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The Carnation Milk Palace

Was she beautiful, or was she only someone apart?

—Edith Wharton, “New Year’s Day”

 

Fourteen-year-old Charlotte fished the invitation from between unpaid bills—PG&E electric, her dermatologist, Dr. Gass—and a lapsed subscription to Ladies Home Journal. On the engraved card, cartoon bubbles fizzed from a champagne glass, bumped around the words: join glen and stibsy! ring in 1964!

The Haldens were the richest people her parents knew.

She slid the invitation back in with the more-ordinary mail on the antique sewing machine her mother had turned into a side table by painting it avocado green. The Masseys couldn’t afford new things, so her mother had made a domestic career of slapping one of two popular decorating colors over everything in sight. Mr. Massey joked that one day he would wake to find himself painted harvest gold.

The Haldens lived two suburbs over, in the Republican stronghold of Hillsborough, in a mansion her father liked to call the Carnation Milk Palace, like Daly City’s indoor arena, the Cow Palace. Jack Massey and Glen Halden had been students at UCLA’s law school when Glen came into an early inheritance, something to do with Carnation Condensed Milk. Charlotte knew those milk tins, red and white with ruffled, pink carnations; it was her job every Christmas to puncture the squat cans with the church-key opener when she and her mother made marshmallow fudge. Still, it was an unfathomable distance from tins of sweetened yellowish milk to the Haldens’ estate with its ironwork gates, circular driveway, two-tiered fountain, multistoried house, Olympic-sized swimming pool with a blue and white striped cabana. “Filthy rich,” Charlotte’s father, a probate attorney, would say of his old college friend. “Observe how the stinking rich half lives.”

Charlotte had visited the Carnation Milk Palace once when she was ten, a time when a mansion with opulent rooms unfolding in every direction and a green, wandering estate still meant the pleasure of discovery and eluding the vague, condescending gaze of grown-ups. She remembered sitting beneath a broad valley oak, small moths cupped and panicking in her hands, the dark gold dust from their wings leaving smudges on her white palms and party dress. She couldn’t remember if she had been alone or with other children.

The Masseys attended the Haldens’ New Year’s Eve party every year, and for two to three days afterwards, Charlotte’s mother boiled over with rage. Compared to the Haldens’, her life came up irredeemably short, and she took it out on everyone and everything around her. Even the ivory invitation displayed on the mantel would be ripped in half and thrown out, along with its matching envelope and green foil lining. The sight of it sparked a sick envy in Mrs. Massey even as it lent status, a status she suspected derived more from nostalgia than equality.

Years later, one week shy of Mrs. Massey’s eighty-first birthday (did one never stop learning uncomfortable things?), she began confiding secrets to her daughter, small burdens of conscience Charlotte supposed her mother didn’t want lugging to her grave. Glen Halden, for instance, whose untimely death years before in a boating accident had put an end to the New Year’s Eve parties and to Stibsy Halden’s charmed life, had once been madly in love with her mother. For an entire college year, every Friday, he’d had scarlet tea roses delivered to the modest bungalow where she lived with her parents. One Christmas Eve, he proposed beside the unlit fireplace with its cold brass andirons and single stocking dangling from the mantel. Scissored from red felt, the stocking had a green sequined cuff with her name, Hazel, looping in green glitter down to the toe.

Clouding the whole of her mother’s adult life was regret, self-recrimination. Who might she have been, what sort of glamorous life might she have led, as Mrs. Glen Halden? She had refused one of California’s most eligible bachelors and married poor Jack Massey. (Actually, she had been

Charlotte recalled her father’s morning ritual—inspecting his smooth-shaven cheeks in the bathroom mirror while declaring, “You handsome devil, you!”

pregnant with Charlotte’s sister, Evelyn, the elopement a forced, hasty affair with a ceremony held in the cluttered parlor of a Methodist minister in Yuma, Arizona, a secret Mrs. Massey did take to her grave—or thought she did. Before either of them became mothers, Evelyn and Charlotte easily guessed the truth of Evie’s illegitimacy.) When Charlotte, freshly aware of the odds of her own birth, asked why her mother had married her father in the first place, Mrs. Massey said she supposed it had to do with Glen being too decent. “Dull as a post. His flowers were predictable, expense meant nothing to him, and my parents’ dining room reeked of roses. Almost a blight—they turned me against the color red. Your father, on the other hand, was the best dancer at UCLA. He won all the contests, was blond, tall, elusive. Sex appeal, you’d say now. He didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but all us girls went after him.”

