The following is an excerpt from Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School
The classroom door blew open as I packed my briefcase to go home. A cold gust of air rushed in, blowing the papers from my desk, chasing red and gold leaves across the threshold so they swirled and settled at my feet.
Kalindah whirled in with the weather. With black-sweatshirted arms, she gave me my daily hug—nubby, slightly dank and fusty—then plopped on the top of a desk, pulling legs akimbo beneath her skirt. “Ms. Vallone, life’s so unfair. All my friends have boyfriends but me.”
Braces, Janis Joplin hair, Kalindah was a freshman when I first began teaching high school English. Another teacher had warned me about her: “Make sure you watch out for that one—she’s a time bomb waiting to explode, bipolar without her medication. You’ll see, one day she’ll draw a knife.”
During my first few weeks, Kalindah sat huddled at the back of the classroom, silent, impassive, gray-eyed. Was she sedated? Not till I scheduled a quiz did I see any sign of life. After class she came up to my desk: “I stink at tests.” Then she walked out.
Sure enough, her score was 47. When I lay the quiz on her desk, she glanced at the grade, hands stuffed in sweatshirt pouch. “Told you.” I studied the dandruff in her part. “Take it home and do it over. You can use your book and raise your grade.”
Metal smile trapping sandwich morsels. “Really? That’s awesome!”
Tests weren’t Kalindah’s only problem. For weeks I pumped and prodded: “I’m still waiting for your narrative. Are you planning to turn one in?”
Her response: a shoulder shrug. But one day she came to class early, dropped some rumpled sheets on my desk. “Ms. Vallone, I know it’s really late, but I wrote the story.”
In the story, the penguin Galápaga wants to cross a river, but she’s an orphan, so no one’s shown her how. She tries to use her wings as eagles do, but finds them too stubby for flying. She tries to hop across on river rocks, but her legs are too clumsy for leaping.
Galápaga uses a fallen tree trunk as bridge between the two banks. But the trunk is very narrow, mossy, and high above the water. Though penguins have good gripping toenails, midway across she slips.
Plummeting from her perch, Galápaga is desperate. She impromptu somersault tucks, plunges in the frigid water. Sinking to the bottom, she begins to pray: O God / Fear and trembling come upon me / Oh, that I had wings like a dove! /I would fly away and be at rest.
Then a strange thing happens. Panic-beating her wings, Galápaga rises through the water, discovering she can swim. So she breaststrokes across the river, climbs out, and waddles toward the woods.
I laughed reading Kalindah’s story, wrote A at the top, Great job! In Italian calinda means lark. So I hope you understand you can fly even though penguins can’t! Next day when she read my comments, Kalindah smiled and leaped at me, gave me the very first hug.
But what could I say about boys to a girl only sixteen? I gathered the papers from the floor, slipped them into my briefcase, sat on a desk facing Kalindah. “I know it stinks not to have a boyfriend, but someday you’ll have one, really. Remember when you thought you couldn’t write?”
“Yeah, but I’m not pretty. I wish I could be someone else!”
When I was an adolescent, I wished to be my cousin Angela, three years older than me. Angela, the Italian word for angel. Angela, who as a child wore the prettiest pinafores, dark hair thickly braided with ribbons. Angela, favored as beautiful, while I was anything but. Aunt Lina said my eyes were beady. Gramma told me I needed a perm. My father hinted I was chubby.
In high school, it was Debbie Schein I envied, a twin for Zeffirelli’s Juliet—chestnut hair tumbling to her waist, blue eyes, and dancer’s legs. If I were Debbie, every evening Michael Goldfarb would scale the lamppost on the corner. He’d peek inside my window as I braided my hair for bed, maybe even whisper to himself: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Jan is the sun.
But as long as Debbie was alive, Mike would never look at me. Nor would Gary, nor Mitchell, nor Jeff.
It’s not that I came from bad stock. My mother had curly hair, twinkling eyes, a heart-shaped face. And oh what a figure in the photo, bathing-suited at age eighteen, a Sophia Loren on a rock, sunning at Kaaterskill Falls. So it was for my Aunt Marie and my cousins Marianne and Celeste. Of all the females in my family, only I lacked the magic genes.
I remember when I was sixteen. Angela sat me on the pink counter of our grandmother’s tiny bathroom, my back towards the mirror, legs dangling. She pushed my hair behind my ears, perused my face with her kohled golden eyes. Bubbling in her Brooklyn brogue, she broke into a glossy smile, “I’ve got it!”
She unzipped her floral makeup bag with a flick of her bracelet-trimmed wrist. Out came a bottle of foundation muddying up my face. Out came a tin of eye-shadow blizzarding blue my lids. Out came a mascara spiral coating my lashes black. Out came a sparkling swivel-stick staining my lips cherry red.
When she was finished, Angela stepped back. She lifted my face with a finger, turned it right and left, called, “Gramma, come see!”
Pots clanging in the kitchen, pitter-patters up the hall. Gramma squeezed into the bathroom, squinted at my face. She nodded, “Much bedda.”
My heart bloomed a rose.
Then Angela stirred her fingers in her makeup bag, pulled out a rhinestone-trimmed mirror. “Okay—now you can see.”
She held the mirror before me. But Juliet wasn’t reflected there.
Instead, I saw a clown.
