The Cousins' Club Reunion
I've always loved vacations that somebody else plans, but I never expected this reunion that started out with me losing my clothes in a country hotel--misplacing my earrings and scratching my glasses so that the blurred halo effect made me doubt my eyes--to turn out this way. Then on top of everything I discovered that my suitcase was missing. I would have been convinced that my mother took it by accident, except that my mother wasn't there, she was home in Virginia with a bad cold.
Downstairs, my cousin Morton waited in the driveway patiently in a gray stationwagon full of heaving flesh, relatives squashed onto each other's laps, while I frantically searched under beds and in drawers, despairing. The problem is, I have no privacy. People keep walking in and out of these rooms, even though I barely recognize them. A man and woman in their mid-thirties, look-alikes, married, with muscular jawlines, fling themselves onto my bed, bickering.
"You're lying on my blouse," I gasp, tugging at them anxiously. "Please don't."
The woman smirks bitterly, rolling sideways. "You're so vain, I'll bet you think this fight is about you . . ."
"I hope not."
I run into the hallways, examining myself in the long mirror. My outfit, a heavy red sweater with silver threads up the nub, and black tights, twinkles raffishly, perfectly fashionable for this occasion and vaguely sleazy, just the look I want. God, I'm tired of being a good sport, though. But somebody has to take that responsibility! When I return to my room, I undress and pack the clothes in a plastic bag, then realize that I have packed the sweater and tights too and I'm wearing nothing, although it's cold; even my feet are bare. Cousin Morton begins honking the horn.
"Hurry, hurry," Morton yells up through the steamy window, words rising in the cold, crystal clear, rivulets running down the glass, swelling the sash; rotten wood. "Come on, come on, it's almost dark. The mountains are casting shadows. We're missing the sunset."
My tights twist backwards when I pull them up. I start over again. A splinter pierces my foot. But what sunset? I'm thinking. Outside it's dark already, as far as I can see. We're so high up, where can we be going that the sun will still be setting when we get there? Like a late-afternoon jet flying to the West Coast following fuchsia clouds. And how fast?
A boat, evidently. A cruiser, anchored in a copper bay. We sit below at long tables, wooden planks like pilgrims must have dined on, and somewhere, on another boat perhaps, a band plays "Unchained Melody," my formerly favorite song. At the same moment, I realize that an aunt who looks exactly like my mother, scimitar nose and slanting eyes, a narrow-strapped gown loose on one shoulder and shrugging down, is waving an eloquent hand across the table at me, discussing sex after sixty with a group of younger men, again look-alikes, all sizes and shapes, who are my cousins, naturally.
"Well, I really don't enjoy men that young, they're too preoccupied, obsessed with themselves." Apparently, she's arguing with me. "I was with this younger man the other night who was terribly slow and considerate, but the whole time he was thinking, performance! performance! how'm I doing? I could tell.
"Was I assessing him?" she asks humorously in a rising voice. "Am I the judge?"
I wondered if my mother was having other affairs too. Shocking, I thought. Then I thought, probably. She's not dead.
Tuxedoed waiters bear platters of corned beef, roast beef, Chicken Kiev, fat-mottled, long curled salamis.
"Look, Aunt Min, here comes Uncle Charlie on a bed of sauerkraut!"
"Don't be crude!" My aunt swats an adolescent boy who ducks under the table, rattling silverware down onto his head to get away.
"Let me see the photos of Cousin Charlie's wedding."
"How we age, oh, how we age!"
Unfortunately, my breast is being fondled by semi-moronic Cousin Newton, who I don't believe I've ever met before but find strangely sexy. A Vietnam vet, everybody cautions me to humor him. His smooth-browed hydrocephalic head is up my sweater in no time at all, and he unhooks my bra.
Aunt Min says, "Isn't it nice to have the Cousins' Club in a new place?"
We're barely out of port before Newton and I have an affair that includes his girlfriend Cheryl Maserjian, heavy-lidded, inscrutable and terribly dumb, dark rings around her amber-lit eyes, masses of glossy curls, an Armenian yet. But that she can't be related to me turns me on: Oh, blame. Intellectually, though, I'm not interested in her. Her body tastes like deep clay, gritty and moist, and with my hands, with Newton's hands, we mold her in our own likeness.
"Last year I changed my name to Tree, Cheryl Tree," she informs me personally, drinking Amaretto afterwards. "I wanted to choose myself, to choose my own name."
"Getting back to your roots?" Newton giggles, interrupting. She's heard it before and continues, ignoring Newton.
"But I felt guilt. Armenians barely exist since the Turks massacred us, we've been despised, and I couldn't see denying my heritage. It's bigger than I am. I wanted to be free yet I'm responsible to a culture too. So I figured out a way to do both. I changed my name to Treeserjian, Cheryl Treeserjian, definitely Armenian."