Charlotte recalled her father’s morning ritual—inspecting his smooth-shaven cheeks in the bathroom mirror while declaring, “You handsome devil, you!”

“To this day, I don’t understand why I married your father, Charlie. We eloped, two crazy kids, and it took Evie’s birth for my parents to speak to me again. It’s awful to think Jack’s gone—sometimes I still think I’ll find him sitting in the next room.”

Charlotte’s father had died of an aneurysm, alone and, according to the coroner, painlessly.

 

The day the Haldens’ card arrived, Charlotte came home from school with an invitation of her own, hoping her parents might be relieved she had somewhere to go. Her one friend, Moira Duffy, had asked her to sleep over on New Year’s Eve, adding that Mr. Duffy could drive Charlotte home before mass the next morning. Charlotte was not Roman Catholic—she was not anything, not even baptized. Sending her to the Convent of the Sacred Heart had been a calculated, costly decision on her parents’ part. Many of the girls in the private school came from old California families; every season, there were debutantes. The President of Mexico’s twin daughters were boarders at the school and stuck together, inseparable. In the back of the convent’s old-fashioned classrooms, they sat behind heavy oak desks, buffing one another’s fingernails, giggling, whispering in Spanish. Yawning with moist, ripe, red mouths, they reminded Charlotte of languid tropical blooms.

 

“No.”  The word, clipped, dry, was muffled by the evening newspaper, a print wall raised before her father’s face.

“But . . . ”

“No.” This time more vehement, so the thin pages of the paper shook a little.

“Why not?” On thin ice, asking.

At this show of defiance, demonstrating precisely why he didn’t want his daughter going over to that girl’s house—these days disrespect was as contagious as poverty—Mr. Massey lowered the newspaper to his lap.

To avoid having to look at her father’s crew cut, his new, pencil-thin mustache that so upset her mother, the squint of his eyes, Charlotte stared down at her saddle shoes, their dingy laces. Her father rarely allowed her to do anything, saying only that while she was under his roof, it was his job to protect her from “the real world.”

“Boys, that’s why not. Boys.” In that one word lay his daughter’s potential defilement, her ruin.

Charlotte knew two boys. Werner Leipzig, oldest of nine, attended Woodside Priory, a small, exclusive boys’ school. The Leipzigs permitted him two activities: babysitting his siblings and maintaining his status as the top student in his school (valedictorian of his class, Werner would go on to Stanford with a full scholarship). Charlotte had seen him on three occasions, two supervised—the Fall Tea, where they’d met in a fussily furnished, salmon-colored parlor next to the school chapel, and at the winter dance, heavily chaperoned, in the school’s Little Theater. The second boy, Owen Harmon, was Werner’s best friend. Owen spent holidays in Manhattan with his mother, a Jungian analyst, and the academic year with his father, a popular liberal columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Emulating his father, Owen was a left-leaning political animal. He wore rumpled corduroy jackets with leather elbow patches and got away with wearing his unruly, fawn-colored hair too long. Being the only child of divorced parents gave him cachet, as did his parents’ wealth, a portion of which, it was rumored, kept the priory afloat. Charlotte, Werner, Moira, and Owen had gone on one double date—to a pizza parlor in Menlo Park with black painted walls and strobe lighting. Afterward, when Werner accidentally scraped the tires of his father’s green and white VW van against the curb in front of the Masseys’ ranch-style house, Charlotte’s mother was caught peeking through the kitchen café curtains, a pink plastic bonnet covering her giant sponge curlers. That night, Charlotte had fallen in love, not with morose, lantern-jawed Werner but with his friend, Owen. A creeping, unfair revulsion toward Werner had taken hold as she’d studied the teasing ringlets of Owen’s hair falling over the back of his russet corduroy collar, listened to him go on about his father’s lead article on the Civil Rights Movement in the Catholic Worker and express his own defiant opinion about the criminality of the Vietnam War. This was after the March on Washington, which Owen’s father had taken part in, just three weeks before the assassination of the first Roman Catholic president. At Charlotte’s house, no one ever mentioned what was going on in the larger world. Watching the nightly news, the black-and-white footage of race riots and marches, a jungle war and faraway atrocities, her parents sat impassive in their matching wing chairs. To speak one’s mind, to take exception or to openly disagree over war, religion, or race, was so far outside Charlotte’s experience that she naturally fell headlong in love with this radical messenger, his news of the world, his curling, Byronic hair.

