An excerpt from Baby, It’s You, a memoir
By Vicki Lindner
“Beyond the Sea” is Chapter 17 of Baby, It’s You, my memoir-in-progress about love, race, and rebellion. This story of an ill-fated interracial relationship begins in the early ‘sixties, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Birmingham Crisis, and the church bombing that killed four African American teenagers in 1963. Also yet to come is the March on Washington, the Assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Bill, and nation-wide protests against the Vietnam War. With no computers, we wrote on typewriters, and couldn’t imagine the feminist or sexual revolutions. In spring, 1962, however, when the scene below takes place, these changes were blowing in the wind. Although I’d won the “Miss Morris Hills” contest for reciting my own funny “odes,” and was the high school’s star journalist, as well as an actress, I was a renegade, a self-declared Existentialist, determined to defy cultural expectations that all girls were meant to become mothers and housewives. “Jim,” as I call him, the handsome, sensitive boy I fell for, (and address as “you”), was an amazing track star, and the only African American in my large high school. Ready to take on the world of discrimination and prejudice, personified by my southern mother, I had no idea that New Jersey was a surprisingly racist state, known to blacks as “The Georgia of the North.” As for Jim, he wanted, reasonably, to be accepted for who he was, but he rejects the Civil Rights Movement, and when prejudice and taboo come down upon us, he runs from me, only to return declaring his love. We are apart more than we are together. When this chapter begins, the reader knows that the important adults in my life are trying to persuade me that Jim and I, and the “mulatto” children they believe we will have, do not have a future. My Dad, a brilliant engineer, who has worked for the local Arsenal since World War II, will soon become an internationally known authority on conventional ammunition, including weapons now banned by international law. My mother has threatened not to send me to college if I don’t stay away from Jim. My father, as you will see, has another solution. But both of our lives are full of secrets.
Beyond the Sea
Dad suggests we take the rowboat out. “Come on, it’s too nice a day to sit around mooning.”
“I’m reading!” I retort. I hold up The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s new essay collection. I know this was the book because I wrote, “I don’t see Jim as a ‘priapic black stud,’” a Baldwin quote, in my journal. Still, Dad is the only family member I can stand at the moment, and I’m pleased he’s asked me to join him.
Recently, he’s traveled to a lot of foreign countries. The Arsenal sent him to Vietnam. From Germany, the last place he went, he sent me two postcards. On one, with a picture of a fountain surrounded by marble monkeys, he wrote that Braunschweig had been hit badly in the war, but was rebuilding fast. In Cologne he’d visited the university, an “awe inspiring” cathedral, and traveled down the Rhine by ship: “While I didn’t see maidens beckoning to me, or hear any irresistible siren calls, I saw the impressive country side and fabled castles,” he scrawled. On a page of thin blue parchment stamped “Hotel Europa, Weimar,” he described the “torturous streets full of hurrying students,” Goethe’s house, herring and black bread, and said he hoped I’d someday find a professor and settle down to raise my brood in a university town. (I pictured a hen pecking worms into cheeping beaks, but didn’t wonder why my father failed to imagine that his bright daughter could become a professor herself.)
He never said what he was doing in Europe. Mom, who complained that Dad didn’t discuss his job with her, had no idea either. But from a newspaper clipping I recently found in his desk, I now conclude that he was making sure West Germany’s defense system was interoperable with ours.
“I want to make you an offer,” he says, as we slam out the door. Suspicious.
We plunge down the steep bank that leads from our backyard to the lake, our shoes sliding on slippery dead leaves. Spring is underway. The maples and oaks have untwisted their twigs into yellow-green sheaves; soon they’ll thrust shady umbrellas above their black trunks.
Although we’ve lived in our big new house in Randolph Township less than a year, my secrets already infuse the grey boards of this dock. Dad has no idea that we kissed down here one winter night, you holding me inside your letter jacket, warding off the sky’s cold glitter. Now it’s too risky for us to be together this close to our house.
I also hang out here with Izzy, my tall skinny friend. He told me about the book he found in a box of his dead father’s stuff—Love without Fear, by Eustace Chesler. “It explains how to explore a woman’s body,” he said. He and Edie, his rich New York girlfriend, had gone through all of Eustace’s preliminary exercises; he wanted to do it with her so bad he could hardly stand it, but she stuck to her goddamned rules. I was dying to know what these exercises were; I didn’t think you and I did them. Sometimes I thought I loved Izzy, too, platonically, of course, not the desperate yearning way I loved you. “Your words are like sun on brown water,” I wrote in a poem dedicated to Iz. “I need not watch your face to know how your eyes crinkle to ripples and what shade of blue they are.”
