Through the Wardrobe

Through the Wardrobe

3167803103By Melissa Knox

“I am a tomboy,” I announce.  I’m eleven, I’m wearing black high tops, like my younger brother, and Oshkosh overalls.

Mom is holding the drawings of big-boobed girls that I did with my friend Danielle. Danielle’s mom says the drawings are disgusting.

Mom’s face shrieks the same message, even though she is an artist and she has told me that what Danielle and I are doing is called “life drawing.”  I never showed Mom my drawings. She must have gone in my room.

“These proportions are all wrong.  The arms are too long for the body, the head too large . . .”

I squirm.

The drawings are girlie-girlie but I liked them until Mom saw them.

I grab them and rip them up.

“I’d rather be a boy.”

“Do you have a boy’s name?  Mom wears baggy shirts and jeans and a newspaper boy’s cap.

“It might be Bucky. Maybe Honey, but maybe Bucky.”

Lately, when I get hit in the chest with a baseball, it hurts.  I’ve tried hitting myself in the chest and that hurts, too.  Before, it didn’t.  Maybe if I slam my fists against my nipples I won’t get breasts. Mom’s face—Is she going to cry?

While I decide on Honey or Bucky, my mother calls her psychoanalyst.

***

Mom and I are sitting in the kitchen of a rented house on India Street in Nantucket.  I am enjoying the sunset sliding across the widow’s walks across the street, drifting off into daydreams of the beach, looking forward to biking to Cisco or Madaket, wondering whether I’ll see bayberry bushes along the way, anticipating going to Arno’s on Main Street for blueberry pancakes, and hoping that the lady who sells my favorite chocolate fudge still has her shop.

As I am finishing dinner, she explains that her therapist asked her to ask me something. “Do you want to have your vagina cut out and a penis sewn in?” The question shoots from my mother’s mouth. Her eyes widen in shock, as if someone had just cursed or farted or both.

“No, Mom,” I say, in a please-pass-the-butter voice. I don’t want to imagine someone hacking off a penis and cutting me where it really hurts in order to attach the thing, but I can’t get the image out of my head.

My fascination with Dracula and vampires has been growing before she pops her question and I am a longtime fan of Barnabas Collins, the sensitive vampire in Dark Shadows, but Mom’s question mobilizes my interest.

Early that summer, she mentions how much she enjoyed a girl’s camp in Vermont.

“When I was your age, I went swimming, I went canoeing, we sang songs—”

“How long does camp last?” I ask. But she is lost in happy reminiscence.

“We made campfires, we climbed mountains, we—”

“HOW MANY WEEKS?”

“—roasted marshmallows, we learned archery, we even put on, let me see, which Gilbert and Sullivan? I know I sang—

“Mom!  HOW LONG CAN I GO FOR?”

“—The piney air was . . . What?”

“I want to go!  How long does the camp last?”

“Oh, well, it’s a whole eight weeks, but if you don’t want to go that long—”

“I want to go!”

When my summer camp uniform arrives, I tell myself to relax (“Don’t get a nosebleed!”), open my closet, push my way behind the racks of dresses, the school uniforms, and the coats, to the very back, where I tap the cedar wall and pretend, one last time, that it is melting away, such that I find myself crunching across a winter-white landscape on my way to the faun’s house in frosted-over Narnia. I’ve practically memorized the chapters in which the White Witch tempts Edmund with magically enhanced Turkish delight, whips out her wand to turn Santa into stone, and finally gets her hash settled by the now-rehabilitated Edmund. I’d tie her to the stone table myself and send an army of ten-foot tall ogres and rheumy-eyed hags with knives and pitchforks after her. Some of the meaner giants would sharpen the stone knife for me.

My mother sews in my nametags and then drifts into painting little green trees up the legs of the kitchen sink.  She concocts inedible dishes she calls “Chinese food” out of several breakfasts worth of leftover scrambled eggs and a few anemic scallions from the back of the crisper.  She needs to talk to my father—right now—as the ice clinks in his fourth gin-and-tonic.

I start packing, even though camp won’t start for another four weeks. At night, I try on the uniform and am delighted to find I’ll need a belt to hold up the shorts, that the green knee socks can be pulled over my knees, that the hiking boots (L.L. Bean “Ruff-Outs”) require Kleenex in the toe for me to be able to walk in them without my feet slipping around until I trip, and that I’ll have to roll the sleeves of my black watch plaid camp shirt up so they don’t flop over my wrists.