 

On the night of the Haldens’ party, Charlotte found her mother in her parents’ pink and black tiled bathroom, doing her makeup, or as Mr. Massey liked to say, “spackling on her party face.” Charlotte was not yet permitted to wear makeup, only a bit of lipstick, and Vaseline on her lashes, for special occasions.

If her father laid down the rules and her mother embellished them, Charlotte preferred to hole up in her bedroom, burning black cones of Chinatown incense and writing poems that Mother Lussier, to Charlotte’s mortification, occasionally read aloud in class.

“Last year, at least Evie was home.” A freshman at a girls’ college back east, Charlotte’s older sister rarely wrote or called her family. When an overweight, defiant version of Evie flew back for a visit that spring, nightly arguments erupted like blood sport between her and her father in the living room. When Mr. Massey put his foot down, refusing to let Evelyn return to her private college, ostensibly because she had let herself run to fat but actually because he could no longer afford the tuition—a local community college would do—Evelyn retaliated. She eloped.

Mrs. Massey pressed her eyelash curler against one eye, clamping and squeezing. “You won’t be alone, didn’t your father tell you? You’ll be with us. There will be loads of people. Friends of Glen Jr.’s and Anne’s too, if they haven’t gone back to school yet.” In the stage-lit mirror, she narrowed one free eye on Charlotte, who sat on the toilet seat with its black shag cover. “Wear your royal-blue wool trapeze dress with your new black Capezio flats. And Charlie, do pull your hair back like I showed you. You have such a little peanut face, why must you hide it with all that hair?”

Charlotte’s parents worried about a number of things, not the least being Moira Duffy, a social nullity contributing nothing to their hopes for Charlotte. Not only did her bursting-at-the-seams family exemplify the enthusiasm to overbreed, then accept handouts from more practical members of their faith who covertly practiced birth control, Moira was rebellious, shifty-eyed, a smart aleck whose bohemian tendencies were fast putting her on perdition’s low road. According to Mr. Massey’s city sources, a Free Love movement was underway. The Duffy girl seemed doomed by her own reactionary character to become part of it. A hippie. A flower child. God only knew what.

Both Duffy girls, Bridget and Moira, had full scholarships to the convent. Charity cases, Charlotte’s mother sniffed. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas season, funds were quietly collected from the wealthier school families, and bags of food delivered to the dilapidated white clapboard house in Menlo Park’s low-income, slightly seedy neighborhood. Charlotte had been to the Duffys’ once, riding her bike over after school. In the kitchen, Bridget was shooing various dogs and cats in and out past the screen door, shoving a tuna casserole in the oven while a marmalade kitten with mange and one bloodied eye cowered inside a large cardboard box, two of the Duffy boys handling it so roughly that Charlotte felt sick and couldn’t watch. Bridget was a top student in her class, and for the talent show had played her guitar and sung “Oh, Danny Boy,” an Irish lament that caused mothers in the audience to weep and see themselves abiding “in sunshine or in shadow” as their children grew up, grew past them, were gone. Bridget’s ethereal voice surprised everyone that night, lofting out of her squat body, plain-as-an-old-shoe features, and square, dustpan haircut. While Bridget won academic prizes and slaved for her six brothers and sisters, Moira leapt about, imagining herself a dancer, a revolutionary living at a formidable distance, far, far away.

Charlotte had never seen Mrs. Duffy, who lived up a set of steep, toy-raddled stairs with cheaply framed photographs of Pope John XXIII, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus nailed along the wall. She was on bed rest, doctor’s orders, until the eighth baby was born, and on the day Charlotte visited, she twice heard her thin, querulous voice calling down for something, once for peace and quiet, another time for tea. No one paid any attention.

Staying for dinner, Charlotte had been shocked by the meager portions scooped onto each of the seven plates, eight, including hers. When, out of habit and appetite, she held out her empty plate (pale green, heavily scratched melamine) for a second helping, she saw too late the scraped-clean casserole dish. At the Massey home, platefuls of food, tightly wrapped in foil or Saran, got tossed after a day or two, at the first whiff of staleness.

