinction is notable in that a diary requires a daily commitment. I may add a few notes in the days to come or I may not. I’m not sure that there’s much left to say.
When I started writing yesterday, I had no idea that it would be so emotionally exhausting. Every paragraph, every word has been a trial. And yet here I am, back at it today. I wonder what is motivating me. Am I trying to take a step back from my life, to analyze it clinically from a safe distance? Or is this a simple exercise in self-pity?
As for you, Dear Reader, I don’t know who you are—or, for that matter, whether you will ever exist. I gave you a tentative life, and I can dispatch you at any time, instantly snuff you out, simply by destroying these notes. Please understand, I didn’t create you solely for need of an imaginary friend. I’m a solitary creature by nature and entirely by choice.
You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the war so far. I try to think about it as little as possible. The news from the front is seldom encouraging, and the government most certainly controls it tightly to maintain our morale. And yet the war intrudes into every little recess of our daily lives. Today marks exactly eighteen months since the raid on Pearl Harbor, and still there’s no end in sight.
Please forgive the several-day lapse, Dear Reader. But I did give you fair warning.
I may have left you with a misimpression the other day. I’m not a total hermit. I do have a friend, Dolores, a young woman about my age who lives just down the street.
She’s relentlessly cheerful and optimistic, qualities that I often find irritating. Her saving grace is that she’s one of the few people whom I don’t seem to frighten and who don’t frighten me. She’s been a steady candy customer at our store ever since she could walk, so she’s had ample time to become used to the way I look. She usually stops by on Sundays, when the shop is closed. If the weather is fair, we take a stroll down to the park alongside the Sound.
She’s well versed in all my habits and idiosyncrasies by now. She knows, for instance, that I prefer not to leave the house until nearly sundown, when most people are already home for supper. And when those who are still out stare, as they often do, she glares at them until she shames them into turning away. She takes great pride in being my protector. Although I’m grateful for her loyalty, I’m sure it doesn’t require all that much sacrifice, since it’s not her they’re staring at. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m just her good deed for the day. But I suppose I owe her the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe I’ll write again tomorrow.
It’s late Sunday, almost evening, and Dolores hasn’t shown up, so I suppose she’s not coming today. Maybe that’s just as well. I’m quite contented to be alone in my little room upstairs, safe and snug inside my own mind. And it’s a good mind.
I’m never bored when I’m alone. I read, and sometimes I listen to my records or the radio stations that play classical music, or I play our old Knabe. (Space and money were in short supply when we moved in with Nana, so Mother had to settle for a used upright.) Mother started teaching me to play when I was three.
Sometimes I try to imagine what playing a concert grand such as those in Mother’s music school would be like. She says each practice room held two perfectly tuned nine-foot Steinways, and she drifts off in rapture when she recalls their feather-light action and purity of tone. She says they could evoke any sound from a sigh to thunder.
Of course I’ve often dreamt of attending a live concert. I’ve even half-thought of embracing some exotic Middle Eastern faith whose requisite veil would free me to go wherever I choose without attracting too much attention. But religion is a touchy subject with me. I’m clinging tenuously to whatever remains of my faith in God.
The latest news is that Britain has launched a massive air strike on Düsseldorf, with 800 bombers pounding the city throughout the night. The reports describe the raid as “profitable” in terms of damage to industrial facilities, but they say nothing about civilian casualties. They never do.
I heard that the Brits have adopted an “Area Bombing Directive” that now includes civilian areas as targets. I mentioned that when Charlie, our postman, came in the other day, and he looked at me as if I were speaking in tongues. “As I recall,” he said rather tartly, “the Krauts are the ones who started it.”
I suppose I shouldn’t let him vex me so. The war hasn’t really touched me personally so far. But I shouldn’t forget that both of his sons are stationed in Europe, and often he doesn’t hear from them for weeks at a time.
I’m worried about Nana. She seems to be growing weaker and more forgetful every day, and she can’t catch her breath after even the slightest exertion. Lately Mother and I have been trying to take on more of the work in the store. Mother helps Nana during the morning shift, and I have the afternoons alone.
