A Career Romance for Young Moderns
1. Iodine & Baby Oil
I was almost nine years old and bored out of my skin. It was the tail end of August, a time of year when everything that had been new and exciting about being out of school reeked of tedium, heat, and humidity. I lived in a freshly carved suburb of our nation’s capital with my parents and younger sister in a sprawling subdivision overrun by children’s detritus.
In the early 1970s, bikes and scooters decorated blacktop driveways, while brightly painted swing sets squatted in backyards with impunity. Homeowner associations did not exist. Uniformity was achieved through our adherence to a vague sense of community standards and a desire to be neighborly. Later, when standards were codified and enforced with strict scrutiny, the net result was a decrease in goodwill and a deflation of the idea of neighborliness. Atticus Finch could never be the president of the local HOA.
I grew up before HOAs, when balls bounced into the road just as slow moving cars turned onto improbably named streets such as Venice or Pioneer. Children occupied every bedroom of the tidy suburban homes whether they were colonials, ranches, or split-levels. New elementary schools sprung up every spring along with the season’s crop of daffodils. My parents were happily living the American dream, a single family house in a good neighborhood with a fine elementary school. But it was still August, school didn’t start for another two weeks and I was bored to tears.
By the end of summer the novelty of flinging myself off the high dive had worn off. My passion for the diving board died suddenly, about the same time I slipped off the slimy end and landed flat as a paper doll in the middle of the diving well. The height gave me plenty of time to contemplate the pool’s blue surface as it rushed towards me. I fell like a giant flying squirrel made of concrete; my arms and legs extended straight out towards all four points on the compass. I was too stunned to claw at the air. Jaws dropped among my fellow board jumpers and the resounding splat ricocheted around the tiled pool edge like a shotgun blast. My belly stung for hours. My friends laughed for days.
My swim buddies all bore the marks of pool veterans. Chlorine had stiffened our hair and the sun permanently overheated our brains as we sat outside day after day in the sweltering heat. We derived our tribal identity through membership on the swim team and we wore our team suits everyday as we gathered on rickety wooden picnic tables to play cards and engage in a malicious version of tag in and around the pool compound. Our nylon suits were terminally stretched from daily wear, the colors faded from the sun and pool water chemicals. For us girls, white shoestrings tied the shoulder straps of our suits together in the back and kept our girlish chests from being exposed. The boys had no need for shoestrings but their suits drooped and bagged low on their butts as they passed.
Card games with my fellow pool rats, so fun in June, now dissolved into the same pointless arguments every day. We shouted about points and tricks as if our lives depended on the outcome. Our twisted games of tag were executed with the same degree of organization and bloodlust as a fox hunt. Blood was always spilled; it was only a question of when and who. With practiced hands, we dipped towels in pool water and applied the dripping wrung-out tips to various scraped and trickling noses with such regularity that the adults sitting around the pool deck didn’t bother to look up from their conversations, newspapers, or discreetly covered beers. Crying and complaining were forbidden on pain of being permanently excluded from the fun.
Maybe the sun eroded our brains or the chlorine gas made us semi-stupid, but as a tribe we had our own rules and insane customs. We thought umbrella shade was for babies and old people. We wore sunglasses to make fashion statements after sunset, not to protect our eyes. The only hats we saw were baseball caps worn by farmers or truckers and because we were neither, we didn’t wear them. Sunscreen consisted of a concoction of baby oil mixed with iodine that we rubbed over our limbs in search of the perfect deep tan. The coating stained our skin and fried it. Our parents existed on the periphery of our world and never said much about our antics. It was assumed they had their own lives, separate and distinct from ours. The national obsession over health and safety hadn’t yet twisted the American psyche. It was a time when people smoked with wild abandon, seatbelts were a polite suggestion, and drunk driving was considered more comical than deadly. We all felt safe. It took decades for experts to convince us otherwise.
