My cousin Cindy is a little slow. This was the way I was allowed to describe her. Slow.
I was six when my mother explained this. On our annual visits to Chicago, Cindy and I spent most of our time in the tiny park across the street from her apartment, climbing the play equipment and swinging, but mainly playing the hide-and-seek and tag games I chose because Cindy was so plump and clumsy I could outrun her even though she was three years older.
Three years! Despite our age difference, Cindy never minded having me around. Mother said of course she didn’t; we were cousins. Aunt Lara was Mother’s sister. But I knew my luck. Cindy’s advanced age made it possible for us to stay out in the park as long as we wanted to, with my mother and aunt half-observing us from their card table in the living room, where they played endless games of gin rummy and drank glasses of pink-tinted wine.
I was six the year we visited in winter instead of summer. It was the only time we did that. I don’t remember why. The park was icy, covered with dirty snow, and the weather was bitter. Inside the huge, shabby, high-ceilinged flat, we ran out of games and begged to paint with watercolors, but Aunt Lara said no. Painting was for warm, dry days, on the landing outside the kitchen where we wouldn’t make a mess. Relegated to crayons and coloring books, I tried to show Cindy how to stay inside the lines, but it was a skill she couldn’t master. Embarrassed, she pulled me up from the table and said, “Come on, I’ll show you something more fun.”
She dragged me into her bedroom, where she scuffed her shoes on the carpet as she followed her own outstretched arm across the room. On the other side, she jabbed a finger at the radiator, not hard enough to burn herself, only to graze the metal with the tip of a finger and produce a mighty, crackling shock.
She jumped back, then beamed. “Try it. It’s fun.”
“It isn’t fun.” Even a six-year-old knew some things. What was wrong with her? Her expression flattened, but I didn’t care.
“She’s just slow, Charlotte. It isn’t her fault,” my mother said when I asked.
“You mean slow like running?”
“Slow like thinking. There was trouble when she was born and she’s a little slow.”
I remembered a comment my mother’s friend had made when they were discussing our upcoming trip. “Poor thing, she can’t help that she’s retarded,” the woman had said.
“You mean Cindy’s retarded,” I clarified.
Mother’s face grew quite still. “No. We don’t use that term. It isn’t nice. Cindy is a little slow.”
In a single, quantum leap of comprehension, I understood completely. Slow. Of course. At home, my friend Carol sizzled like fireworks, so much that being with her was exciting but put everything at risk. At that age much of the world is felt rather than reasoned. And Cindy—yes, Cindy was slow. She pulsed with unhurried steadiness. It made her safe.
By the time I was nine, I too was burning fast. There is a beat that goes on inside you, a certain rhythm you can’t control. I was ahead of Cindy in almost every way. Either my mother didn’t notice or didn’t care, because she put Cindy in charge of me as always. On the one hand, I hated it; I was old enough to take care of myself! On the other, I didn’t mind. Cindy was a vacation not only from home but from friends, vying to choose what games we would play, what TV shows we would watch. Cindy was easy. All I had to do was show up, and she was mine.
Her slowness didn’t bother me, but her bovine stubbornness did. It seemed the main impediment to our having fun. When I grew tired of the park and wanted to explore the neighborhood, Cindy refused. She had instructions to keep us within sight of the window. “Mommy said,” she’d say, or “Daddy said” — and that would settle it, though Uncle Harry was always at work, my own father never came on these trips, and even Cindy must have known our mothers were too drunk to miss us.
If we were painting out on the back landing, looking down at the cobweb of clotheslines three floors below, no cajoling on my part, no show of temper, nothing would convince her we ought to venture down to the yard for a few minutes, to explore the storage room, the neighborhood, the world.
Although I realized her stubbornness was born of her slowness, it angered me all the same. Once, Aunt Lara and Mother ran out of wine. It was raining hard, but they went out together to get more, and instructed us to stay inside. The store was only a few blocks away. They’d be back in a few minutes. But they were gone close to an hour, and even after the rain stopped and the sun came out, Cindy wouldn’t budge. “They said to stay,” she told me.
“But it makes no sense.”
When I tried to go anyway, she barred the door.