"People called her to cut and suture their plants--"
"Too horticultural," Cheryl agrees, savoring the word.
"You're smarter than Cheryl," Newton assures me. He climbs up on top of a bench and waves his prick above the food, a hose-like prick that is unplumed at its base, only lightly roseated: Newton is strangely hairless. Agent Orange? "Do you like me?" he asks. And then, nervous because I don't say right away, he flings his arms out and shouts, "I'm an airplane, I'm an airplane, a bomber, watch out, a B-12! Br-room, bbrr-room!" Buzzing, he squeezes past people, circling.
Secretly I yearn for Cousin Morton, though, who brought me here. Thick and swarthy, a pharmacist with oily eyes, Morton is impossible, however. A first cousin. Too close. He watches me sardonically. He likes refusal, loves control. I'd be willing to give in. But I'm glad he's firm. A rock, my strength, he prevents compromise. Morton is immoveable.
"Hi, Morton," I tease from between Cheryl's legs, cheek pressed to Newton's narrow butt, peekaboo, fluttering a few fingers, innocent and friendly.
He turns away, expressionlessly. Very seductive to me. God, I lust for him. In fact, confused, sloe-eyed, sex-drugged, I make a mistake during the salad course, between family jokes and old songs, while Uncle Muttel dances the kazatske like a young man and a lean quivering waiter plays the violin; I call Newton Morton; I call Cheryl Morton. Cheryl spits wine on me. We effervesce together. I'm a good sport, terribly popular, and Cheryl is too. I'm not mad. Besides my sweater's already red. But her feelings are hurt, I know, even as she laughs. To make it up, I send secret acceptance signals, I praise Armenian rugs, mention that Gurdjieff was a secret Armenian, display esoteric knowledge, discuss Armenian drums, spices, and grilled rack of lamb. Cheryl grows drowsy, sullen, anyway. Her head sways, her hips droop. "It's not fair that I can't be a member of your family," she whines. "That's why you're prejudiced against me. I had sex with you, the least you could do is know my name. . . "
Her stolid honesty touches me. And her swaying hips. True, true. She's not like my family. How little she needs from me, actually.
Morton fondles her ass, contemplative, as she rolls and arches under his big hands. "Over-ripe cantaloupes," he laughs, sending her off with a hollow smack, her flesh jiggling.
"Doesn't Aunt Sylvia look like Queen Elizabeth in her green dress in this photograph?"
"Prettier," Aunt Min defends.
"Don't put greasy fingerprints on the celluloid. Hold the edges!"
Sticky with saliva and sweat, and trembling, Cousin Newton and I exchange looks, slide under the table where several older relatives knead and tickle our exposed flesh with their bare toes, or prod gingerly with Murray's-brand space shoes, Mephistos, or pointed patent leather. In my lap, Newton, cradled to my breast like a baby, his long, pale, naked legs hanging down and his toes curled, rubs cheesecake into my nipples and he sucks. The cheesy filling makes squirmy worms, and he rubs and rubs and the worms grow longer, and dirtier, and squigglier. "Graham cracker cr-rust . . . !" he grunts, explosively. And my breasts, heavy and unloosed, tipped with mauve, a rogue hair glossy, are now discussed and analyzed by Uncle Leo, Uncle Morrie and Cousin Duane. Older women are more attractive than we're cracked up to be, I'm thinking. "Cracked?" Morton winks, reading my mind. "That's a pun." Morrie spreads chopped liver on wheat thins and intones visions of hungry Amazons astride froth-flanked mares. Aunt Min threatens sea-sickness.
"Oh, oh." Morton taps my thigh. His mouth purses, unamused. "Here they come. Listen, don't you hear their motor? I didn't think they'd have the nerve. The wrong side of the tracks is approaching."
Down the hatch, in single file, dressed in black silk, ceremonial display, parade the rich relatives of our large family, the Mizooks, that family of crooked politicians and ambulance-chasers exposed on the Phil Donahue Show, who have CIA contacts, sell weapons to Libya, throw dinners for the FBI. "At least I know I'm a better person," Aunt Min insists. The baby-faced brains of the outfit, Cousin Sheldon in a beaver-trimmed hat, flicks his cigar ashes on Cheryl Maserjian's lap.
"Our private dinghy is waiting," Sheldon says. The dinghy taps our boat's side. "We want to convey . . . regards."
"Oh, Rosalind, Cousin Rosalind!" Morton sighs. "There's Rosalind," he calls out, but his breath is leaky, as if an undertow has caught him suddenly.
Yes, Rosalind, it's Sheldon's sister fair Rosalind who attended Charles Kozminski grammar school with me and who even as a chunky ten-year-old with gold ringlets wore the blasé expression of a dissatisfied matron and snubbed me regularly. Who cares?
Newton is holding my turgid nipple between little teeth, his hairless legs crossing like an up-ended frog. He looks sideways, curious.