While my summer playmates were uniformly white and Catholic, kids from the neighborhood surrounding the swim club, I lived two neighborhoods away and pretended to be white with only marginal success. My Hispanic heritage evident in my surname and olive complexion made me stand out in an exotic way. The crisp, two-syllable Anglo-Saxon names of my friends like “Larkin” and “Wallace” had sharp and distinct sounds. My last name, “Cavazos,” combined a “v” and a “z” and sounded slurred under the best of conditions. When we compared tans by squashing our forearms together, I was always the darkest No matter how much iodine my friends poured over themselves they never tanned the way I did. They speculated about my ancestry and the fact my father never came to the pool.
I wasn’t from their neighborhood because my family had been turned down for membership by our local swim club. The official letter from the Poplar Heights Swim and Racquet Association stated they were currently full, but for a $25 deposit our name could be added to the waitlist. After Mom opened the letter, I heard her mumble to herself, then hit her network of phone friends. I took up my usual eavesdropping position at the top of the stairs while I waited for the call to go through.
“Martha, I got a letter from the pool. They’re talking about waitlist, not membership.” I imagined my mother twirling the long phone cord between her fingers.
“Four years? By then the kids will be too old.” I guessed the waitlist must be that long. Joining a pool was purely for the benefit of us kids. Mom was Lane Bryant large, did not swim and frankly did not want to put on a bathing suit, even the modest suits of the era. I had to give her credit; by joining she placed herself in an uncomfortable position. Her heavy cotton swimsuits with their reinforced zippers and front modesty panel looked hot and uncomfortable. Until my sister and I were drown-proof, she supervised us from waist-deep water in the shallow end, bobbing up and down on her toes; the baggy cotton suit pulled lower and lower over her breasts until she tugged it back in place. After we could swim, she ditched the suits for shorts and a t-shirt and joined the other mothers who gathered like crows within sight of us but out of our eavesdropping range.
The phone conversation took a change in course. I heard my mother’s voice pitch upwards. “What? Too what?” She cracked a bit on the last syllable. I perked up and held my breath to avoid missing a single word.
“Ethnic? We’re too ethnic? For God’s sake I’m whiter than Wonder Bread.” Sure, Mom was white, but my sister and I weren’t and neither was Dad. My friends informed me of this fact, not my mother.
Shortly afterwards, we joined a swim club two neighborhoods away that-cared more about generating membership revenue than the origin of our name. Years later, it dawned on me how humiliated my father must have felt. On the surface, he was a man who had provided a good life for his family: a house in the suburbs where the schools were good, summer vacations, a station wagon for my stay-at-home mom to drive. He was a home improvement salesman who paid his bills on time, worked hard, and lived a quiet life. But he couldn’t join the local swim club because he was too ethnic.
2. Soft Suburban Hands
At the end of August, days lingered like a dry cough. My younger sister and I, having worn out all decency and civility, sniped at each other with a mindless ferocity that only siblings can provoke. At breakfast I picked at a bowl of Sugar Smacks cereal and sporadically kicked Amy underneath the table. It wasn’t an even match. Too late, my shin discovered the hard leather sole of her sandals. I was barefoot. She was only seven, but had already developed a wicked shoe obsession. For payback, I flicked soggy bits of cereal through the air with my spoon, aiming for the wall above her head. Mom came around the corner and spotted me, mid-fling. Her quick gasp of sucked-in air inflated her like a Macy’s parade balloon. She loomed large over me and seemed to drift back and forth on an unseen breeze. I jumped to my feet, grabbed a soft yellow sponge, and rubbed the milk trails from the wall. My sister smirked and wiggled her feet admiring her shoes and reveling in my shame. I plotted my revenge from under lowered eyes.
During breaks in our bickering we assailed our mother with a chorus of, “There’s nothing to do.” Our whining didn’t move her. In fact, our complaints caused her lip to curl back, revealing several grim teeth as we trembled. We realized too late we had overplayed our hand and retribution would be swift and painful. In one motion, she swept us outside, heaved the lawn mower into a startled roar and plopped two rakes into our soft suburban hands. Mom waved her forefinger like a riot cop then turned and grasped the mower handle. She heaved the beast across the heat-scarred zoysia grass, leaving a trail of regurgitated brown grass clippings which we scraped into haphazard piles. When her back was turned, we swung our rakes wildly at each other’s legs with the teeth side outwards, determined to draw blood. We screamed ourselves hoarse arguing over who was more stupid for getting us into this mess. Hot, tired and dirty we bagged grass in a sullen silence, by morning the bags showed condensation from the warm decay. Afterwards we gingerly poked our blisters and reconsidered our strategy. Our new plan: ask to go to the library.