These clothes have to fit me for a long time. I’m planning to wear them for maybe a year, if I can’t afford to buy clothes on my own once I make my getaway.  I could maybe escape during summer camp or right before my mother picks me up.  I’ll need a winter coat, but somewhere down the line I’ll find one in some Salvation Army thrift shop. Maybe I can get into an orphanage. I’m sure they take fifth-graders.  Or I’ll stow away on the Nantucket steamship, pretend to be an orphan and get adopted by a family there.

Or maybe I’ll decide to stay.  Anything could happen during those eight weeks. By the end of summer camp, some mysterious transformation, fueled entirely by my wishes, might occur.  When my parents and brother come to pick me up they’ll look like extras from the set of Leave it to Beaver. If that’s too much to hope for, then at least they’ll resemble The Addams Family. I won’t recognize them. My mother will call my father “honey,” a word she has never uttered, and even though her voice will be pleasantly low, unlike anything I’ve ever heard at home, I’ll know her immediately. My father will smile and bow like Lurch, and also like Lurch, won’t talk. My brother, inconspicuous as Wednesday Addams perching demurely in a corner, will sit inertly in the car the whole time my trunk is being loaded and speak a single sotto voce “hello” when I climb in for the ride home.

Even if none of these things happen, maybe I’ll befriend some other camper whose parents have always wanted another daughter, or maybe a sister for their little Clara, yes, a companion for their lonely, sickly child who has a cleft palate. I’ll play Heidi and get her up to speed by helping her learn to speak—and to climb every mountain, too.  Then they’ll have a good excuse to lavish upon me their considerable wealth and lasting affections, and I’ll fit right in to their family. It’ll be easy. They’ll be so grateful to me for saving the child they had almost given up for lost. A whole eight weeks! Yes, anything can happen.

Near the end of our drive to camp, Mom and I stop at a roadside restaurant for dinner, and I dive into my chicken with gravy and wild rice, eating so quickly I hardly taste it. Suddenly I–who am so allergic to nuts that in my thirties a boyfriend’s kiss will turn my lips into a red welt after he eats a hazelnut—feel my throat begin to swell.  I can hardly breathe.  I wave at Mom, sitting opposite me, because I can barely talk. The skin on my hands, my arms, is bright red and itchy. Quarter-sized hives are popping out all over me. I am scratching like an ape.

“Oh my goodness, you look tired.   We should get you to bed.”

“My wild rice gravy has nuts in it.”

“Really?  Oh dearie, dearie me.  Your throat does sound a bit scratchy.  Would you like a little dessert?  Or maybe some juice?”

“Mom, I need a doctor.”

“A doctor?” she sounds fuzzy, like someone who is just waking up but would rather put her head back down on the pillow.

“I really need one now.”

“Oh,” she fumes. “Let me see.  Okay.  Wonder if I have enough gas.” We get in the car and she begins driving. The car edges forward reluctantly.

“Oh, Melissa, look at the deer!” Mom yelps, “It’s so pretty!” She slows to a crawl and points. “Oh, I’d love to paint that!  We could stop for a minute.”

“Mom, I need a hospital. Please.  Right away.  Take me to a hospital.”

“A hospital? Oh, okay. If you really think so.” She shakes her head.  If I would only calm down and notice the countryside I wouldn’t have these problems. She points out another deer frolicking through the birch trees.

I see a state trooper on the side of the road and tell her to stop and ask him.

“We don’t want to bother him, do we?  After all—“

“Pull the car over!”

My mother rolls down her window and tells the state trooper it’s so good of him to chat with us. She hopes it’s no bother. Is there a doctor around here or a hospital?

I rap on my window, say, “Help!”

He looks at my face and tells Mom to follow his car.

By the time we get to the small local hospital, I can no longer see or walk. I lose consciousness. I wake on a gurney, in my hand an envelope of red capsules with stripes that remind me of candy canes and Christmas.  My mother informs me that I have been given a large shot of adrenaline. I have been unconscious for some time, hours, apparently, and she has on her face the look of a child whose parents arrived two hours late to pick her up. Mom takes me to the B&B near the camp, where I spend three days in bed. She reads to me and provides stale sandwiches.