We slept in Cindy’s room, those hot, muggy Chicago nights—slept on identical twin beds with crisp white sheets and identical white chenille bedspreads we discarded on the floor until morning. The building was old and had no central air-conditioning, and the window unit in the room was broken more often than it worked. For those times, there was a droning fan that blew air first in Cindy’s direction, then in mine. Sometimes we would whisper back and forth from beneath our sheets, sure no one could hear us over the camouflaging hum of that fan. But eventually, always, Aunt Lara would peek into the door and say, “Shh, girls. Go to sleep now. Don’t talk.”
I would babble on when she closed the door and tiptoed away, but Cindy always shushed me. “Don’t talk. Mommy said.”
The way to sleep in such heat, I discovered, was to find a stillness inside where the discomfort couldn’t reach. At home, my friend-but-not-friend Carol couldn’t do this, could never slow her frantic pace even a little, but I had learned something from my trips to Chicago. In the silence and the heat, under the patient whir of the fan, the lullaby of air blew over us until our rhythms were exactly the same, mine and Cindy’s, slow and deep and cool. On those summer nights, she was happy, I thought, and so was I.
In our family, the women were blue-eyed and dark-haired, with thick black eyelashes, and Cindy was no exception. Although always heavy, she didn’t look “different,” and although always physically slow, she didn’t move in a freakish way.
Yet people knew.
She had no real friends in the neighborhood, just a trio of girls who jumped rope in the park and tolerated her because she would turn the rope for them endlessly, patiently, even after everyone else had had their turn. The others jumped until they missed—stepped on the rope or stumbled or tripped—and then took their place turning for others. But not Cindy. Unable to remember the rhymes or skip in and out of the rope without falling, she was designated a permanent rope-turner.
I didn’t mind at first, content to have my cousin on the sidelines so I could jump. But after the day Cindy complained of a sore arm, I was stalked by guilt.
“Let her have a regular turn,” I demanded. “It’s only fair.”
“Only fair,” mocked a girl named Nancy who led the trio.
“We could stop the rope and let her walk in. Then start turning after she’s in place. It’ll be easier for her.”
“It won’t help. She’s clumsy and she’s dumb.” Nancy motioned Cindy and the other girl turning the rope to resume.
I reached out and grabbed the rope to stop it. “Not until she gets a turn.”
“That’s up to her, not to you.” Nancy moved close to my face. “She’s lucky we let her play at all. Nobody else plays with retards. Do they, Cindy?”
I was shocked; for the first moment, too shocked to speak. Cindy clutched the rope tighter, stood motionless.
“Cindy, put down the rope,” I ordered again.
Obedient, Cindy did. In mockery, one of Nancy’s cohorts opened her mouth, let her tongue loll out, something Cindy never did.
“Get out of here!” I shouted.
“Oooh! A threat!” Full of merriment, Nancy snatched up the rope as her friends cupped hands over their mouths to stifle giggles. “We’re so scared!” Nancy sang. Then all three of them made a show of running away, turning back to wave and smile.
I bolted after them, a cartoon figure whose feet were in motion but went nowhere. Cindy had clapped a beefy hand over my shoulder and was holding me fast.
“Animals run away,” she said. “People stand their ground.”
No matter how I tried, I couldn’t jerk free. “How can you let them treat you like that?” I shouted.
“They let me play.”
“They call you names! They make fun of you. What if they pushed you or hit you? Would you just stand and stare?”
“I like jumping rope.”
“You’re not jumping! They don’t let you jump! You’re only turning the rope. They’re using you.”
“People stand their ground,” she repeated. “Daddy said.”
“Oh, ‘Daddy said.’”
“They let me play,” she repeated. This was the way she saw things: black and white, not shades of gray. But it infuriated me all the same.
The year I was eleven, I found Cindy thirty pounds heavier, with lumpy hips and large, heavy breasts that made her look matronly when she was only fourteen. Aunt Lara told us she’d gotten sneaky, too—would creep into Lara’s room when Lara was gone, play with her lipsticks, wear them down to nubs, never admit a thing. Accused, Cindy stared at the floor and neither affirmed or denied.
