There’s a Joke Here Somewhere and It’s On Me by Sara Lippmann

I mistook the Catholic schoolgirls for friends until I learned my mother paid them fifty cents an hour to pick me up from elementary and walk me home, knee socks slouched and kilts rolled at the hip. Philomena and Therese brought hairspray, brought boys, brought cigarettes. They watched Dancing on Air from the bus station sized black and white in the kitchen while I broke raw ramen into melamine. When they raided the back cabinet for dusty pints of banana liquor, one called Blue Lagoon the hue of 2000 Flushes, Secret Santa gifts no grownup would touch, Holly showed up on her bicycle with a bell shaped like Jesus. Holly switched the dial to Bob Ross and his happy little trees, but money went missing; from there it took little convincing: MTV watched me. I watched MTV. I watched Legs, Hot for Teacher. Sometimes I’d remove the sleeve of condoms from my mother’s night side and stretch them over the spout, plump and jellied, launch them from her bedroom window. We shared our driveway with a rabbi and his wife. The wife pinned her laundry to an outdoor rack, web bent like an antennae searching for signal, flaunted tablecloths and bloomers, big and white and above reproach. One night she knocked on our door in cat-shaped glasses, coral and rhinestone (if not rabbinical, we all have surprises) to report her asphalt findings. Held the splattered remains with tweezers to the light where they shimmered like molted skin. Did my mother know the child she was raising, who I was, the kind of person I’d be, left alone, exposed to outside elements, how I’d turn out if my mother wasn’t careful. Someone should keep an eye out. My soul was at risk. The rabbi’s wife offered her services. My mother said thank you very much. I was 9. By 11, Sally Sellers’ family would all but adopt me. In 1984 I had Bruce Springsteen. I had Dancing in the Dark. I lay on my mother’s bed, mandala print, drinking Coke from the liter, lips feathered in sour cream and onion. I watched Bruce bop to the beat as if to an earlier era, his hand swinging, his hand reaching, his hand ticking toward Courtney Cox, a ruse, of course, but I believed, then, I believed in his boot stop and stare, that moment, hey baby, in the outstretched hand, the other wrist doing that little flip, that she had been plucked from anonymity, that a person could be found like that, noticed in the crowd. It was the only happy ending I’d need. I watched the denim hug his hips. Watched the crotch close up, close-up of his bottom lip, teeth teasing the telltale bite, the glint. Decades later, I’d learn his song was not about sex but depression, the two inextricably twined. Bruce would write about this. Demons haunt everyone, even rock stars. Sally’s dad looked just like him: dark curls, hooked nose, more Jewish than Jersey, but Saturday mornings after sleepovers sweaty from his runs it was easy to conflate, easy to see his arms, cuffs rolled, veins pulsing like a through line, easy to feel his hand, the wink, ache pushing against muscle tugging at bone as if to say take, save me, we who can be neither saved nor contained, fingers brushing fingers around the daisy chain kitchen, step close and touch, easy to get swept in the song, the dance, hips on the floor, easy now, quiet, before everyone else wakes, easy to believe he moved just for me.

Sara Lippmann‘s collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) and her work has appeared in Slice Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Diagram, Midnight Breakfast, Wigleaf and elsewhere. She teaches at Rutgers University and at St. Joseph’s College and lives with her family in Brooklyn. Find her @saralippmann.

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