After dinner, Mr. Duffy, a wordless man with an air of defeated elegance, hefted Charlotte’s bicycle into the back of a battered old station wagon and drove her home. In the kitchen, she opened the refrigerator, reached around her mother’s perfectly stacked cans of chocolate-flavored Metrecal (“liquid chalk,” Mr. Massey called it), and fixed herself a second dinner from that night’s leftovers, stroganoff and rice.

 

Charlotte had been permitted to invite only two school friends over for sleepovers. Coral Lynch, from Baltimore, had bushy, liver-colored hair, protuberant eyes, metal braces on her teeth, and a snoring affliction that had kept Charlotte awake all night, ready to pitch things at the second twin bed where Coral was indelicately lodged, sawing. Her second guest had been Mariko Takahashi from Osaka, a pretty girl with downcast, thick-lashed eyes, a convert who, upon graduation, elected to be swallowed up forever in a cloister in Belgium. Years later, when Charlotte had become a middle-class wife and mother of two girls, she and Mariko began exchanging annual Christmas cards. It was a thrill to Charlotte, diminished by domestic tasks and tempted to have an affair with someone, anyone, to find Mariko’s envelope among the ordinary holiday cards, with its foreign stamps and feather-weight, blue airmail stationery, the cloister’s French address penned with cobalt ink in Mariko’s impeccable, personalityless hand. The Masseys had approved of Coral’s plainness and Mariko’s courtesy, but had they known, neither would have cared for the Osaka girl’s obsession with Jesus. In the tidy, secular darkness of Charlotte’s bedroom, Mariko confessed she was, in her heart, already a bride of Christ. Charlotte envied her friend’s devotion; in her own home, religion was contemptible, a superstition. She ached for an outsized fate, some operatic destiny as sacrificial and epicene as Mariko’s. Although she was outwardly docile, Charlotte’s inner life teemed, and when Mother Lussier read her villanelle aloud in class, the nun’s praise distancing her from her classmates, Mr. Massey read that same poem and said Charlotte must have copied it from a book. What book? his wife asked. Mr. Massey didn’t know.

By contrast, Moira Duffy’s inner and outer lives were interchangeable. A willful bloom flashing up from the parched, rocky soil of her family, she intended to be a famous dancer in Paris or New York. Not ballet, deformity disguised as grace, but free, natural movement, modern dance. Her heroines were Isadora Duncan and Joan of Arc. Both, she told Charlotte, suffered unforgettable deaths, both stood for something. With untrammeled confidence, Moira persuaded Reverend

Moira wafted defiantly about the basement, barelegged in a short-sleeved black leotard, a hand-me-down so worn the fabric shone in places.

Mother Flanagan, head of the convent school, to let her organize an after-school dance class. Borrowing a record player from the school’s music teacher, a clarinet-playing spinster named Pinky Hoare, Moira swept out a practice space in the ill-lit, mildew-smelling basement. The class was a substitute for physical education, held after school on Mondays and Wednesdays, when one could choose tennis or soccer, gawking about with a racket or a stick in the convent’s gym uniform, a bilious mint-green one-suit with short, square sleeves, elasticized waist, and knee-length triangular shorts. Instead, Moira wafted defiantly about the basement, barelegged in a short-sleeved black leotard, a hand-me-down so worn the fabric shone in places. Her one pupil, Charlotte, wore a still-new leotard, tights, and slippers bought for a YMCA ballet class she had dropped out of after two lessons, since the class only exposed how discomfited she felt in her own body.

Angular, pointy-nosed, histrionic, Moira wore her gruel-thin hair parted down the middle. She plugged it behind her big ears, which made them stick out more, and let it fall, a limp, yellow, dispirited banner, past her bottom. Charlotte believed she was learning a great deal, being Moira’s friend, but was never quite sure what. Confidence? That it was possible to convince a stern old knacker like Reverend Mother Flanagan that modern dance was an acceptable substitute for soccer? That while Moira’s older sister might labor, saintlike, at home, wiping the snotty noses and dirty bottoms of the Duffy brood, Moira could soar, swanlike and free, through that dingy, untidy household? That, she, Charlotte, might one day soar, too?

In dance class, Moira whipped her limbs like pale tentacles around the shadowy humid basement, Charlotte trailing in her wake. They danced to the only record Moira owned, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. When the janitor limped down the cement stairs at 5 p.m. to switch off the lights, the two dancers, sweaty, liberated, pedaled their bikes past the convent’s black iron gates into the golden, cooling dusk, pumping off in different directions, Moira to her crummy neighborhood, Charlotte toward homes whose owners aspired to affluence through elbow grease, cutting corners, painting over.