The library was our perfect escape. We knew it was free, a concept our mother revered. It wasn’t far from our house and we could play the education card, another quality our mother held in high esteem. Every family worships at an altar and education was our god. The fastest way out of clearing the table or doing the dishes was to mention a staggering amount of homework, real or imagined. Bedtime was automatically pushed back if we convinced our parents the show we were watching was educational. The PBS channel was enormously popular with us after eight o’clock.
We knew the library trip was a sure thing, and my sister and I congratulated each other on our successful manipulation. It never dawned on us that a trip to the library was a small vacation for our mother too, a break in the routine, a chance to escape the monotony of child rearing and housekeeping. No, we were full of youthful pride and stupidity; we couldn’t consider her point of view. After all, she was just our mother. Only years later, when I faced endless days with my own toddler, did it occur to me how tedious motherhood could be.
3. Princess Nurse
The summer before third grade, just before I turned nine, I got hooked on a series of books about candy stripers and nurses: I found the crumbling pile of paperbacks about nurses and candy stripers tucked away in a comer of adult fiction. Their pages were yellowed and brittle with a dirty musty odor of overripe paper. I fingered them with care, afraid of separating the pages from the spine. Billed as career romances for young moderns, they were already more than twenty years old when I stumbled onto them.
I had been holed up in the back thumbing through piles of paper backs looking for the “good parts” when a cover caught my eye. It showed a pretty woman in a student nurse’s uniform with a darkly handsome doctor behind her, his gaze indicating either a heightened romantic interest or the instincts of a serial killer. Either way it definitely got my attention.
Within their pages the nurses were strict but kind, the doctors were always compassionate, the candy stripers were spotlessly clean and everyone who wore white was white. The stories were set in hospitals where patients never died, bled, or vomited and the wider world they lived in was exempt from violence, racism, and sexual harassment. In other words, they were fairytales.
I loved fairytales; I couldn’t get enough of them. I read and reread all the beautiful picture books about Cinderella’s triumph over her wicked stepmother and Snow White’s care for the strange little people in the woods. I believed in Prince Charming and happily-ever-after endings. I thought the world would become mine as I twirled around a ballroom in four-inch heels and a diamond tiara. I meditated on the color and style of evening gowns and glass slippers with religious devotion. Organza or taffeta? Princess cut or A-line? These were the serious questions I contemplated for hours while staring out the car window or sitting at my desk during school. I was true believer. If I worked hard, was kind, and had a good attitude, a prince would find me and make all my dreams come true – what a bunch of crap.
But I was nine. Vomit? Blood? Disappointment? I suspected my carefully constructed world of happy endings was a sham. I just didn’t want to know. The realization that bad things happened to people was beginning to seep into my consciousness and I didn’t like it. My family had been turned down for membership at the pool because of our race. A neighbor died of breast cancer. Little cracks were appearing in my imagined world and my reaction was to cling to fairytales.
Within the pages of my nursing romance books, the world still held only happy endings. The stories were all the same, good trumped evil, the princess (the nurse) got the prince (the doctor) but the backdrop was a hospital, not a palace. I wanted to believe in the world they portrayed. If I didn’t think about what I was reading, it was plausible that hospital patients whiled away the hours taking naps and drinking ice water from pitchers replenished by candy stripers. From my limited perspective, this made perfect sense.
The young heroine of the nursing series was Cherry Ames. She possessed tried and true American qualities I could relate to. She was intelligent enough to pursue a career, she was persistent even when obstacles were placed in her way, and she worked hard. But there were portions of those fairytales that puzzled me and caused me to have second thoughts. Cherry’s world was markedly different from mine. She reflected society’s expectations of young, white, middle-class women of the 1950s. She was groomed to perfection in a crisp white apron and a pert white cap; she was conscientious to a fault and avoided all monkey business. She adhered to the hospital’s strict hierarchical structure with reverence.
