THIS WEEK IN NYC 
 
 
MANHATTAN CHRONICLES STORY
The Kickback
By JILL Di DONATO

 

Published: March 15 2010 

           

There was a man in bed with my father. I saw him there clearly. He had to see me too, but didn’t move or do much else other than lie there. A current of air rustled the curtains. You can look at someone and not really notice him. This guy was all body, no face. Could have been anyone, really. All that mattered was that it wasn’t my mother in my bed with Dad.

            In a toothed voice, Dad called out, “Chandra!” The way he said it made me want to evaporate. Then, “What are you doing in here?”

I dropped the can of soda in my hand, spilling brown foam onto the carpet.

“Shut the door!”

           

My mother wouldn’t be home from school for another hour. She always stayed late on Fridays to mark quizzes and enter grades into her grade book. In a low-income neighborhood, she tended to other people’s children. Underprivileged children, whose minds she could furnish with the certainty of trigonometry: a2 + b2 = c2.

My father had a good job working for an investment company. What he did exactly, I wasn’t sure, but managing other peoples’ money afforded us nice things.  It was the 80s, and all I knew was that we were rich.

On the walk to my bedroom, I was thankful we had a big house. There were also drawbacks to so much space. The phone rang and the answering machine in the kitchen picked up before I could. Good thing I didn’t though; it was Toorly, my History teacher calling to say that I’d ditched his class. U.S. History with Toorly was one of my best subjects. Toorly was the type of teacher who’d lurk around school grounds after three smoking his peace pipe with the dopeheads and smokers. He was an ex-hippie, like my parents. But unlike them, who owned a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, Toorly lived in a rat hole in the East Village. Later that year, when my ditching became routine, he pulled me aside and asked if I was having problems at home, going so far as to suggest that my defiance was symptomatic of a neglectful father figure. Real piece of work, that Toorly. But he couldn’t help his bleeding heart; I almost felt bad erasing his message.

            The whole reason I ditched his class was to use the razor that lay in Dad’s soap dish. Even though our house was so big, I never had any privacy to do the things I needed to do. And, according to my mother, a girl going on thirteen didn’t need to shave her legs, even though I’d pointed out how all the girls already did. Mom: not the type to be swayed by popular opinion.

            “There’ll be plenty time for that. You’re not shaving right now. Period, end it.”

            It didn’t end there. For weeks, I gave her the silent treatment during dinner, which really got to her because she had this thing about us eating together. She tried to cook Indian food for Dad, but wasn’t any good. It was charming, almost, her efforts, but she was just a WASP from Connecticut with the wrong palate. Her chicken was dry; curry too sweet. Biscuits came out like lead-bellies, and her squash soup either too bland or peppered too violently. She was always trying new recipes, which made you feel bad insulting her lack of culinary skills. That’s just the hand she’d been dealt.

           

Dad was obsessed with Ollie North, his trial, anyway, what they’d show on CNN. Mom let him bring the portable black and white TV into the dining room, so he could watch while we ate. She believed in due process. Hypocrite.

Mom put down her fork and knife. The vein in her forehead popped like it did whenever I ticked her off. Turning to my father, “This is about shaving her legs. I said not yet.”

“Oh, really,” my father said curiously.

He chuckled, swooshed a mouthful of red wine. “That’s why you’re not eating your dinner? Negotiations underway. We’ve got a regular Poindexter here.”

            Flipping the magenta curls from her face, my mother said, “Don’t kid with her like that. She’s been on me for weeks.”

 

            I tried endearing myself to the witch; went for sympathy. After all, she was a well-groomed woman. Every Sunday, she’d do her nails and listen to this jazz program on public radio. She liked her nails short and square, polished with red lacquer. It wasn’t like Dad hadn’t offered to send her to the salon for manicures. She preferred to do them herself.

            “Now you’re talking to me?”

            “Jules has a crush on Dad.”

            “Really?” My mother looked up from her nails with that silly smile she got whenever I let her in on something.

            “She’s always trying to come for dinner.”

            “Invite her. I’d get a real kick out of it.”

“Maybe.”

 “Hey,” she said. “How’d you like me to do your nails?”

“About this shaving thing …”

            She looked kind of hurt. “And here I thought we were having a conversation.”

            “My hair’s darker than other girls. Because of Dad. His people are very hairy.”

            “His people?”

            “You know what I mean.”

“Do I?”

I sneered. “I imagine that was part of the allure.”