Because she was possessed of an eerie, eruptive self-confidence and was Bridget Duffy’s sister, Moira was uneasily respected by her classmates. On poetry day, standing in front of the class, she recited E. E. Cummings’s “i like my body when it is with your body,” until a beet-faced Mother Lussier, who may or may not have known the poem, stopped her after the lines, “i like kissing this and that of you, / i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz / of your electric fur . . . ” There was something uncompromising, hinting of heroism, even principled martyrdom, about Moira; everyone left her alone. She openly mocked the President of Mexico’s phlegmatic daughters, wrote an essay about her class ring (paid for by donations from other families), calling the gold heart of Jesus in its ruby setting an “orbit of power.” She was the first to use tampons, refusing the “bloody saddles” other girls wore, telltale maroon stains on the backs of their uniforms. Out of earshot of the nuns, she peppered her speech with “damns,” “hells,” “merdes,” and “double-merdes,” and on sidewalks, flashed peace signs at complete strangers driving by in cars. In Shakespeare class, she raised her hand to declare the word nun a slang word for prostitute in Shakespeare’s time, and that when Hamlet told Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery,” it was a clever insult, because what Shakespeare really meant was that Ophelia should get herself to a brothel.

By throwing in her lot with Moira Duffy, Charlotte ensured her own social exile. Taking her cue from Moira, she first pretended not to mind, then didn’t. On occasion, they conformed. Accepting a classmate’s invitation to be in the annual talent show, Moira and Charlotte performed a soft-shoe routine with top hats made of black papier-mâché, swinging orthopedic canes and singing “Here Come the Beatnik Cats.” They took modest roles in the school play, Mary, Queen of Scots. As a lady-in-waiting, Charlotte proffered a single curtsied line, “Your Majesty, the Lords of the Council are here,” while Moira, one of many Lords, said nothing. On the whole, however, they preferred the periphery, the fringe.

 

At the last minute, Mrs. Massey changed from fuchsia Capri pants, a matching blouse knotted at the midriff, and turquoise flats to a conservative black peplum sheath with a slim rhinestone belt and black satin pumps. Charlotte and her father waited in the foyer, next to the avocado sewing-machine table. “Your mother’s got your old dad cooling his heels again, right, Brunhilda?” (When had he started calling her Brunhilda? She hated it.) Mr. Massey had on his best sport coat and tie, and smelled of Old Spice. He had shaved off his mustache and looked himself again. Itching in her blue trapeze dress, Charlotte wore the same black cotton tights she’d worn earlier that day in the school basement where, attempting splits on the concrete floor, she’d ripped a hole in the crotch. Twin flaps of hair, pulled forward, hardly concealed her acne, impervious to Dr. Gass’s ultraviolet treatments. She had put on pink lipstick, borrowed her mother’s mascara. Her father was shaking his keys. “Time to shove off, Haze! Eins zwei drei!” On cue, as if she were an actress, her mother swam out of the dark hallway, perfumed, alight in achieved beauty. After two Jack Danielses, Mr. Massey was prone to refer to his wife as “the old goat,” but he had not yet had his first drink, so was silent about her appearance. In fact, he was already out the door, leaving Charlotte to tell her mother she looked nice, which wasn’t the same thing, of course.

In the red Mustang he’d bought last summer, an exorbitant birthday gift for himself, Mr. Massey took note of his wife’s attractiveness with a short, earthy grunt of approval. Mrs. Massey reciprocated, complimenting her husband for doing away with his “horrible lip caterpillar.” Otherwise, the half-hour drive was tense with anticipation on her parents’ part, dread on Charlotte’s. She felt exposed, dressed up. In her convent uniform—a glaucous-blue circular skirt, white blouse, and matching vest, dreamed up by some clothes designer in Cairo, Egypt—she could be invisible.

They drove through cool, bracing, coastal darkness. Giant pin oak and eucalyptus trees hung close over winding roads as they passed increasingly large estates, jewel-bright mansions tucked deep inside the properties. Eschewing the turn signal, Mr. Massey swung his car neatly into a long, tree-bordered driveway. In the distance, a tall ship of blazing lights, the Carnation Milk Palace floated, miragelike. Anticipating Glen Halden’s showcase of expensive liquor, Jack Massey smiled indulgently at his wife. This is when Charlotte liked him best, her father, when he was enigmatic but not unkind, with a minor hint of male charm.