Meanwhile I imagine the plates of home-made blancmange decorated with fresh mint leaves I’d serve up (the way Jo waits on Laurie in Little Women) if Clara of the ruined soft palate were lying where I am, and if I were a rosy-cheeked Heidi, feeling considerably perkier than I do right now. I relish the ability to breathe, but am shaky whenever I get out of bed. I look at Mom humming a little tune under her breath and murmuring about what a lovely lake we’re on and wouldn’t I like to go swimming?

I realize that I’ll need to check all restaurant food myself very carefully from now on. Not to mention learning to cook, something I will do by watching my father, whose love of Southern fried anything dominates our cuisine at home.

A few pounds thinner, I join my tent-mates three days after camp starts.  I enjoy the piney aromas and the quiet.

The counselor, blond, plump and sweet, introduces the girls, suggesting we all tell what our Daddies do.

“My Daddy’s a bobbin manufacturer,” says a pretty redhead with wide-spaced eyes.
“My Daddy says we’ll have a fine old time,” says the other girl, shy and genteel.  “He’s a lawyer.”

My father conceals his mini-bottle of Gordon’s London Dry Gin in his shirt pocket when our family eats at the Moon Palace restaurant, where we always have chicken with snow peas.  Dad pours the gin into his water glass.  When the waiter’s back is turned, Dad pockets a few pieces of cutlery.

I don’t think either of these girls has a Dad like mine.

I like the Chinese restaurant meals, because Dad gets such a kick out of snitching the fork and knife, plus not paying for his drink, that he doesn’t yell or slap anyone.  He grabs my hand on the way home and yells, “You walk with Daddy.”

“I hate my father,” I say to the group of camp girls.

The counselor’s eyebrows go up.  The shy girl invites me to play cards, the redhead says she loves cheese fondue.

A week after I arrive, the summer camp director sends my mother a letter about your very articulate young lady.  What she means is that although I’m surrounded by peaceful Vermont lakes and pine trees, I’m obsessed with Count Dracula.  My tent mates are sick of hearing about how much blood drips from his teeth. The camp director’s letter adds that I burst with ideas and that I have so much to offer other children in the way of lively companionship.  She means that I like to pull the legs off Daddy Long Legs. I like to pour salt on a slug.  She’s noticed that I prefer hiding under my bed with a flashlight, reading, never learning anyone’s name or talking, except while gobbling meals, when I open my mouth and stories pour out. I talk non-stop at the camp dinner table, where no one ever slaps me and no one has ever been slapped.

When camp is over in late August, my mother comes by herself to pick me up. I’m glad she did not bring Dad.  There won’t be fighting in the car.  After we’re back in New York, my counselor sends my parents a long letter.  She wonders if my fetish for the bizarre may be a substitute for carrying on a relationship in which she feels uneasy, in other words that it is a shell to avoid letting other people know that she does not have as much self-confidence as she often shows on the surface.  I laugh as my mother, casting me a doleful look, reads this out loud.   If I could fool my counselor, then I could fool other people too, and I almost feel self-confident. 

“What is going on with you?” asks Mom, bursting into tears.

“Melissa talked a great deal about sex, especially at the beginning of the summer,” writes the camp director in her own report at the end of the summer.  She seems astonished. Sex is indeed one of my favorite topics and I could not seem to stop looking for it everywhere. At camp, I told the other girls about the movie version of To Sir With Love, which none of them had seen.  The film version, I told them, didn’t use the scene in the book in which a girl throws a used sanitary napkin into the fireplace in a school classroom. Sanitary napkin! Blood! Menstruation! Which has something to do with sex! And I kept harping on this moment with my bemused campmates.

At camp I felt like an anthropologist visiting an unknown tribe I might like to join, and nothing reassured me more than the sight of other campers laughing at my antics. Stories of Catherine the Great getting crushed by a horse being lowered, for erotic purposes, by crane, fascinate me. I tell them. Repeatedly. I pretend to be a vampire. “My name is Count Dracula and I come to suck your blohhh-huuh–huuhd,” I say. I think this is very funny.  I say it again and again.

Neither vampires nor sex stories blot out my most unforgettable moment, the one I keep trying to exfoliate with the energy of a dragon shedding his skin, but which follows me everywhere.  I think of it often, and when I do, I try to shift my attention to my favorite joke, which goes like this:  a young lady is just about to marry.  She asks her mother to find her a black lace negligee and fold it carefully into her suitcase.  Mom forgets and just packs a pink flannel nightgown.  On the wedding night the groom gets shy, saying he will undress in the bathroom and that the bride should not look.  She opens her suitcase, finds the pink flannel nightgown, and cries, “Oh, it’s all pink and wrinkly!“  The groom yells, “I told you not to look!”  I love this joke, finding it so amusing that I have to stop and calm myself in order to be understood when I tell it. All pink and wrinkly! Hilarious. I’m laughing so hard I can barely tell the joke.  Except that the other kids don’t get it or look shocked.

