He is a hideous little thing, my prince, an unfortunate monster with unnatural features. The deep red pockmarks that puncture his cheeks rhyme with the cone-like horn protruding from his head. The bumpy texture of his skin contrasts with the smooth green finger-claws of each hand–only three digits–and no opposing thumbs. His limbs were sprung from the mold without any attention to grace or the illusion of physical strength or beauty. The badly painted eyes blur out of their sockets and as for ears and cheeks, the protrusions are confusing to identify, placed at random on the side of his head. Such is the privilege of royalty, perhaps, to be able to disregard the qualities on which mere mortals rely for attracting a mate. Because yes, that is his role, to stand for a promised prince.
What mother gives such a thing to a single adult daughter while chanting the “someday” Disney song from Snow White? She even hinted that the object had a talismanic potency. A mere glance at his anatomy made clear that “he” had very little potential in some key areas... But the chaste and lumpy thing was a holiday gift, one of those highly charged once-a-year offerings so fraught with meaning no regular scale could measure the heights and depths at which it provoked emotional resonance. It sat in my hand, its soft rubbery form smaller than my palm, circled by the metallic wedding band that shone with improbable brightness.
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This awful little beacon of hope-against-desperation came into my life at about the time the popular press was issuing statistically based statements about how women over a certain age were more likely to be kidnapped by terrorists than find a suitable marriage partner. Though I had only just approached that milestone, like some unfortunate errant electron on a trajectory towards oblivion, I was keenly aware of my single state.
My mother meant well. But did she actually look at the thing she had put in my hand? What if the promise it held came true? Among the many crucial parts it was lacking was a mouth. Was this a message? Some covert or direct comment on my mother’s part about the role of spoken communication in a romantic relationship?
But the creature put me in mind of my childhood sweethearts and all the many machinations through which I had manipulated the boyfriends of my early years. Confronted with my flawed prince, I reflected on my childhood sins and the poor boys who had fallen into my snares.
The first was James, a small blond with bright blue eyes whose mother was a Swedish beauty who wound her long plait of thick blond hair around her head like a crown. James was quiet and slight, and I fixed on him with a clear plan and purpose. Our courtship was swift, the pact quickly completed, and within a short time of our initial schoolyard acquaintance, we were a couple. We were six years old, in first grade, and such exclusive commitment was almost unknown among our cohort. But I demanded nothing less than full engagement. I orchestrated formal public rituals, including a regular repetition of a wedding ceremony on the open court of our recess yard. I made the other children in our immediate circle line up like members of a congregation so that James and I could walk between two rows of spectators. We marched like a bride and groom to the front of the group and then took each other’s hands. I led the vows, most likely, taking my role as director of ceremonies quite seriously. We kissed as chastely as I would have pecked the rubber monster gifted to me by my mother. At six sex was not the driver of my impulses towards romance.
After school, I subjected him to yet another of my orchestrated rituals. The classrooms we occupied were rented in a building that also housed the local YWCA, and the swimming pool was open in the afternoons for “dip” if you could pass a swimming test. James and I would descend to the locker rooms, then meet in the humid subterranean pool, its dim atmosphere thick with chlorine and unfortunate lighting. He would appear in his tiny slip of a suit and I would be demure in my glances, avoiding the little thumb-like protrusion that poked at the navy blue nylon. I wore a shapeless tank suit—these were the days before spandex—and nothing that disturbed its smooth surface was of any particular interest to James or anyone else, I imagine. We paused at the edge of the pool and I gave him his instructions. We would dive off the edge at the same time and then follow a curved arc as we swam to the bottom. When we met, we could kiss at the point of the heart shape we had traced in our dive, then surface.
James did not last long in my life. I think his beautiful mother put him into a different school. By the second grade I had to cast around for another sweetheart. I may have wept a bit when I learned of James’s departure, but I was already realizing this romance business was likely to be a long and highly serial process and grief was a luxury I could not afford if I were to move expeditiously to the next partner.
The second serious boyfriend—I took school yard romance to heart—was another blonde, Bobby, with green eyes, thick hair, and more confidence than James. I had to court him a bit longer and more aggressively, but finally on a school trip to the zoo where I dogged his steps and flirted with the full arsenal of my seven-year-old wiles, I managed to coerce him into saying that he loved me. Was it by the tiger cage? In the reptile house? Or at the concession stand where we bought cracker jack? Whether it was the presence of predators, cold-blooded creatures, or tasty junk food sweets that tipped the balance I can’t remember, but by the time we were back on the school bus it was settled. We were a couple. The outcome of this triumph of negotiations was minimal. Besides a few very brief after school visits to his house, the one momentous event of our romance was his gift of a smallish box overflowing with a copious amount of junk jewelry. The paste gems glittered emerald green, aquamarine blue, and diamond white in their silver settings. I was thrilled, enthralled, completely stunned. They were too big for me, grown up jewelry for an adult woman. But what a dazzling gift. My mother guessed pretty quickly–that is, immediately–that these were likely “borrowed” from his mother’s collection and had to go back. But I appreciated Bobby’s valuation of me in the excesses the costume baubles embodied.
Our relationship fizzled after the jewelry debacle for reasons still unclear to me. But that was ok since I shifted gears and schools and ended up sitting next to a freckled red head, Stuart, who became the true love of my middle school years. We had everything in common. He liked politics and I craved literature. He was good at chemistry and I excelled in math. He got braces and I got nothing, cursed as I was with good teeth. But in spite of this, we managed to find shared ground in our competition for public office. We traded positions as officers of the class—president, secretary—and gradually worked our way up to running against each other for head of student council in the school. He won, but I was pretty sure the outcome was fixed by teachers who knew of our relationship and thought in then-standard gender terms about keeping me in my place. Whatever.