Mystical events, I’d found out, could happen on this dock. Last week Lorraine and I dangled our feet over the side as she complained about her mother, who’d forbidden her to go to the senior prom unless she lost five pounds. “With Dean, for Crissakes!” Back in October they’d promised to go together if neither managed to score a real date.
“Oh pu-leez,” I’d groaned, clutching my throat. “Dean pushes that huge belly of his around like a baby carriage!”
Lorraine’s laugh clanged like a can of pennies spilled on the floor. (She didn’t tell me her mother had taken her to a doctor who’d prescribed “diet pills” for appetite-control. Later, she figured out how to get more herself.) “I did make out with him once,” she confessed, “when I was insanely frustrated.”
This weathered platform on the windy lake, near yet far from the manicured lawns of the suburban world above, freed us to be our disconsolate, alienated selves. After we quit laughing we screamed “Crash!” at a passenger plane flying overhead. Oh God, the aircraft took a sudden dive toward the trees, spewing exhaust fumes. “No, please, it was a joke!” we yelled at the sky. Miraculously, the plane heard us and righted itself.
Now Dad unlocks the chained oars. After I clumsily maneuver to the rocking hull, he pushes the “Renee Dee” into the lake. Mom named the second-hand rowboat after her step sister, Renee. Recently we’d learned that my aunt’s fifth husband, Horace Dee, was a bigamist. He had other wives all over the place, and the stores came to take back the fur coat and diamond ring he’d bought my aunt on the installment plan. “When it comes to men, my sister never had an ounce of sense,” Mom summarized.
The water is olive-colored, clear; you can still see to the bottom, not yet strangling with slimy seaweed, as it will be in the August heat. I see the skeleton of another house, sprouting in the new development on the opposite shore. The foundation scars the red dirt that was covered with thick sumac and birch. Already this place is ruined, I think.
Dad rows, his brown hands, not too hairy, gripping the oars. Though it’s chilly, he’s wearing his oil-stained gray shorts; his legs, permanently tanned, are shapely with graceful ankles, like mine. In an old photo of him at 16, he posed, slender and muscular in an old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit; he’s still handsome, and his eyes are still blue, but his greying hair is no longer black. Today he’s wearing a bag of salt around his throat to ease his chronic laryngitis, an old Polish remedy from my Jewish grandmother. I trail my lily-white fingers in the sorrowful green water, like a captive princess in a fairy tale.
“Ahem,” Dad rasps, clearing his hoarse throat, “are you aware of what’s happening in Viet Nam?” He already knows the answer: I’m not aware. When I do read The Times, not that often, I skip those parts, always boring and confusing, and focus on theater reviews and ads for linen dresses with wide leather belts. All I know is that Vietnam is a tiny country somewhere in Asia. We never talk about it in American Civilization class.
“We’re putting more of our people in there,” Dad tells me. He was right. In October of ’61, we had increased American troops and advisors from 600 to 16,000. According to an April, 1962 edition of Life, we’d just sent an additional 4,000, plus helicopters, transport planes, and tactical aircraft, armed with rockets, bombs, chemicals that defoliated jungle along the highways, and sentry dogs to flush out the Viet Cong. All this had cost billions. Yet, President Kennedy warned that it would take “skill, stubbornness, and perhaps ten years” for the South Vietnamese to win the war.
In fact, contrary to official reports, the Vietnam conflict, really a civil war, wasn’t going well. Ngo Diem, the Catholic monk that President Eisenhower had pulled out of a U.S monastery and sent back to Saigon to rule the South, was a problem. The shy, reclusive President ignored our military advisors and listened only to his brothers and flamboyant sister-in-law, Madame Nhu. He seemed to believe the U.S. was in Vietnam to keep his wealthy, elite family in power. He put on big parades in his own honor that Vietnamese citizens weren’t allowed to watch, and did nothing for the Buddhist peasants, who the Viet Cong either killed or helped.