The absurdity of that arrangement, of course, is that the afternoons are mostly when the children come, and I’m the last person who should have any dealings with them. I tend to frighten them. What’s more, I’m not particularly fond of them, and I’m not adept at concealing that fact. They storm our shop on their way home from school, clutching their pennies in their sweaty little fists and expecting—demanding—my immediate and undivided attention. When school lets out for the summer at the end of next week, they’ll be swarming here all day long.
I’ve known some of them for years. I know their faces and voices and many of their names, despite a lack of interest or effort on my part. There’s the pale, bookish boy with thick glasses and crooked teeth who stutters badly. I think his name is Arnold. And there’s Stuart, who has a problem with personal hygiene. (I shan’t go into detail.) Karen is a pretty little girl, but precocious. I overheard some of the children snickering the other day about how she was caught playing doctor with Jimmy Harris. And Melissa is an annoying child whose pudgy face and round little mouth remind me of a puffer fish. I’d never want a child of my own, even if it were remotely possible.
The few adults who stray into our shop all act as if they’d received identical instructions on the proper way to address me without hurting my feelings. They’re on their best behavior, polite to a fault, although they’re clearly uncomfortable in my presence. They seem to regard me as an inanimate obstruction. Rather than look directly at me, they fix their gaze somewhere behind me, though occasionally I catch them sneaking a glance at my face. I can sooner tolerate the children. They stare openly, without pretense.
I had the most terrifying nightmare last night. I was drifting and tumbling in space, infinitely far from Earth and Sun. I had no form, no substance, none of the basic human senses, no communion with anyone or anything. I simply existed, an abstraction without past or future, beginning or end.
One needn’t be a Freudian scholar to understand what it means. Nana is old. Someday, maybe someday soon, I’ll lose her. Eventually I’ll lose Mother as well.
This afternoon a girl and boy I’d never seen before came in. I think they’re twins. They seemed about the same age, maybe nine or ten. He was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill sort of boy, husky and rough, his voice abrupt and aggressive. And she seemed delicate and almost ethereal, with a pale, oval face and lovely long dark hair. She called him Billy, but I didn’t hear him say her name. I wonder whether they’re new in the neighborhood or just visiting.
It’s nearly midnight now, and I’ve been putting off going to bed because I’m still shaken by last night’s terror. Maybe I’ll be back tomorrow if I can sleep at all tonight.
I’ve been thinking how hard life has been for Nana, especially after Grandpa died. She told me that just last year, after having survived the Depression, she became resigned to losing her store. The war had cut off sugar supplies from the Philippines, and the government imposed sugar rationing. Somehow the candy manufacturers managed to get their products designated “essential foods” exempt from rationing. Whether candy can logically be considered essential is something I’ll leave for you, Dear Reader, to ponder.
In case you’re reading this in the far distant future, I should also mention that virtually everything—meat, butter, milk, gasoline, clothing—is being rationed. And everyone, young and old, seems to be committed to the war effort. We salvage scrap of all sorts every day: tin cans, old pots and pans, broken metal toys, worn tires, hoses. And the children go door-to-door collecting bundles of newspapers, for which they earn cloth chevrons for their coat sleeves. They also collect wads of tinfoil, which is shredded and dropped over bombing targets to confuse enemy radar.
Some people have even replaced their cars’ bumpers with wooden two-by-eights. But I shouldn’t be too surprised if one day after the war is long over, maybe 25 or 30 years from now, someone discovers a huge abandoned warehouse piled floor to ceiling with bumpers.
On a merrier note, the twins were back today. I was happy to see them, especially the little girl.
According to the newspaper, our air force has won a dramatic victory over Guadalcanal. I didn’t read past the first paragraph, which said that 107 of the 120 attacking Japanese planes were destroyed, while our losses were “minimal.” Are you as skeptical of such a skewed result, Dear Reader, as I? And don’t the people who celebrate such news comprehend that those cold statistics represent scores of human tragedies on both sides?