“The cars, Jack, so many!”

“Same ones every year, Haze. Same rich lunkheads.”

“The valet. Did you bring money for a tip? Charlie dear, do put your hair behind your ears. Let people see your face. Charlotte’s turning into a beauty, Jack.”

The car’s interior was stifling, ripe with Old Spice, Eau de Joy, and the icy, naphthalene odor of mothballs from the black Persian-lamb coat her mother wore on special occasions. The coat had belonged to Charlotte’s grandmother. Charlotte had worn it for dress-up, tottering about in her mother’s heels, swinging a tiny patent-leather purse, empty but for a copper coin, the coat itself, animal-like, dragging on the floor behind her.

Standing in the entryway, a lean, rectangular woman wearing a black dress, a white apron, and a pleated paper cap like a nurse’s greeted the Masseys. Throughout the Milk Palace’s vast first floor, men and women in uniform hovered around the guests with a trained air of imperturbability, formal neutrality. They were all what her parents would call “Negroes,” and what Owen, echoing his father, would call “black people.”

Whenever she belittled someone for putting on airs, for acting “high and mighty,” Charlotte’s mother would say, “Look who’s all hoity toity.” Now Hazel Massey was hoity toity, standing

If the Carnation Milk Palace were her home, she would stay up late reading book after book, ride her bike everywhere, have all the sleepovers, even boyfriends, she wanted.

exaggeratedly still so one of the uniformed men could slip the Persian lamb with its tight, glossy black curls off her bare shoulders, letting a second man wait as she chose a glass of chilled champagne to take from the silver tray, took an appraising first sip. Mr. Massey had ducked off to find more substantial drink.

In the marble-floored foyer, Charlotte shrunk to a speck, listening to the sounds of the party down the hall somewhere, the live band music, and the hot, insect hum of conversation. She was beginning to panic when a man with a head of high, snowy hair emerged from a room off the hall and came toward her, smiling. Wearing a Scotch plaid vest and giving off a florid, patrician heat, Mr. Halden took up each of her freezing hands in his own and kissed them. Her disloyalty was swift; she wanted this man for a father. But having greeted her, a gold watch winking out from his starched shirt cuff, Mr. Halden quickly left, to be smoothly replaced by his wife, Stibsy, columned in cerise velvet, a ropey glitter around her taut, dusky throat. Diamonds, Charlotte heard her mother say. Real diamonds. Above their cruel gleam, Stibsy Halden’s face was rugose, creased from long summers of sailing her yacht. How delighted she was to see Charlotte, how terribly pretty and grown-up she’d become! As she swept Charlotte up in an embrace that smelled of Dove soap, Charlotte’s disloyalty, fed by fury at her parents for not letting her stay at Moira’s house, redoubled. She wanted these people, so kind, permissive, solidly rich, for her parents. If the Carnation Milk Palace were her home, she would stay up late reading book after book, ride her bike everywhere, have all the sleepovers, even boyfriends, she wanted. She and Moira would drape themselves, lithe serpents, over the banisters, perform brilliantly in plays, do underwater handstands in the pool at night. It would be a place where almost anything was acceptable and everyone, especially Charlotte, would be loved.

Stibsy Halden, pan-rumped, flat as a playing card, firmly guided Charlotte down the long main hallway toward the party, dropping her at the entrance to the ballroom with a word to someone standing nearby—“Take care of our lovely young friend, will you? Doesn’t she just remind you of Debbie Reynolds? I must dash back . . . other guests . . . ”

Pressing her back against a wall of beveled oak paneling, Charlotte lifted a glass of champagne from the tray held by a man (black, not Negro) with an elegantly cut, disdainful face. Raising the glass to her lips, champagne fizz tickling her nose, she peered from between thick blinders of hair. Everyone in the room was her parents’ age or older. There must be a library, a rose garden, some better escape than the refuge she had found during a debutante ball in Atherton her mother had once wrangled an invitation to. After one dance with a boy more tongue-tied than she was, Charlotte had shut herself up in a beige toilet stall, reading a Mother Stuart religious tract over and over until nine o’clock, when she found a pay phone and called her father to come get her. At least the Carnation Milk Palace, sumptuous, fragranced, reflecting the affable personality of its owners, promised some better sanctuary.