When I scrolled through microfilms of Morris County papers, looking for articles about you, I discovered that on February 27, 1962, three days after you won the National Hurdles Championship in Madison Square Garden, two pilots in President Diem’s own Air Force bombed the Saigon Palace. Borrowing U.S. Navy AD-6 Skyraiders, they engulfed the former home of the French high commissioner in napalm flames, frightening the tame deer on the lawn. Finally they crashed and were captured. This was the third failed coup against the leader, but the histories I’ve read never mention it, and my father didn’t either.
What he was likely to say is, “I trust you understand The Domino Theory.” His tone indicates his doubt.
“Not exactly.” On my forays into Greenwich Village, I’d seen old men knocking walls of black and white dotted squares onto concrete tables in Washington Square.
“It means if we let South Vietnam fall to the Communists,” Dad explains, “the Russians and Chinese will swarm in and take over that entire part of the world.” (In fact, after the third failed coup, the Russians had warned that U.S. aggression against the Viet Cong, in violation of the 1954 Geneva Accord, threatened “alarming consequences” for world peace.) (“Consequences” signified nuclear war.)
“No kidding,” I say. “Is that why you went there?” A Mallard takes off, its tiny wings twittering to hold its heavy body aloft. The duck flies toward the island where “Spring still coys her petticoat frill of first green,” as I wrote in Izzy’s poem.
Then Dad gets to the reason why he lured me into this No Exit boat. “I understand the Wellington boy will be going to Georgetown.” Here we go again. I clutch my red cotton cardigan to my torso, wishing for the warm wool letter sweater you gave me, now hidden from Mom’s prying eyes in my bottom drawer.
“Maybe,” I say, pretending indifference. “I think they want to give him a scholarship, but I’m not sure he’s going there.”
This is the truth. When I bring Georgetown up, you don’t say how great it will be for us to be together in D.C. next year. Recently you’d mentioned trying to get into Michigan, where Hayes Jones is, and I didn’t know whether to feel hurt or relieved. I couldn’t quite picture us in D.C. Would we have an affair? I liked the exciting, dangerous word, but the actuality was hard to imagine. What if you dumped me? Or I met someone new? (I couldn’t see myself wearing a scarf and sunglasses in a fraternity boy’s convertible, like the coeds in Glamour.) If you dated other girls would I flunk out, deranged by jealousy and suicidal despair? (I don’t consider that under different circumstances I might get to know you.) Anyway, no one picked a college because it was close to someone from high school. Couldn’t you be in love in two different places?
Now Dad comes out with it: “Your mother and I are thinking of offering you a chance to study for a semester or two at a French university.”
“Huh?” I’m startled out of my musings. “I’m going to American University in the fall as you very well know,” I say with the contempt that denigrates my parents’ intelligence. (Today I’d ask, “What the fuck?”) How did they dream up this bizarre-o punishment? A breeze riffles up wavelets that slap the Renee Dee with a resonant blip.
“Europe would provide a wonderful opportunity for a future writer,” Dad argues. “‘Fabulous,’ as you would say. Think of the interesting characters you’d meet—poets, actors, jazz musicians…. You’ve been studying French for a few years now, and the Sorbonne offers language courses for foreign students. You could postpone American, and enroll there next year, a more knowledgeable and mature young woman, truly prepared for what higher education has to offer. I can attest you’d enjoy experiencing another culture.” He clears his sore throat. “I’ll be kicking around over there myself, consulting with the allies, so we could dine in authentic cafes and explore the Louvre together.”
“Not France!” My squawk flies out of my mouth like a goose.
“But you’ve always said you wanted to live in Paris someday.”
“Someday, not now,” I sob. “You’re just trying to get me away from Jim.” Tears gush out of my eyes. “I hardly ever see him anyway.” This is more or less true. Last weekend, you told me, you were up in Lake Telemark, playing pool with your new Scandinavian buddies. “Maybe I’m part Swedish,” you said, “Why I have these blond hairs on my arms.”
The boat moves farther away from the shore. “You’re just trying to get rid of me,” I rant at my father, “for no earthly reason.”
“That’s not what your friends are telling us.” The slack muscles in Dad’s arms are straining as he leans into the oars, and his soft furry stomach contracts into folds.
“What in high holy hell are you talking about?”
“Watch your language,” he warns. (He’s slapped me for saying “shit” at the dinner table.) “As it happens, a friend of yours called to tell us they’d seen you with him.”