I was worried that Billy and his sister weren’t coming today, but they arrived late. Billy was noisy and impatient, as usual, but I enjoyed my brief conversation with his sister. She seems to take my appearance in stride.
It’s Saturday, and the twins were here early, right after lunchtime. I tried to rush Billy along so I could spend a little extra time with his sister. She’s a clever child, a delightful mystery. She dips her chin, raises her eyes, and speaks in a precise, barely audible whisper. I’m fascinated by the way her lips exaggerate vowels, especially the ohs and oohs. She seems a bit withdrawn, but I managed to make her smile several times.
Late this afternoon, just as I was closing up the shop, Dolores stopped by. I wasn’t expecting her on a Saturday, and I’d been looking forward to retreating quietly to my room. But I didn’t want to turn her away, so we took our usual stroll down to the shore.
I must admit that I’m not always eager to see Dolores. She invariably opens the conversation with a comment on the weather—something like, “What a glorious day,” or “What a dreary day.” So far I’ve managed to ward off the temptation to say, “What a clever observation.” Then she rattles on and on about her new bonnet or shoes or the annoying manager at her part-time job at the five-and-dime. What’s worse, she’s become addicted to a treacly soap opera, “Mary Noble, Backstage Wife.” She rushes home every afternoon at four so as not to miss it. And she thinks I have nothing better to do than listen to her digest of the latest episode of “a little Iowa girl who married one of America’s most handsome actors.”
Of course, we both avoid certain topics. For example, I never discuss the war with Dolores. Freddy, her high school beau, is stationed somewhere in the Pacific, and I don’t want to remind her that he may be in harm’s way. Exotic places I’d never heard of—Bataan, Midway, Guam, Wake Island, Okinawa— keep cropping up in the news, but Dolores has no idea where Freddy is. Soldiers’ mail from overseas is strictly censored, and any mention of troop locations and movements is blacked out.
In turn, Dolores avoids discussing her romantic life with me, because she knows it’s something I’ll never experience. But if she thinks that hearing about her little intimacies with Freddy would make me envious or depressed, she needn’t worry. He’s decidedly not my type.
I suppose some women might find his rugged features and burly frame attractive in a common sort of way, but I see him as a caricature of manliness. Before he joined the military, he’d cut the sleeves off his tee shirts to show off his biceps and tattoos. And his notion of culture is playing the jukebox at the local tavern. What bothers me most is his vacant stare, that perpetual look of incomprehension. Dolores is hardly a sophisticate, but I’m sure she could do better. Someday I may work up the courage to tell her.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’ve spent most of the morning reading and rereading my notes from yesterday. I’m so ashamed. It’s all mean-spirited and self-deceptive. When I said that Freddy isn’t “my type,” that raised the obvious question: Who, exactly, is my type? And, more to the point, whose type am I?
To be honest, I do envy Dolores’s relationship with Freddy. He makes her feel important and desirable and loved. Sometimes I imagine them parked in a dark lover’s lane, necking and petting and French-kissing. I wonder whether she’s gone all the way with him. Of course I’d never ask.
Though I’m not personally attracted to Freddy, sometimes I can’t help thinking about being with him, or with other men, being held down and groped and feeling utterly and gloriously helpless. I wish these thoughts would stop tormenting me. And I do hope Mother or Nana never sees these notes. Mother might understand, but Nana would be shocked. I keep my notes in my night-table drawer, always under lock and key.
After Dolores was here yesterday, I was surprised to see her back this evening. She stayed only a few minutes, just long enough to tell me how depressed she was because Freddie hadn’t offered to marry her before he went overseas. It’s something she’d never mentioned to me before. She said she couldn’t understand why he insisted on waiting until he was back from the war. I don’t think she actually expected me to comment. She just needed someone to listen. Besides, I think she already knew the answer.
I’m not sure, Dear Reader, that I still believe in prayers, but I’ve been saying them every night for Mother, Nana, and Grandpa—and for my father, wherever he may be. Tonight I’ll also pray for Freddy and Dolores. I only hope that my prayers will be sincere.