When the waiter with the silver tray stopped in front of her again, Charlotte exchanged her emptied champagne glass for a new, full one. At the far end of the ballroom, the band played her father’s favorite music from the Big Band era. On the tightly packed, dimly lit dance floor, couples circled, while along the perimeter, guests sipped cocktails, drifted about, conversed. A dark knot of men huddled in one corner laughing, no doubt telling off-color jokes (Charlotte had seen her father at the center of these groups, and overheard, half-comprehending, his dirty remarks). But he was on the dance floor, whirling a meaty woman in a bursting taffeta sheath as if she were gossamer. The dance ended, he glided over. By his breath, Charlotte guessed he was on his third or fourth drink. He was usually still pleasant between the second and third. “How about a spin with your old dad, Brunhilda?” As the band launched into one of her father’s favorite swing tunes, “Let’s Dance,” the same waiter took her emptied champagne glass, his expression contemptuous.

Her father was lubricated, limber, in perfect control. Charlotte twirled the wrong way twice, stepped on one of her father’s long, polished shoes, banged into another couple, tripped again. Frowning, her father pulled her closer. Relax, follow the man’s lead, you’re too tense. But she was flustered, all mistake. Worse, she’d humiliated him. Before the dance was over, he walked her to the edge of the floor and pulled from the sidelines a pert, blond woman in olive slacks who kept up with his every move. Dancing with women was what her father did best. He receded from Charlotte, absorbed back into a blurred kaleidoscope of dancers.

Lifting the microphone, crackling, from its stand, the DJ called everyone out on the floor to dance to a new song topping the nation’s pop charts. Hired to humor wealthy, middle-aged Republicans, the band, bored and dutiful up to now, came crashing to life with Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” “Come on baby, let’s do the twist! Come on baaaby...”

A woman standing close to Charlotte cupped one hand to her mouth, shouting, “I’m afraid this is our exit, dear. We’re much too old for twisting. Walt will twist his lower back right out!” Walt bared short, yellow teeth in a goosey honk, and the couple vanished. Charlotte seized a third glass of champagne, avoiding the face of the man holding the tray, gulped it down. She could at least tell Moira she had gotten drunk. “Come on, baby, let’s do the twist, come on baby, let’s do the twist . . .” The music was deafening, off-key. Mothers with bouffant, teased hair, wearing sleeveless holiday shifts, fathers, jackets off, shirt sleeves rolled up, gyrated, twisting their thickening waistlines side to side, up and down. Flushed with drink, one couple hustled over to Charlotte, pounced. “You’re the only teenager in the whole damned room, c’mon, show us!” The woman took her empty glass, the man towed her onto the dance floor, everyone closing in, singing, clapping. Charlotte began to twist. (Moira said it was the easiest, stupidest, most merde dance ever.) They imitated her, the mothers and fathers, loosening up, catching on, then quickly forgetting her. No one noticed when Charlotte ducked out, threading her way through the twisting couples, the sickening reek of sweat, alcohol, perfume. Out in the silent hallway, hoping for a bathroom, Charlotte pulled on the nearest door. It opened into a cold, forbidding room. Farther down, she tried a second door. It opened into the library she had hoped existed.

They looked like a magazine advertisement for cigarettes or the perfect brassiere. A reed-thin woman in black, seductively arched against a room-length bookcase, bare arms outspread, a young man pursuant, closing in. The woman’s face sparkled, her pelvis tipped against his, a provocative pose. Pelvises were depraved, important. (She’d learned other words from Moira—crotch, twat, pussy, and the funniest—beaver. “Down there,” her mother called it. Her father remained silent on the subject, though Charlotte, sneaking around in his den one day, had unearthed a deck of playing cards, naked women coyly posed on the glossy face of each one.)

The young man was no one Charlotte had seen before. Seeing her daughter, Mrs. Massey immediately straightened up, reached casually for her drink.

“Charlie, darling, don’t hang back! Come meet James, he’s a medical student at Stanford, a budding cardiologist. We’re chatting, looking at books while we’re still stuck here in 1963.”

Forced to shake his warm, flaccid hand, she saw James was half her mother’s age, much nearer her own.

“I saw you,” he smirked. “Dancing.”

“Charlotte? Dancing?” Her mother sounded intoxicated, flirty, asinine. She never read books.

“Considering it was music from—apologies—another generation, she did great.”