“Who?” I retort. None of my friends would rat me out. Or would they? For the first time, I feel paranoid. I flip through a mental rolodex of everyone who knows about us. A few weeks ago we hung out in Morty Barr’s kitchen listening to his mom tell how she eloped with his dad a week after they met. She’d hugged you and didn’t act like she minded seeing us together. But maybe she did.
“Someone you think of as a very good friend,” Dad says mysteriously. Was Morty himself the tattletale? I wouldn’t put it past him, the double-crossing little skunk. Could it be Ruthie? Quel Horreur! She definitely qualified as one of my best friends. But recently she’d hinted that the girl hosting the Thespian cast party was against us coming together. I felt shocked and betrayed when Ruthie said, “I don’t think it’s such a good idea either.”
“Maybe they’re lying,” I say to my father. “Did that ever occur to you?”
“You’re the one who’s been lying,” Dad states. “To your mother and myself.”
So people I believed were allies were spying on us. “Where did they see us?” I demand, my voice wavering. I consider jumping over the side and swimming for shore in the icy water. It would serve Dad right if I drowned, or came down with pneumonia, but if I made it, he’d be there at the dinner table, angrier because I worried him with that stupid stunt.
“You have no idea where I go or with who,” I rave on. The last time we got together, we were making out in a strip of woods bordering a two-lane highway while Lorraine and your older brother, Nat, just home from Europe, waited in the car, swigging red wine straight from the bottle. Nat, who’d been a major baseball star at Morristown High School, amazed Lorraine with his stories about the West Bank of Paris. Neither of them would have called my parents.
Dad’s mouth tightens, meaning he’s fed up with me.
“You were the one who taught me that all people are equal,” I say, keeping my eyes on the bottom of the boat. Dad doesn’t reply. He turns the Renee Dee around, his arm pulling one creaky oar.
“I REFUSE to go to France!” My self-control cracks; I’m screaming now. “If you make me go, I’ll run away! I’ll kill myself!” These are my favorite threats but they sound hollow, unconvincing, leftovers from the distant past. As Dad knows, I haven’t run away from home since I was twelve, bundling my babysitting money in a scarf like a hobo would. I’d planned to take the bus to New York, and after that? I didn’t get far. Now I lock my door and run away to my secret thoughts, my poetry and journal. When Mom put me “incommunicado” for not cleaning my room, and wouldn’t let me talk on the phone, I wrote to Lorraine, “I may kill myself. I will swim out to sea and drown like the girl in that Moss Hart play, “The Climate of Eden.” Then I admitted, “I’m only toying with the idea of such a dramatic gesture.”
Now I come up with a more original bombshell to drop on my father: “If you force me to go to France, I’ll become a prostitute on the Champs Elysees.” The girl knows she’s losing it—while she maintains a haughty dignity in fights with her mother, her father quickly reduces her to an infantile fool—but she can’t resist adding, “And I won’t take money from Negro men!”
Dad assumes the bemused expression that distances him from his own Irritation. “That might prove a fascinating subject to write about,” he responds coolly.
After more weighted silence, he asks, speaking just above a whisper, “Do you want to try rowing for a while?”
“No,” I say sullenly, folding my arms across my chest. “You got us out here, you get us back.”
“You’re hurting your mother,” Dad croaks, implying he feels no pain himself.
As I suspected, this all came from her, the Racist. Maybe she dreamed up this Paris scheme when I told her I was moving to France after college. The girl believes that her father, who is big on civil rights, secretly approves of Jim, but sides with his wife to save his marriage.
Now he says, “It may not seem like this to you, but Mother and I are mainly concerned with your happiness.”
About Vicki Lindner, Writing for Peace Adviser
Vicki Lindner is a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist who has published a novel, Outlaw Games, and many short stories, essays, magazine and newspaper articles. She has written about a wide variety of subjects: cooking, bird watching, loneliness, dinosaurs, sculpture, not having children, travel, and medical malpractice. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies, including The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Fiction, Chick-Lit; Post Feminist Fiction, Witness, the Best of Terrain, Del Sol, The American Literary Review, Gastronomica, New York Stories, In Short: An Anthology of Short Creative Non-Fiction, American Nature Writing, Northern Lights, and The Seneca Review. Her short story about karate, “Barefoot to the Bridge in Winter,” was the Fiction Premiere for New York Woman. Most recently, Lindner’s essays were published in Shadowbox and Western Humanities Review. Learn more about her work here.
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