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108 FEBRUARY 2008
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Snail Silk: The Story of Nora

Bette Bottger Simons

You can view Chapters One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven and Eight of this serialised and previously unpublished book before you read Chapter Nine. – Eds

Chapter 9

High school, Sherman Oaks, 1992

Dear Mother,

I think I inherited my arms from you. Here are the words my arms bring to mind: discus thrower, square shoulders, large square hands, long fingers...

When I was a child, the nurse once marveled at my large wrist bone “big as a jaw breaker. She had never seen one so large.

Well, I was meant for big things – lifting, hauling, holding. I have bad aim. I’m not meant for throwing and my upper arms have always been fat.

If I were a Greek statue they would be ok. I would be Athena-like. But being alive today, I feel that I am punished by my past weaknesses. All the glazed donuts and soft buttery sugary things that gave me pleasure in my gullet have combined to curse me with upper arms that hang and remind me of raw pizza dough.

My husband says I’m the only one that notices, but the condition gets mentioned often enough in aerobics classes. I really hate my upper arms.

Recently I tried to remember when this self loathing began. It was before the soft donuts, it was during a lazy hot summer of my 14th year. My sister and I were on surprising good terms. We had made ourselves pinafores, from a Simplicity pattern. Treadling on machines, side by side, in the sewing room of the Senior Girl’s building. Mine was of light blue striped seersucker, with a square neck, no sleeves and a large ruffle that went from the waist over the shoulder. We had embroidered butterflies across the bosoms.

I wore my hair in rolls in front of my face and crossed braids of the rest of my hair in back of this. I loved being friends with my older sister. We strolled over the covered pergola to the dining room for a required chore and passed Danny Casabian. We were getting breasts. Danny was getting down on his top lip. His black hair was slicked into a pompadour over his good natured face. I’ve forgotten what light conversation there was. Only that it ended with Danny putting my upper arm between his thumb and fingers and saying “Chicken fat”.

I may have laughed then, but my arm complex was born.

Today I run a child care center. I take care of young children as well as my own need to relive my childhood abandonment that placed my sister and I in an institution for rearing. But I have never taken real care of the fat arm complex. I learned a few years ago that Danny had died of cancer and I was truly sorry. Something in me said,” I forgive you Danny. I never blamed you for the message you gave me, and surely hope you never thought about it again”. Who would?

At my school I have a teacher with only one arm. She refuses to wear her prosthetic device. She pushes things with her stump. She waves with it, makes gestures, hangs her purse on it. We no longer throw away dolls if one arm is missing. I say, “Phyllis is ok with one arm, this baby is ok too”. Our new Nicholas says, “Where is the teacher with the broken arm?”

Phyllis loves herself unconditionally. She used to be in vaudeville. She loves to talk. She tap dances with the children.

Over the years I’ve reluctantly worn many sleeveless garments, but I never swing my arms but self-consciously. One day I'll be guided by that butterfly that was on my breast, instead of dear dead Danny’s gibe. And I'll do it over coffee and glazed donuts, fearless as Phyllis.

* * *

Dear Mother

My brown hair is as slick as a seal’s skin. It goes into a long pageboy because each night I put it in metal curlers, cylinders half as long as toilet paper rolls, with holes. A wire frame is attached at one end with a little serrated rubber wheel. I roll a length of my silky hair on it and push the wheel over the edge to fasten it. I can do it in the dark, after “lights out” is called, after my homework is finished.

If it’s Sunday night, I have listened to Jack Benny and Allen's Alley on an old fashioned radio. It is a mahogany rectangle, placed horizontal on a metal frame. The round speaker is underneath. It must have come from my grandfather’s house, where I lived before I came to the children's home, where I am in my senior year.

I am a diligent student. We go to the public school. The Senior English teacher wants to prepare us for the English examination we must take to avoid “Dumb Bell English” in college. He stresses “the reason is that”, instead of “the reason is because.” He has us write a spontaneous essay every week. I have sent a story and a poem to the Creative Writing page of Seventeen Magazine.

When it is announced that seniors may take an aptitude test, I go to the Vice Principal's office and do it. I don’t know what I will study, but I know I will go to college. Twice I have gone to the gym to ask if my examination has been graded. The Vice Principal is talking to another teacher about one of the “Covina upper crust” kids. She worries about her, she says, not noticing me. I am a “Home girl” maybe that is why she doesn’t grade my test. I am too embarrassed to go back again.

On Sunday, we take our big square bus, the “cheesebox” we call it, into the town and we get dropped off at the church of our choice. This year I choose to be an Episcopalian. There is an elegance in this church. There is no deep pit on the floor, where a minister will dunk someone in a white gauze dress in the water for Baptism.

This Episcopal church has an altar with double silk hangings. This season they are white, with embroidery on them. We genuflect, and kneel, like in the movies.

Our Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Pettigrew, has allegator shoes and purse and a Rosenfelt suit.

We Home girls sit on the left of the church, the girls from the private Brown School sit on the right. We eye each other. Prince and Pauper-like. I don’t hear anything our teacher says, but I watch her pretty face and stare at her nice clothes. Before we graduate her handsome son has been arrested in a “roadside house”, which is as bad as something can get. I can’t believe it.

The Vice principal’s name is Mrs. Smith. I know her even if she doesn’t know me. She puts her tennis shoes and bobby socks on over her hose. It looks good, but it’s not “dressing for gym”, the way we are supposed to. The only rule I break is the one about showers. I don’t want to get my hair wet. Not only that. I couldn’t possibly be naked in front of other people. Karen Rand dresses in the cubicle with me. She is a Covina upper crust too, but I think her mother has said she should be nice to Home girls.

In this gym class I have gotten a “D”. The leader of our row who took attendance could never read my name correctly. She got Bottger mixed up with Baca, who was absent all the time. I didn’t know how to go about telling them this. I was too embarrassed, so I just took the “D”. It made me feel kind of tough, besides I have a reputation for being a “brain” with some of the Home kids that aren’t too smart. They don’t know how hard I work.

Today I am more excited than I have ever been. That story and poem I sent are going to be published in Seventeen Magazine. Now it doesn’t matter about the aptitude test anymore, or the “D” or the upper crust kids. I’m going to be an English major.

I’m still as quiet as I always am, but inside I’m all spring and walking on air. I don’t feel fat. I feel like a writer, like Emily Dickenson. Maybe someday I will live in New England, or maybe New York. Maybe in Greenwich village.

When I go to bed, I wonder if my hair would stay curled if I didn’t set it, but I make my hard pillow anyway. I’m going to be an English Major. I’m going to be published in Seventeen Magazine.

Your daughter,
Bette Bottger

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