My life was different from Cherry’s. In her world there were few people of color. All the nurses and doctors were white; a walk on the wild side was an Italian pathologist who spoke with an accent. The inevitable Negro housekeeper who worked on the pediatric ward and loved children was the only representation of any color besides white. Her cheerful demeanor struck Cherry as a wonderful personality trait but I cringed.
I was growing up in the 1970s, and my fairytales were about to collide with reality. Society was changing rapidly and cultural expectations about race, women’s status, and even dress codes were evolving away from the mores of the 1950s.
On the first day of third grade I walked into my classroom saddled with an unpronounceable last name, dressed like a dork, and completely lacking in a cheerful disposition. Inexplicably, two weeks before school started, my mother decided to sew matching outfits for my sister and me. Despite my fervent prayers, she finished them just in time for our first day of school. They weren’t just bad – they were frightfully hideous. Mom pieced and cut yards of neon blue plaid material to make two identical dresses with matching ponchos. The pièce de résistance was heavy gold fringe outlining the ponchos giving them a theatrical flair. My sister and I looked like we bad just ridden in from Peru on the back of a llama.
The bus ride to school was a nightmare. Matching home made outfits were the kiss of death by kid world standards, and the hoots and taunts had been loud and typically unimaginative. All the other girls wore either shorts or jeans; certainly nothing home made. The bulk of the poncho made holding onto my school sup plies difficult. I managed to find my desk and slouched behind it, the perfect vision of a home economic project gone wrong. I scratched at the tight new elastic holding up the ugly white knee socks which completed my mortification. When roll was called, I knew the teacher had reached my name by the way she paused before hacking it to bits. .
“Ca-VAY-zoss?” My third grade teacher, Ms. Phillips as she preferred to be called, scanned the room searching for someone who looked foreign. I squirmed in my seat, trying to use the desk as camouflage as I raised my band. The poncho slipped up my arm towards my neck and I pushed it away from my face. Politely, I pronounced my name, but in my eagerness to please, I said it too slowly and too loudly as if I were speaking to a memory impaired senior citizen instead of my young teacher who wore a leather vest with tassels that screamed, “I’m groovy, man!”
I was nervous. I wanted to make a good impression. She smiled thinly as the scent of my desperation lingered in the air. She smelled it and re-crossed legs that were visible to mid-thigh. It was the first wave of the miniskirt revolution and this was a bold fashion statement for the classroom. My hands were slick with sweat. My neediness disgusted us both.
“Where are you from?” She scanned my outfit and raised one eyebrow.
I did not understand the meaning behind the question. In my zeal to demonstrate my quickness and cooperation, I blurted out, “Falls Church, Virginia.”
She frowned and tried again. “What country are you from?”
I was puzzled. I completely forgot the idiotic outfit I was wearing. The answer seemed obvious to me. My reply was given in the form of a question because I had no idea why she was asking. “The United States?”
My classmates erupted in laughter. Even the kid from India chuckled, and I wasn’t sure he spoke English.
Ms. Phillips turned red but not as red as I did. In one short exchange, I whizzed past teacher’s pet status in a free-fall dive and dropped immediately to the lowest caste, classroom pariah, without understanding why or how I got there. Social skills were never my strong point. I stuck to my books. It was safer.
There was nothing in my nursing romance novels to prepare me for my first encounter with Ms. Phillips. In those stories, women were always addressed by the title “Miss” or “Mrs.” They did not wear miniskirts. In fact, proper clothing was an issue they commented on constantly. In my candy striper book, a teenager named Bonnie carefully considered the appearance of the candy striper uniform before agreeing to fill out an application: She eyed Nancy’s crisp uniform. It was cute. With her small waist, the full skirt would be very attractive. Other female characters were complimented for being well-dressed. Mrs. Brent, very trim in a summer weight navy blue suit, her abundant hair confined in a shiny chignon, tapped the edge of the lectern.
I studied Ms. Phillips, her long hair parted in the middle, her self-proclaimed Ms., her fringed vest, her miniskirt. Times had changed. Cherry’s world could not coexist with Ms. Phillips’. I assumed my slouched position and wondered which world I belonged to, where would I end up.
– Ann Cavazos Chen, 1st Place in Essay