In my twenties, it was Holly Brown I longed to be. We two were medical lab techs then working at UNC. Every morning she’d sashay to her bench, flicking her Farrah Fawcett mane: “Good mornin’ y’all.”
As jasmine-gardenia perfume gusted from Holly’s curly halo, the male techs would look up from their microscopes, dropping jaws to gawk. In my corner, I’d reach for the radio, turn up the volume of Bruce Springsteen: Show a little faith there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright.
But I wasn’t all right. So I spent a few days’ salary to reinvent myself as Holly. As I sat before a salon mirror, Jean Paul pumped the swivel chair, raising the object of his art. He shampooed my hair in awapuhi—wafting ginger scent—parted it into sections, paper-wrapped each around a rod. He squeezed on glycerol monothioglycolate, plastic- capped my head. He helmeted me with a dryer and toggled on the heat.
My scalp prickled and crawled. My ears sizzled like bacon. But the dryer drone fired my fantasies as I flipped through an issue of Vogue: Maybe the lab crew will realize I’m a dove and Holly’s a crow.
Jean Paul rinsed my head to stop the process. He cut and blew dry my hair. Then he swiveled my chair towards the mirror—voilà: Christ, I have a fro.
I’m embarrassed to admit that in my thirties, my desire was to look like Princess Di—the ultra-toned body, bright smile. The lash-brushing bangs and royal rose-petal skin. So I went to aerobics, tried Pearl Drops, scrubbed my face, cut my hair Diana-style.
But somehow I contracted the chickenpox, pox upon pox upon pox. They healed leaving scars on my chin, causing me to turn from every mirror. The marks seemed to shout from my jaw, “See how repulsive she is!”
What would Princess Di do about such horrid imperfections?
I made an appointment with Dr. Fleisch, a well-known dermatologist. He suggested dermabrasion. If I elected the surgery, he’d give me medication to relax. Then he’d cleanse my face with antiseptic, apply a spray to insta-freeze my skin. That done, he’d use a rotary tool to sand off several epidermal layers.
Post-op, the site would be raw, requiring pain relievers. My face would take three months to heal, need sun-shields for six to eight. Luckily, side effects were few—infections, fever blisters, scars, thickened skin, splotchy pigmentation.
I squirmed as Dr. Fleisch disclosed the details, asked if many patients chose the surgery.
“It’s a commoner procedure.”
So I knew that Di would never do it; I’d have to research something else.
Why should physical beauty be the object of lifelong yearning? Trigger decades of envy and grief? Prompt cosmetics, surgery, false hope? And why, even into my forties, did I still pine to be a dove among the crows?
How I fussed on a trip to Palermo, Sicily, before visiting my step-grandmother. The last time I’d seen Mimma, I was barely into my twenties. Now she was eighty-six and I a wife, the mother of two teens. Still, I slathered my wrinkles with creams, bleached my teeth, tinted my hair. I wore capris to mask my thighs, long sleeves to hide my arms.
And what did Mimma do when we showed her a Polaroid we’d taken after she’d scaled two flights like a jilly-goat to fetch her brother for lunch? After she served us a four-course meal she’d cooked and served herself? After she toured us around the apartment she still dusted, swept, and mopped? She shook her head at the photo and covered her image with her hand. “O Dio, I old.”
A short walk from Mimma’s apartment is the Convento dei Cappuccini. In 1599 the monks noticed something strange: their catacombs released mysterious vapors that mummified the dead. When the monks announced the discovery, they set off a public frenzy. People clamored to be buried there to preserve their beauty after death.
In the catacombs’ long dank corridors rest eight thousand corpses. Each is suspended by the neck like a lamb hanging at the butcher’s, each wearing Sunday’s best clothes. A monk hovers in a cassock, penance rope around his neck. A woman wafts hoop-skirted, wielding a parasol. A soldier sentries in uniform and a wide three-cornered hat.
There’s a special section for children. The last catacombed corpse was a girl who died of croup in 1920. Frocked flouncily in pink, ringlets gathered in a bow, she rests in a transparent casket.
The monks call the girl Sleeping Beauty, but there’s little beauty in the crypt. Sleeping Beauty’s skin is doll-waxy, her hair faded, dull, limp. And the flesh of the corpses around her is either mummified or gone. Many faces grimace, some mouthing Edvard Munch screams, the husks of their decaying bodies coated with decades of dust.
But I couldn’t tell Kalindah about the catacombs.
Or that Debbie went skating with her boyfriend on a lake near her college dorm and drowned falling through the ice.
Or that Angela discovered stage three cancer and lost her breasts and hair.
Or that my mother developed a neuroma that twisted and paralyzed her face.
Or that Prince Charles divorced Diana, who died in a car crash shortly after.
Or that when I thought about the women whose beauty I envied all my life, I closed my eyes and thanked God for my wrinkles.
Instead, I pulled a snapshot from my wallet—my family in the Sicilian sun. “Kalindah, you’re fine just as you are. Look, let me show you something. These are the people I love most in the world: My husband—we’ve been married twenty-three years. My daughter—she’s your age. My son, who’s two years younger. And Kalindah, when I was sixteen, I didn’t know a single one of them.”
Kalindah took the photo from my hands, studied it a moment, looked up. “Your daughter’s really pretty. She looks a lot like you.”