“I certainly hope you don’t mean to talk about your father like that. You didn’t get that from me.”

“I’ve got half his genes, I know. Look at my hair compared to yours.”

            “I’m not getting into this, Chandra.”

 

**

 

He was a good-looking man, my father. His face had a worn in look, not worn in old, worn in with experience. His clothes were well chosen, neither flashy nor plain. He stayed in shape running Marathons. Once, when we were dining in a Turkish café, the waitress had mistaken him for Omar Shariff. He left her a generous tip.

            I’d figured for a man with such attention to vanity, he’d understand where Mom had failed.

            But he said, “I defer to your mother in cases like these,” stabbing the cherry at the bottom of his drink with a straw. “How would you like to take Jules to the Mets game on Saturday?”

Jules shaved her legs with the same model electric razor I’d spied in Dad’s soap dish. We were going to a make-out party that night and even though I didn’t have a boyfriend or even a crush, there was no way in hell I was going to a make-out party with hairy legs. The more I thought about it, the more I hated my legs and those awful, disgusting hairs that seemed to go on forever. I got the feeling that if I didn’t stop them, they’d rope themselves around my neck and I’d be done for.

 

**       

 

I listened for them, my father and the man who was all body. I wasn’t sure what kinds of sounds to listen for.

I peered out my window through the slits in the shutters. There was Dad, outside, on our stoop. He was smoking a cigarette. I’d never seen him smoke a cigarette before. Dad ran Marathons. I wanted to look out the window. I wanted to look and didn’t want to. The other man had vanished. Maybe I’d imagined him. Dad crossed the street, flicked the butt like a pro. I followed the top of his head. His hair was mussed. He got into his car, pulled off. I wondered how I could have missed it earlier, the black Audi sedan parked in front of the churchyard across the street. I guess I just hadn’t been looking for it.

 

**

           

 “Did you do it?”

            Twisting the phone cord around my finger, I told Jules, “Couldn’t and now my parents are home and I can’t get into their bathroom.”

            “Why not?”

            “Let me borrow yours.”

“Gross. Just go out and buy some of those pink disposable kinds.  They’re just as good.”

“I don’t know. Don’t really feel like going to the party anyway.”

“You have to!”

“Easy for to you say; you don’t have hairy legs.”

“Okay, okay,” she said. “I’ll bring it over.”

 “No big deal.”

 

Jules was blond, with freckled pale skin and violet eyes. She was the type of girl who everyone liked because she was pretty. I liked her because she’d usually do what I said.

In my bathroom, I lathered up while Jules sat on the toilet seat.

“How far did you go?” I asked.

“All the way.”

She handed me the razor. I switched the thing on. It made a humming noise. Holding the razor close to my skin as possible, it vibrated, tickled. I half expected it to hurt and was disappointed that I didn’t feel all that much. And then, there they were: they were triumphant, my legs.

 

**

 

Downstairs, my mother was listening to Chuggy Otis, tenderizing the meat, or whatever it was she did to it. My father lounged in the den, reading the paper, drinking a Manhattan.

“Hello, Mr. Fahmed.”

“Hi, Jules. Nice to see you.”

“Hi, Dad.”

“You look very nice, Chandra.” I got the sense that he was looking through me as he said it. It was okay; I didn’t want to see him for what he really was. 

“We’re going to eat at Jules’, Mom.”

She emerged from the kitchen and wiped her hands on her apron. “Oh. You’re welcome to eat here; there’s enough.”

“My parents are expecting us, Mrs. Fahmed.”

“Okay,” she said. “Do you mind excusing us a moment, Jules?”

As Jules stepped into the foyer, I noted my mother’s skin tone, pale like Jules’, with natural ruddiness in her cheeks. I hadn’t seen it before, the waddle in her neck where her skin had begun to slacken. For the first time, she looked her age to me, not unlike the mothers of my friends. There was something ominous about the liver spot on her neck. I almost felt sorry for her.

My father put down the paper.

“I’m glad to see you’re over that whole foolishness,” she said. 

I watched Dad look at Mom. Had he noticed the liver spot? The waddle of her neck?

“You look fantastic,” she said. “So beautiful.”

“Dad said I could shave my legs, he even let me use his razor. Right, Dad?”

My father stared at a spot in the carpet where the stitching had come undone. He nodded and said, “Yes, it’s true.”

 

                                                                                                    Jill Di Donato is a novelist living in New York City