We kept a pretty steady connection up through the two years of junior high school. From time to time we were even given dispensation from our parents to walk home together, a longish walk through the streets of Philadelphia for ten and eleven year olds. Each of us had a heavy briefcase, leather, with brass corners. Mine bumped against my shins and left scratches and bruises, packed as it was with very important papers, school texts, and a bulging pencil case. His was a finer leather but just as full. The briefcase was a mobile desk, and held most of a school term’s assignments and notes in an ever-expanding archive. We were proud of our bulky loads and carried them as a badge of honor, sign of our intellectual heft.
But our relationship ultimately tanked in a serious way, hitting one of those perilous impasses only dealt out in complex sociological circumstances. He was turning thirteen and I was the only girl invited to his Bar Mitzvah. I took this as my due, to be included among his other intimates–Dan, Steve, Jerry and the others. Everyone in our circle knew of our relationship. Of course I was invited even though Steph, Eleanor, and Sheila were not. So when the invitation came, my mother, she of the ever-sensitive attention to matters of decorum and social protocol, determined I should have a perfect dress for the occasion. White piqué, a substance probably now unknown, a cotton waffle-textured fabric that might have signified purity and innocence on a different girl, the dress was sleeveless and had a lovely green-stemmed rose appliquéd on its front. The problem was puberty. I had just sprung out the first signs in the form of a few, very few, but highly conspicuous to my adolescent self-conscious perception, tiny underarm hairs. Disgusting. Unmentionable. I could not believe this had happened just as I was to wear this outfit with its revealing display of usually carefully concealed regions. You did not say the word “armpit” aloud–in fact, you did not even think it. What to do? Here I was, the designated female companion, the singled-out girlfriend, and I had to figure out how to manage this looming wardrobe disaster. This was all so mortifying that I didn’t dare mention it to my mother lest it call attention to my changing condition and my fall from an innocent state I suspected I had never occupied.
So I did what any adolescent does in such circumstances. I made a challenge to G-d, my first and last, for reasons that will be obvious from the outcome. The night before I was due to dress in my virginal frock, I aimed my plea upward: “If You exist, get rid of you-know-what. Cleanse this foul flesh of this unsightly blemish.” I followed with the usual extravagant promises: “If You do this one thing, I will never again ask You for anything, and I will believe, truly believe, that You exist.”
Evidently, G-d was not looking for new believers on those terms. Because the next morning, after I awoke, I raced to raise my arms before the bathroom mirror. Disappointment. What had I expected after all my years of agnosticism? A miracle?
I kept my elbows pinned to my sides through the wretched afternoon. After the ceremony at the synagogue and the catered luncheon at the rented hall, I went back to Stuart’s house to wait for my mother to pick me up. His mother seated me unceremoniously in the living room on a very formal couch, banishing poor Stuart to some sequestered limbo elsewhere in the apartment. That was just the prelude. She looked me up and down, made sure I didn’t budge, and then let me know in no uncertain terms that I was never ever going to marry her son. I hadn’t seen that coming. I mean, I was twelve. The issue was not the situation in my armpits which I doubt she had the perspicacity to perceive, but my lack of clear religious and social pedigree. She knew, and I knew, that I was the wrong demographic to ever be acceptable. By what subtle nuance she communicated this to me I can’t recall, but it was a masterly combination of explicit meaning and oblique expression. Imagine. I was barely into puberty, suffering from acute self-consciousness in my event-specific budget-stretching outfit, and my boyfriend’s mother was letting me know hours after his bar mitzvah that I was not acceptable marriage material. Really?
I never fully connected my wager with my imagined G-d and Stuart’s mother’s perception of my status as a heathen-pagan-non-believer. She could probably tell that I was a skeptic. Some conspicuous feature of my lack of faith must have been evident. Either that, or she just didn’t like me for more considered reasons and intuited the threats to her imagined position and equilibrium that sat coiled around my little heart ready to spring. My mother was deeply offended as we debriefed on the short walk home, unable to figure out exactly what it was that had been said to me or on what grounds we fell short of Stuart’s mother’s requirements. Offended, but dismissive, she shrugged it off.
Decades later, when she offered me, her unmarried daughter, the holiday gift of a prince in the form of this little rubber monster, was she compensating for this and other perceived disappointments? Hard to know. My serial seductions had continued long before–and after–my mother put the malformed prince into my hands. More than forty years after her death, he connects us, uncannily preserved, the talismanic relic of a promise she did not have the power to fulfill.
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We were such good friends, and yet we never talked about so many of things affecting us, things that were happening to us, that were important to us. Why is that? Shame, embarrassment? The fear of exposure to others of problems, difficulties, and families that we were convinced were unique to us alone? With all the various means of communication available now, I wonder if this code of silence still exists among young people today.
On another note, Prince, meet Gobbledygook. A once sticky rubbery figure turned Christmas ornament from the Philadelphia Sacksteder household, passed down to the Carney household and now to Carney progeny- son and grandsons. This has become a favorite Christmas ornament in spite of the fact that Gobbledygook has lost the lower section of each leg. Boys. Go figure. But your mother? I liked her but could never really figure her out and was a little afraid of her. What was she thinking?