Something important may be happening. According to the news reports, allied bombers are concentrating on targets all along the coast of Sicily, and some commentators predict a major offensive soon. From what I understand, the Italians don’t have their heart in the war. Dare I hope that the fighting will soon be over, at least in Europe?
By the way, when the twins came today, I couldn’t resist slipping a few extra candies into the girl’s bag. I know it wasn’t wise to set such a precedent, but I was enchanted when she held the bag open to show me that I’d “made a mistake.” I just smiled and waved her away.
I still don’t know her name, but no matter. I’ve decided to name her myself, as if she were my own child. It will be something only I shall know, at least for the foreseeable future.
I’ve settled on Selene, after the Greek goddess of the moon. I’ve always loved the Greek and Roman myths. And the one about Selene has always been my favorite. I can picture her, dressed in silver crown and cloak, arcing across the night sky in a silver chariot drawn by a pair of winged white horses.
The details vary from one ancient poet to another, but the most common variation tells of Selene’s passion for Endymion, a beautiful but mortal shepherd. She longs to spend eternity with him, so she implores Zeus, Endymion’s grandfather, to make him immortal like her. But Zeus allows Endymion to decide his own fate, and Endymion chooses eternal sleep. And so Selene is fated forever to slide down moonbeams each night to be with her ageless lover, to ravish him while he slumbers in his cave. It’s a haunting tale, like a pastorale that ends on an unresolved chord.
When my Selene arrived today with Billy, I slipped and called her by her mythical name. Neither of them seemed to notice, but I must be careful.
I added a few extra candies to her bag again. She must know by now that it’s not a mistake. Making her smile has become my daily mission. It’s an even trade, because she makes me smile too. I find myself waiting eagerly each afternoon for school to let out. After she leaves, I wish away the rest of the day, trying to hasten her return. What is this obsession I have with the child?
Selene was here again today.
I long to know her better, to know everything about her: her favorite color, animal, flower, book, movie, toy; her lucky number; her birthday; her favorite subject in school; what she wants to be when she grows up; whether she has a crush on a boy; whether she likes classical music—and if so, her favorite composer. (If I were to guess, I’d say one of the French Impressionists. Perhaps Satie?) But she’s a sparrow perched skittishly on my wrist. I ask cautiously.
I feel depressed. By the time Selene and Billy came in today after school, Andrea, the puffer fish-child, was already here. She may have sensed my haste to move her along. She kept dragging out her selections and changing them. I’m convinced that it was deliberate. By the time I was done with her, more children had come in clamoring to be waited on, and I barely got to say hello to Selene.
Today, Saturday, is a bleak, bitter day.
Usually Selene and Billy arrive together, but today she came just ahead of him. She was just starting to order when he raced in and shoved her aside, almost knocking her down.
I could barely control my anger. I don’t remember exactly what I said. It was something like, “Just for that, you’re not getting any candy today, Billy. Don’t bother coming back until you’ve learned to mind your manners.”
Billy narrowed his eyes, pressed his lips together, but backed away. Selene finished her order and handed me six pennies. But as soon as I gave her the candy, Billy lunged forward and slammed his palm down on her wrist, knocking the bag out of her hand and spilling the candy onto the floor. Then he was out the door.
Selene pressed both hands to her eyes and began to cry, a tragic little whimper that built into a piercing howl. I hurried around the counter, knelt in front of her, and wrapped my arms around her. “No, no,” I pleaded. “Don’t cry. It’s all right. No, no, no, no.”
She collapsed into my arms like an unstrung puppet. I rocked her gently, wiped her tears with my fingertips, and hummed a gentle tune that my mother used to hum to me. I pressed my cheek against her face, and she stiffened, let out a gasp, and twisted free and ran.
Sunday is the longest day of the week.
Alex Markovich has been an editor at several national magazines. His stories have appeared in previous issues of Halfway Down the Stairs and in other literary publications.
© 2017, Alex Markovich