“Her father gave up trying to teach her. She and her little hippie friend are doing some sort of modern dance now. No proper steps, no skill, all flopping about.”

“Really? Are you a hippie, Charlotte?” Insolence corrupted his mouth, his handsome features. He smiled, but his eyes held a brooding look, melancholy, as if he felt cheated of something.

“No, I’m not. Excuse me, I need to find a bathroom.”

James politely held the door for Charlotte as she edged out of the library. Slipping off her flats, holding them in one hand, she tiptoed up the stairs, her feet soothed by the plush, white carpet. Everything was spinning.

“Want to have some fun?”

His hand caught her waist.

She wondered what Moira, always bold, would do now. What Moira would urge her to try. She felt slightly sick.

Upstairs, he held Charlotte’s hand, opening doors until he found the room he wanted. In the unheated darkness, he pulled her beside a bed hilled with guests’ winter coats, thrust his thick rough-grained tongue in her mouth, bleak and sour from champagne. (Werner had kissed her once, a timid, dry peck she nearly hadn’t bothered to record in her diary.) Pushing her onto the perfumed, uneven layer of coats, he shoved her dress above her hips, awkwardly pulled at her black tights until they were down past her knees. His hair, cut short like her father’s, bristled against the naked skin of her thighs.

He raised his head. “What’s the matter with you? You’re shaking like a leaf.”

Charlotte lay trembling, wool dress bunched around her waist. Her back hurt.

Brushing a hand over the top of his hair, he shook his head as if to clear it, stood up.

“Hey, sorry. I was out of line just now. I had the wrong idea about you.” On his way to the door, he turned back, spoke as if he could see her. “You’re a beautiful girl, you know that? And way too innocent. You need to watch out for assholes like me.”

When she was sure he had gone, Charlotte stood, pulled up her torn tights, straightened her dress. Sitting back on edge of the bed, the room still whirling a little, she reached with her fingertips, among the richly textured coats, mink, camel’s hair, velvet, until she felt the cool, tight coils of black Persian lamb.

 

The party had moved farther off, a faint congregation of voices  . . . seven, six, five, four, three, two, ONE! Happy New Year! . . . drunken shouts, the blat of cheap party horns, a banal, forlorn-sounding noise, dying off.

Coming downstairs, Charlotte held her mother’s coat, lined with its fraying silk moiré, over one arm.

They stood by the front door, her parents, talking with another couple waiting for their car. Her mother turned. “Heavens, Charlie, you missed ringing in the New Year! We were about to send out the troops.”

Her father ignored her.

Bringing their car around to the entrance, the valet swung each door wide, waited until they were settled inside to wish them a happy new year.

 

On a densely wooded, unlit road, less than a mile from the Carnation Milk Palace, Mr. Massey missed a curve, running the Mustang off the road into a shallow ditch. Mrs. Massey calmly offered to drive but, at her husband’s look, drew her coat tighter around her and stared out the car window. Craning his head back, one arm gripping the top of the front seat, Mr. Massey gunned the car so violently it leapt from the ditch and landed at a sharp angle on the road. Charlotte, in the shadows of the back seat, started to cry.

“What? What the hell’s the matter? We’re all fine here.”

“Jack.”

“You too, Hazel. You made a pretty wide ass of yourself tonight with that college brat.”

Mrs. Massey opened her car door. “That’s it. I’m walking home.”

“Simmer down, Haze. Get back in the car. I didn’t mean it.”

Yes, you did, thought Charlotte. You meant every word.

 

She trailed her father toward the house as he cursed his way up the porch steps, then turned to help her mother, still in the dark car, head bowed, shoulders small inside her coat’s secondhand glamour.

Later, in bed, Charlotte imagined ways to tell Moira about the New Year’s Eve party—the Haldens, the Milk Palace, the champagne, the stupid dancing, her mother’s embarrassing flirtation with a college boy who would follow Charlotte up the stairs into a dark bedroom, his French-kissing her, half-undressing her, then leaving her, respecting her or saving himself, who knew, but the first boy ever to tell her what she most wanted to hear, that she was beautiful.

She would not tell Moira what she now suspected, that terrible things happened all the time, secret, violating things. And she could hardly know, not yet, that this foul prince would be the first of many to lead her to his own pleasure, poisoning the pure ideal, the sweet well of herself, before reviving her with a cold word like beauty and, later, love.