"Rosalind! It's me, it's me and Cousin Kadey, it's me!" Morton shouts desperately.
"You were richer but I was smarter!" I shout too. "Remember? I won I Speak for Democracy in the seventh grade?"
Holding the neckpiece of her black coat, a dark fur, Rosalind's lips round to form the question "Who? Who?"
But Rosalind has now thinned, her face angled elegantly, horizontal planes and fat lips turned sensual; green eyes, sunlight through a flash of forest canopy, study us carefully. Rosalind is detached.
I plead abruptly, "Rosalind, open your coat!"
Some relatives, like Rosalind, change remarkably. Others literally, happily, remain the same. Yet up close I must admit, Roz has more wrinkles than I do, fine lines, dainty networks extending from her eyes, lacing her cheeks, visible as shadows, pink on white, or blue, a faint loosening of the lids. Her hand, pearly, opalescent, from another view looks lizardy. But folds of wool that she refuses to part can't disguise the heady smell of turpentine wafting from between her breasts and oil of linseed pulsing at the temples. Flaxen hair curls moistly on a fair brow. She glows, phosphorescent; zinc white, cerulean blue, line her fingernails, and spatters of cerise. Roz is a painter. In the New York Times I've seen her name. Rosalind, Rosalind, how I yearn. . . .
To take a shot in the dark: "Too bad your life has turned out miserable."
Rosalind begins to cry. Morton, heavy-hipped with sorrow, a sunken man, lumbers after her, shaking his fist back at me. "Why do you want to hurt her?"
"Let me back on your lap," Newton calls up to me from the floor. I hold his downy head and let him clamber higher, but I'm angry at him for deserting me in my time of need. I'd begged Newton to help. "Newton," I'd implored, "Newton, shield me with your long body, shield me from comparison with Rosalind, I don't want her to see me before I see her. Please, Newton, please, it's important to me. Please, please."
"Why?" Newton grows playful, flirtatious between splayed fingers like a baby.
"I'm shy," I stammer.
"You're shy?" Newton guffaws. "Like heck," disbelievingly.
"I may not seem shy, but I am. Believe me." Urgently trying to convince him, pulling him by the armpits up in front of my face so that only my dark eyes, floating dark hair and arching browline, expressive, my best features, are visible over his sharp bones, light musculature. He holds back. So furious am I then at his stupidity that I dig my nails in to hold him up until he screams, yanking higher, higher, like a big mask. "Newton? I'm sorry. I apologize. Please, Newton, stay still. Just for a minute Newton. Please, please!!"
Newton falls off my lap.
"Newton, you're so sallow, are you sure you're well?" Rosalind cries then, running backwards, concerned, Morton panting and turning to slew after her like a tame bear.
If only Newton or Cousin Morton would be more protective of me! How come I always have to take care of myself?
Below, in the pit, rowdy laughter and gasoline fumes rise over the roar of engines. But somebody is calling my name. I push Newton aside, under a table with my foot to get a better peek, and Newton drops over compliantly, pretending to be dead.
"John Downey!" I shout, incredulous, recognizing below the witty unflappable Irishman I used to work with, a writer too, all togged out in a tuxedo with a whole group of happy men in tuxedos, another party, with toasts and songs, and I slide down a pole to reach him. Years ago John Downey lived under shaking crystal chandeliers in a studio apartment in Brooklyn Heights, sharing his bed, next to a refrigerator, with his faithless wife Dierdre and occasional lovers. And their refrigerator, back then, instead of itself, was a gigantic bookcase, each wire shelf sagging with important works. Even their table and the double bed were the same furniture item to save space. No, I'm wrong. Their table was a bathtub. A bathtub with a tin lid. Long ago, John Downey moved away when he divorced Dierdre and lost his job. Gosh, I'm happy to see him now.
Although he's yelling and catcalling, a little too casually, trying to impress his friends, I leave the ring of my relatives above at the same time Cousin Sheldon and Rosalind are leaving too, going to open air, perhaps dry land, and descending to John's pit I have not only the measured pleasure of seeing him, but also the flattery, which I don't get at home, of being the center of new attention again. Even my relatives must be amazed by my popularity. This is a stranger who's calling me, part of the real world. I may be as popular as the role I've played, the bad girl who's really good, the best of everyone else's worst, as if being popular is what really counts in life, surfaces, like my mother tried to teach me as a little kid: Don't be yourself, act nice! Popularity is what they think. But who am I to judge? as Aunt Min said.
I may be better than I know.
Besides, the ooze and ease of myself, my body, astonishes me.
Nothing makes me uptight. In my no-bottoms but long sparkle-sweater top, I reach out to John's heart enclosed under a white pique shirt and tight vest and see his knees lock together demurely, but I can't help kidding him. "You look like a little wedding-cake man, John, that's the effect you have for me. You look perched!"
