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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Two Stories with Beginnings by Henny Youngman
by Nelly Reifler ||
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I was so ugly when I was born that
the doctor slapped my mother.

I was so ugly when I was born that the doctor slapped my mother. I was covered in a strange green slime, which caught in the deep wrinkles of my infant flesh--I was skinny but had a lot of skin. On the other hand, my twin brother, Ted, was so beautiful when he came out after me that a halo glowed over the crown of his head and all the nurses gasped and the doctor couldn't help himself, he stuck his tongue down the throat of the woman he'd just slapped in offended anger, my mom.
     It's possible that the green slime was Ted's vomit, because he came out hungry and the doctor put him right to my mother's nipple. But the doctor was so overcome with love and admiration for my mother, that he himself suckled on the other nipple, while the nurses attempted to clean me off, holding their noses and squinting so as not to have to really see me. I dangled from their latex-gloved fingers, and was dipped in and out of a warm bath in a stainless steel bathtub. By the time they cleaned me up, I had gotten used to breathing, the air had filled out some of my loose skin, and I was no longer hideously ugly, just very unappealing.
     Ted, however, seemed to shine more and more with every breath his fierce little newborn lungs inhaled. His head was covered in perfect curls, his hands and feet were gorgeously formed. His umbilical cord, when clipped, had pulled itself into a tidy, heart-shaped knot, while mine was plump, yellow and green, and worm-like. Ted was special--we all knew it. Lying next to him that first night in the hospital, I gazed at the dewy glow that emanated from the body of my twin. I was a girl, that's all, a stinking, pathetic, no longer even astoundingly ugly infant. There were other babies in the nursery as ugly as me, some worse, some a little better, but from Teddy came that light and a smell of flowers. He hummed himself to sleep his first night in the world, and I sobbed and choked and sobbed, and watched the perfect being sleep.
     What did Teddy hum? He hummed Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, Bach's cello suites; he hummed the overture to The Marriage of Figaro and Górecki's Third (remember, this was before it was soundtrack music). He hummed Indian lullabyes from the Assam Province and he hummed Saami Yoiks.
     I stayed up, soaked in my first hot and smelly urine, while Ted drifted off and slept like an angel.
     The next day, Mom came to see us. She was in a wheelchair (she had lost some blood giving birth). She leaned over and looked at us with her big wet blue eyes, like marbles in oil.
     "Children," she said, "I have something to tell you and I hope you can listen to me and know how hard it is for me, too… but your father…" She sniffled a little. The doctor, who had wheeled her over, patted her shoulder. "…Your father…has died…of shock. I'm not sure," she said, "what caused it--whether it was the shock of ecstasy of seeing you…" she said, smiling benevolently and lovingly at Ted, "…or the horror and disappointment of seeing you," she continued, turning to me, her smile becoming tight and hard, her eyes not quite focusing.
     Ted went home before me. The doctor said they had to run some tests on me--that's how he phrased it when he came to tell to me, but in the week between when Teddy left and when I got to go home, they didn't run a single test. Four times a day, they would stick a bottle in my mouth. I sucked at it without enthusiasm. They never took any samples, they never even took my temperature. I knew it was a scam, a front to allow my mother a week alone with her good baby before I came to live there, too.
     My umbilical cord hurt as it dried up and wrinkled. It itched, but I was uncoordinated--I could rarely find the right place to scratch. I rocked a little on my back, and sucked my thumb, but mostly, I stared at the ceiling of the nursery, the patterns of dots, the fluorescent lights, the aluminum dividers between the cardboard tiles.
     I still see those dots. When I stare at the sun, then close my eyes, the dots in the hospital nursery ceiling appear as if branded onto the inner membranes of my eyelids. Sometimes, when I am driving on I-95, or sitting at work, staring straight ahead, but not really seeing, floaters in the pattern of those dots appear, ghostlike, with the greasy shine of soap bubbles.
     Earlier tonight, I called my brother, Ted, on the phone. He lives alone in a two bedroom house in Malibu. It is wooden, stained a pale gray, and it stands on stilts which are rooted twenty feet deep in the sandy soil. When he picked up, I could hear he was out on his deck.
     "How are you?" I asked.
     He answered as he's been doing for the past few years, "Christ, I don't know. Fine, I guess. Could be better."
     My heart leapt. I could face tomorrow. The wind ripped across the antenna of Ted's portable phone, and the waves sucked and sighed.

