Every afternoon before I get off, she asks,”Wanna come over?”
My answer always, “Sure.”
I walk a block down Westholm then cut through the Jensen’s backyard on the corner, through the Paisano’s and the Mendelson’s until I get to her house with red salvia planted in the triangle between the front porch and the front walk. I ring her doorbell and she ushers me into the front hall beside the telephone table. We bypass her perfect living room with matching furniture and a blonde Baldwin piano, and head straight for the basement. There is a laundry area at the bottom of the stairs. Shirtwaist dresses and blouses with Peter Pan collars hang on an exposed pipe, above an ironing board. There are shelves stocked with canned goods right next to shelves laden with toys. Linda digs through the pile and pulls out a doll made of coconuts that her parents brought back from Hawaii. I grab a can of Dole pineapple rings. We crouch inside an empty TV console and make up a commercial. Linda shakes the doll into a hula while I hold up my can, urging homemakers to use only Dole pineapple rings for all their upside down cakes and ambrosia salads. Our sales pitch dissolves into giggles, and we lurch out of the set in search of more products and props.
After April vacation, Linda comes back from her grandmother’s house in Sarasota, Florida with a tan the same color as the heavy camel’s hair coat she still needs in Schenectady. She has the same pretty face with freckles across her nose. She wears the same dresses buttoned down the back with a bow tied above the poufy skirt. But her skin seems to glow, making her teeth and white ankle socks look even whiter.
Linda’s parents are going to a spring dinner dance at the Mohawk Club, and she invites me to sleep over. A babysitter answers the door. Holding my pillow, I stand mesmerized as Mrs. Zinn applies coral lipstick in front of the mirror above the telephone table. She looks like a movie star in her slim indigo evening gown, a thread of stardust around her bronzed neck. Mr. Zinn clumps downstairs wearing black pants with a black satin stripe on each leg, a white dinner jacket, and a black bowtie. After they kiss Linda good-bye, Mr. Zinn winks at me and says, “Be good!”
When the door shuts, the babysitter slumps into the seat beside the phone and dials her boyfriend. Linda and I race upstairs and bounce on her bed until our foreheads gleam with sweat. We boing off the mattress and Linda leads the way into her parent’s bedroom. No clothes hang on chairs. No slippers litter the floor. Ceramic lamps with barrel- shaped shades stand on twin bedside tables. A golden bedspread is accented by teal throw pillows. A long modern dresser is topped with a golden tray filled with lotions, powders, and perfume atomizers complete with tassels. I squeeze one of the puff balls. Linda says the fragrance is her mother’s favorite, Madam Rochas.
Linda slides open her mother’s closet to display even more evening gowns in tangerine, turquoise, and black satin. The long dresses brush a shoe rack lined with Cinderella heels.
I tell Linda I want to be tan like her and her beautiful movie star mom. Linda explains you just put on your bathing suit and swim in your grandmother’s pool. Somehow the sunshine gets into your skin, and it changes color. She shows me a picture of her grandparent’s mansion, brown stucco with wrought iron curlicues.
After school is out, my family visits my grandmother in Martinsburg, West Virginia. She doesn’t have a pool, so I leave my right arm out the car window. The next day my skin is not tan. It is so red and sore, my mother sprays it with Unguentin.
Upon our return, I notice a National geographic on our coffee table. The cover shows a girl my age in a white embroidered blouse. Her face is even tanner than Linda’s. Her lips are brown and full. I open the medicine cabinet and draw on thick, brown lips with my mom’s Maybelline eyebrow pencil. I look nothing like Linda or the Mexican girl on the magazine.
Linda and I decide our parents should be best friends too. My mom invites the Zinns over for hamburgers, homemade French fries, and toss salad. We eat around our metal picnic table in the mosquitoey backyard. Linda invites me to swim at the Mohawk Club. Mrs. Zinn watches our underwater handstands from a chaise in a black, zip-up maillot. Her toenails are painted the same coral as her lipstick. My mother is our Girl Scout leader. She takes our troop to a camp out at Dakonaweda and teaches us how to squat by a small fire and fry an egg on top of a Hi-C grape juice can.
The summer before eleventh grade, Linda rescues a raccoon cub whose mother was hit by a car. She names him Nicholas. Nicky is adorable until his claws are big enough to shred furniture and scratch bare legs. That same summer Mr. Zinn buys Mrs. Zinn a red Mustang convertible. Before school resumes, Linda sleeps over at my house. Upon her return there is a hearse parked in her driveway. It takes away her mother’s model body destroyed by cancer.
As a middle-aged adult Linda returns to Schenectady for a class reunion. She knocks on my mother’s front door looking for her long, lost friend, but I am not there. Linda has become a professional photographer, her passion, wildlife. My mother is proud that Linda has even done work for National geographic. She shows me the picture Linda took of both of them. I see a tall, tanned movie star hugging her little, old Girl Scout leader. The one who taught her how to pitch a tent and sail on a lake. The one who helped her release an orphaned animal into the wilds of Dakonaweda.
Photography is about capturing the heart of things in an image. Linda’s snapshot freezes all the moments I wasted wishing my mom was Madame Rochas. All the moments I wasted trying to be chocolate when born strawberry. How suddenly obvious that love is what gets under our skin, making us glow against this dark world so eager to sell counterfeits that never satisfy.