But always, I remember the most the thing I want to forget.

My brother is three, I am five, and Daddy is weaving around the room giggling and reeking of Gordon’s London Dry Gin. He dances with us. He points a finger toward my brother.  He sits in front of us and his face is all red, his eyes glassy.  He sticks that finger into my brother’s face (“No, me, Daddy, ME!” I say, jealous.)  He laughs and says, “Pull my finger!” My brother pulls his finger and Daddy emits a long, loud, belch.

“Me! Me!”

“Pull my finger, and I’ll burp,” he promises, and I pull it. He burps long and loud, and we laugh. But he has to top himself; the finger’s just peanut gallery.

“Come on, kiddies!” he cries jovially, “Watch Daddy pee!” We follow him into the bathroom.   He shuts and locks the door, because Mom is on the other side of it. We laugh. This is a game, like keep-away. The bathroom has white and black diamond-shaped tiles and the lights are very bright. He pulls out his penis the way a fireman unrolls a hose—he just hand-over-hands it and it keeps on rolling out, more and more, until I almost wonder if that thing will hit the wall. I can’t see anything else: it’s all pink and wrinkly. Then it rears its head like an angry red giant. It’s beautiful; it’s ugly; it’s the tree of the knowledge of pain and pleasure. It’s a walk with a faun in the pale moonlight. It’s the entire world, and the world is ending. The room disappears. The thing seems as thick as my head. A stream of urine loud as a cataract shoots into the toilet, enough to drown all New York. You could go over the falls in a barrel in that stuff.

My brother and I are the best audience imaginable.

“Wow, Daddy!” I say.

We clap.

“Wow!”  My brother agrees.  “Can you do that again, Daddy?  Can you do it now?

Wham! Wham! Wham! We are so agog with these previously hidden talents that only after a moment do I realize that the entire time we are in the bathroom, Mom is pounding on the door and yelling. But we don’t like her. It’s Daddy who claims all our love. When Daddy opens the door she is still yelling so loud and pounding so hard that she doesn’t realize it is open, and falls flat on the tiles. I think we step over her and run to our rooms.

Right then, I feel like I’m falling off a cliff and my stomach clutches. Within a few years, I start dreaming every night that I’m rolling down the hill at 111th street and my head will smash into the black lamppost at the bottom of the hill. I awake with a lurch, panting and sweating, every night.

When I started summer camp, I believed that because I was in a new place, surrounded by happy people, people not in my family, I would be allowed to forget everything that went before. I’d get a do-over.

The cedar wall at the back of my closet would dissolve, I’d walk out into a winter wonderland, get invited to tea with a friendly faun who would lead me back to the lamppost so that I could get home—only unlike Lucy in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I wouldn’t go back home.  I’d stay in Narnia.

When Lucy visits the faun in Narnia, he wears a red scarf over his handsome, hairy chest, in the Pauline Baynes illustrations. His furred hindquarters conceal his tumescence—for what else is Mr. Tumnus, the faun who takes Lucy  back to his cozy den, where he plies her with tea and lulls her into a trance with the honeyed tunes of his flute? The music makes Lucy feel like crying and laughing and dancing and going to sleep.  He bursts into tears.

He has been bad, and he’s afraid they’ll cut off his tail and his horns.

What else would you do with men who seduce little girls?

But Lucy forgives him.

When my father came to my room at night, and he sobbed and stroked me, I pretended to be asleep.  I felt like laughing and crying and dancing and sleeping all at once, and I did not want the tune to stop. When he wept, he loved me.

Melissa Knox is a former New Yorker living in Germany, where she teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Her recent work has appeared in Gravel, NonBinary Review, and Readings.

Author’s note:  I found, and find, great comfort in the escape offered by the Narnia books–which offer a way of understanding my experience.

Melissa Knox is a former New Yorker living in Germany, where she teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Her recent work has appeared in Gravel, NonBinary Review, and Readings.

Illustration: Lucy and Mr Tumnus in Narnia, by Pauline Baynes