One afternoon that summer, Mother and Aunt Lara were cutting vegetables when Mother sliced her finger. It was hard to see how deep the cut had gone because it bled and bled, even after Mother put pressure on it with a towel. “It might need stitches,” she whispered.
“The hospital is less than a mile away,” Aunt Lara told her. “We’ll just run over there and see.” She grabbed her car keys. To me and Cindy she said, “Stay here until we get back. Don’t go anywhere. Not even to the park. I mean it, girls.”
My mother, leaning against the door jamb, watched the blood spread out and out, reddening the towel wrapped around her finger. Her face was chalky-pale.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Oh, the doctors will fix me right up.” Her voice trembled, high and reedy.
“You’re in charge, Cindy,” Aunt Lara said. “Don’t let anything happen to your cousin while we’re gone. I mean it.”
“I won’t.” By now Cindy was as pale as my mother.
There was nothing we wanted to do after they left. We were both too shaken. Earlier, we’d emptied the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle onto the table in the dining room. It was an easy puzzle, part of Cindy’s occupational therapy, large pieces that made up a scene of the Chicago lakefront. We’d just begun putting it together when my mother got hurt. We didn’t return to the dining room to finish it. Instead, although it was a hot, gray, oppressive afternoon, we ended up on the landing outside the kitchen, watching a woman hang clothes on the lines in the shared backyard three floors below.
“They’ve been gone a long time,” I said after a while.
“Not so long.”
The gate opened and closed down in the yard. Children laughed and called to each other, though the angle of the porch hid them from sight.
“Your mother will be all right,” Cindy said. “The hospital has good doctors.”
“I hope so.” I tried to find the calm, still place inside myself that let me sleep on muggy nights, but I couldn’t concentrate over the thumping of my heart.
Cindy went inside to get us something to drink. Someone began coming up the stairs below. Cindy’s father, called home from work to deliver bad news? I held my breath.
A sturdy-looking young man came into view, tan and well-built, wearing shorts and a tank top that showed thick, muscled arms. He stopped and nodded at me when he reached our landing.
Cindy came out with glasses of lemonade but put them on the stoop when she saw him. “Let’s go in,” she said, and took my arm.
“Not going to introduce me to your friend?” The man pushed back his hair, dirty blond and falling across his forehead toward small gray eyes.
“This is my cousin.”
“Your cousin.” He cocked his head, looking at me from different angles. “Got your same coloring but don’t look like you.” He came close, touched my cheek. I jumped away.
“Leave her be,” Cindy said.
“Where’s your mother?” he asked.
“She’ll be back in a minute,” I said quickly.
“My aunt cut her finger,” Cindy said.
“So where’d they go? A doctor?”
“Hospital,” Cindy said.
The man smiled, and when his mouth turned up, his tiny gray eyes disappeared into the folds of his face. “Sounds like we got time to play,” he said to me. “You’d like to play, wouldn’t you?”
“She can’t,” Cindy told him.
“Nothing can happen to her. Leave her alone.” She tugged on my arm, but the man moved to block our path to the door.
“Nothing’s going to happen to her,” he crooned. “No harm in a little game.” He reached for my face again, but I backed away. “That white face would look cute with lipstick, is all.”
“No, Bobby.” Cindy stepped around him and pushed me ahead of her into the flat. When she turned to latch the screen, Bobby walked in.
“Go home,” Cindy said.
“I just want some lemonade, is all.”
She opened the refrigerator and poured him a glass. He set it on the table.
“You said you wanted lemonade.”
“Changed my mind. I’d rather play.”
“Go get the lipstick. Your cousin can watch.”
“Then she can play with us. In the room.” He took one quick step in my direction and grabbed my arm.
“Let go of her,” Cindy said.
He guided me into the hall. A sweet, fetid smell came off of him, like spoiled deodorant.
“No!” Cindy shouted. “Nothing can happen to her.”
We stopped in the doorway to Aunt Lara’s bedroom. Inside, the bed was covered with a pink, satiny spread. “We just gonna play,” he said.
He smiled his eyeless smile. “You could, though,” he told her.