He puts his hands over my eyes.
"You're not my cousin too, are you?" I shriek, because that would be a coincidence. "Why are you here?"
"I'm a waiter," he says. "You look pretty weird yourself."
I try to hide my uncertainty, a growing fear, and laugh, timing myself to the laughter of his friends in tuxedos too.
Upstairs: "Aunt Min, where did Cousin Kadey go?"
Suddenly, I feel as if I've stumbled into an all-male convention, aware that other people are on this boat, not just my family. And from this distance my relatives sound drunk, demanding.
"Aunt Min, who do you like better, Cousin Kadey or do you like me?"
"I like you both the same."
Blood darkens behind my eyes, throbs sensually. John lets go. Nothing is different down here, except it's darker. I see flashes of red. I pose, confused. I lift my sweater over my head. Lit up by the swinging lamp behind, and raising my arms, my breasts in profile cause a shadow on the ship's wall, full, ripened and tipped with an extended nipple. In the dark woodiness of the long curved room, John's white-blond hair has turned peachy, his cheeks are red, his neck thickens. He turns floral too, far peachier than I remember him actually. But I can't be scared. I search his eyes, pressing my face to his, breathing his used air. His eyes shut. He strains to be unseen by me. He strokes my hips. But so thin is John's skin that fishy quivers dart behind his lids, giving him away.
"You don't like me!" I cry out, accusing, trying to trick him.
But I know it's true. He's using me for his friends.
"I'd rather tell jokes," he admits jokingly, in a John Wayne drawl, the the old black-and-white movie lawman teaching sense about where I don't belong. "But a man's got to do what a man's got to do."
My mocking, little-girl familiarity, my intimacy with these strange men is my big mistake. I'm being made a fool. Though in reality, I don't mind.
"Care for a refill on drinks?" John asks pleasantly, changing his tone now, laughing lightly. He pours ale for himself, blowing the foam off. "Well, down the hatch!"
All the men drink up.
Cousin Morton, his dark, thick-featured face slack from hanging downwards, loose lips parted lasciviously, showing a gleam of tooth, eyes rolling, peers through the door above me, crouched on his hands and knees, trying to see what is happening. I ignore him maliciously, out of spite.
"She's so bad," my relatives are saying about me, admiringly. But for the rest of the world I might be too bad. Or too good. How can I tell?
Down here in the thicker air with the engine vibrating, you can't hear the singing, the distant band playing, only a few whines, muffled by the smell of farts and beer. What should I do now? Talk naturally, not act scared, at least try? Walk away? My relatives think I'm deserting them anyway. Can Newton ever believe I'm shy now? Everywhere, above, below, except for the sky which is dark too, water is rocking me.
But John grows easier, having proved his point. He raises his glass to me. "So Kadey, so Kadey," he repeats. "You're still sticking at the same job? A person only has one life. You ought to try everything, like me." Then he remembers he's a waiter again. "Have you had enough to eat? A dinner mint possibly? Coffee? A spot of tea?"
My own shadow excites me, the cartoon lady of my childhood dreams in front of so many men. Cupping breasts, older, heavier than I'd wish unless I keep my arms raised, I strut forward, lick John under his chin, slick and soften a bit of bypassed stubble and loosen his collar, although at first he resists. His skin tastes bitter along the jaw, but buttery, oleaginous where I find a slight pouch and I think of early summer time and daisies and particularly the innocent brightness and reflection of buttercups, pollen dust sprinkling.
"John, John, darling," I hear myself whispering.
And what does he hear?
"Atta-boy, John, John-buddy!" his friends call.
Vibrations stop. The boat tilts gently. John tickles me with fingers behind my knees until I bend, unsteady, then closes my hand over his hard prick, unzipping, hiding the pallid dwarf. He says, "Do you think you're too good for me?" John instructs me quietly to begin pumping. "This is for you, no, for me, yes, for you, no, for me . . . " he breathes harshly.
Morton, hunching, narrates to relatives unseen, a low buzz, only their feet on view, the family feet, naked, narrow, with overly-long second and third toes, a bunion here, another foot fully shod.
Why, I wonder? Falling to my knees.
Every year I leave the Cousins' Club and think I'll never come back again, I'm too dependent on it, knowing myself through my kin. But I can't resist.
"Do as I say," commands John.
I clasp his buttock which is tensing beneath folds of material, scratching my hands. That he remains dressed excites me. It's not modest, it's obscene. I didn't plan this, but what the hell, I shrug exultantly. Let everybody watch! What can I lose? My self-control? As long as they're watching me I'm safe, protected by their vigilance, no matter what I do or feel. I act for us all. The boat tosses lightly, as if shivering. We tip over. Everything is upside down. No wonder I need them. Yes! Dependency sets me free, and I shout, "Look! This is for me!"