I learned dancing from Arthur Murray.
Later, I found it was more fun with a girl.

I learned dancing from Arthur Murray. Later, I found it was more fun with a girl. Not just any girl, either; it was little Bess from down the road. Even though she was only three, I idolized her. She learned dancing from Arthur Murray, too. This was before he was famous. We all grew up in Victorian brick row houses in Baltimore.
     Art, as we called him, was always a wonderful dancer, light on his feet, with tiny, pointing toes. He wore his leather shoes two sizes too small, like a ballerina, so he could really be precise. He was twelve when he taught me to dance, in my back yard, under the rotating clothes line, while little Bess watched, sucking her fingers, her Mary Janes dangling. She had a wandering eye. She would watch me and Art--he spun me around, dipped and spun--but it looked like she was bored because that one eye wandered up and to the right, to where the cats went to mate on the wall that divided Division and Main Streets.
     That line separated the good and bad parts of the neighborhood. On the other side of the wall behind my parents' house was the Murray residence, on a bad street. You could sometimes hear Art's big brothers, standing around behind the ramshackle house, drinking beer and talking about rubbers.
     Arthur Murray made some extra money giving dance lessons to little, good girls like me and Bess. But he didn't know that after he left, between the lessons and when Rayna, Bess' nanny picked her up, I'd dance with Bess. I told her she looked like Shirley Temple. I loved her perfect blonde corkscrew curls--they smelled like grape juice. Once, when I was waltzing with little Bess, a strand or two of her hair flew up and stuck between my dry lips, and when I licked my lips, I tasted her hair, and it tasted like honey.
     She'd giggle when we danced.
     It was a side effect--a happy accident--a result of her wandering eye--that Bess was incapable of getting dizzy, no matter how much she spun. I'd twirl her and twirl her, tiny Bess in the red-checked dress, faster and faster… and she'd giggle, but she never got tired.
     I remember hearing Art from over the wall (the sun was setting and I slow danced with my tiny partner)--I remember hearing Art tell his brothers in a hushed voice how special Bess was, he said, "she's only three, but she looks at you, or looks through you with one eye, and it's like she can see your heart beating."
     When Arthur Murray opened his first dance school, in downtown Baltimore, I was there at the party. Before the first dance, which was with his mother, he said, "This one is for Bess."
     By then he was twenty-five, I was nineteen, and Bess… we all knew what had happened to her. We knew about the man who had come through town when Bess was ten. We knew how he'd seen that something special she had; we knew how he had convinced Mr. And Mrs. Bandering, Bess' parents, that she could be a star; we knew how they had spent hundreds of dollars having her pictures taken; we knew how the man had taken Bess to California, to Hollywood, he claimed.
     The year before, I'd received a letter from Bess that I never showed anyone. It came in the mail to the Pikesville coffee shop where I waitressed in the afternoons after school. As I opened the flimsy blue envelope, and pulled out the sheet of stationery bearing the logo of the Number 39 motel in Chama, New Mexico, I remembered her delicate little fingers--how long they were, and slender, for a child's. I remembered them around my neck and waist in that precious dusk hour between dance lessons and Rayna's ring at the doorbell.
     Bess wrote: "Please don't tell Mom and Dad--I've told them--well, I've called and I've told them I'm in Hollywood with nice people, and I'm trying out for big producers. But--I'm not--no, I'm not--but you can't tell anyone. I'm working in a sort of carnival--it's not how I imagined, but it's fine--there's a painting of me outside the tent, a big long painting--ten feet long from the hook to the ground. It's me in my costume, and I look lovely, the lips are so red. They call me the "Dervish Girl"--and Pie Poe comes out--so funny, you should see his striped pants and big mustache--and he tells the story. I was the sole survivor of a shipwreck--a baby from France, washed up on the shore in Istanbul--I was found by a kindly dervish who hid my sex--and sent me to the school in Ankara where they train little boys to be mystical men. There… She became the world's only female Dervish--says Pie Poe--and that's when I come out, in my white skirt and curly shoes--She can spin forever, he tells the audience. It's hot in the tent, and it smells like hay--and there's a drum roll and Ganache toots his horn--and I start slow, then get faster--and around I go, around and around."

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