“Okay. Just let her go.” Cindy came toward us, a thick form silhouetted by the light in the kitchen behind her.
Bobby didn’t loosen his grip on my arm. “Not just the old game,” he told her. “The new one I wanted to try.”
Cindy shook her head.
“Yes. The new game. Otherwise, your cousin plays, too.”
She stopped and stood her ground, and I could feel her mind work, the slow, stubborn grind of it, like some heavy, lumbering machine.
“She can’t play,” she said decisively. “Just me.”
“Okay then.” When he let go of me, Cindy pushed me away roughly, then took my place. “It’s okay,” she told me, gentling her voice. “Go in the dining room. Finish that puzzle.”
Bobby moved behind her into the bedroom. A tuft of dun-colored hair under his arm was the last thing I noticed as he closed the door. I staggered as far as the dining room before my legs buckled and I dropped into a chair. Though the room was only marginally cool despite the air-conditioner in the window, I began to shiver. Then abruptly the bout of chills ended and I was sweating. I looked down at the jigsaw pieces scattered across the table. I began to piece them together as Cindy had said. I didn’t know what else to do.
If Cindy cried out, I didn’t know. A dark wind blew through my mind. It allowed no thoughts, no sounds. It didn’t occur to me that I might have gone outside, might have run down the stairs to the neighbor hanging clothes, might have asked her to call the police. In all the world there was nothing but the dark wind and a hundred smooth, interlocking pieces of cardboard, straight edges and rounded edges, and all the varied hues of Lake Michigan.
I was not aware of time. Cindy might have come out of the bedroom five minutes later or five hours. Except that the puzzle had taken shape during her absence, I had no way to judge.
She did not look like herself. She looked like a word I didn’t know yet but understood—the concept if not the language—geisha. A woman painted to serve a man.
Her lips were bright with Aunt Lara’s lipstick, not just the lips themselves but the skin around them, the lines made with an unskilled hand. Her face was pale not with face powder but with what must have been white talc. She looked like a cross between a geisha and a clown.
Behind her, Bobby had a loopy grin on his face.
“Bye, cousin,” he said to me, and patted my cheek before he slipped out the screen.
“That’s why Aunt Lara thinks you’ve been taking her lipsticks,” I said.
Cindy looked at the floor.
“He paints you. He puts on powder.”
“I have to wash my face,” she said. “I have to change my clothes.”
I saw the blood on her shorts then. I knew what had happened. She had allowed it because Aunt Lara told her to protect me. She had stood her ground. I could have stopped it, but I hadn’t.
“Don’t tell,” Cindy said.
“I won’t,” I told her.
“Promise,” she said. And I did.
In bed that night, Cindy shifted position and pulled on the edges of her sheet, her sleeplessness not disguised by the whirring of the fan. She’d said she wasn’t in pain. I left her to her thoughts. In that airless, unkind heat, I realized that, except for people like Cindy, no one was nice. I had not known that before. You try to be nice, but you aren’t. Not really. Not underneath. I was going to try harder. What I’d done to her was the worst thing I would ever do to anyone. I believed that for a long time.
When she was thirty, Cindy fell in love with a co-worker at the sheltered workshop where she sorted clothes. They were allowed to marry only after they agreed to sterilization. The social workers said they were not capable of raising children. Not capable of keeping them safe. They were browbeaten from all sides. Even then I didn’t raise my voice in opposition or tell how my cousin had saved me. I had promised, I reminded myself. Cindy had said.
The marriage lasted a year. One morning at work, Harold collapsed while hanging up a new coat someone had donated, with the price tag still attached. Cindy cradled his head in her lap and would not let go even after the ambulance came. He had died from a congenital heart defect they had always known might kill him.
At the funeral, Cindy led me away from the others and whispered, “We should have had a baby. To remember him by. I shouldn’t have let them—” She waved her hand over her belly. “You know.”
I was still her confidante. Her cousin. She loved me. She seemed not to know I’d withheld the evidence of her capacity to nurture and protect that might have saved her from sterilization. She clutched my hand. I squeezed back. The worst part was how relieved I was that she was still a little slow.
|© Ellyn Bache, 2015