She had made reference to her harelip only once, a day in 1964 when she sat across from me in an optometrist's office. A month earlier, my ninth-grade algebra teacher had caught me squinting at the blackboard and called to advise my mother to get my eyes tested. But I'd balked. Glasses were for brains, for losers and finky kids. I was furious because Thomas had developed no twin case of myopia--no identical need to wear stupid faggy glasses like me. He was the jerk, the brownnoser at school. He should be the nearsighted one. If she made me get glasses, I told her, I just wouldn't wear them.
But Ma had talked to Ray, and Ray had issued one of his supper table ultimatums. So I'd gone to Dr. Wisdo's office, acted my surliest, and flunked the freaking wall chart. Now, two weeks later, my black plastic frames were being fitted to my face in a fluorescent-lit room with too many mirrors.
"Well, I think they make you look handsome, Dominick," Ma offered. "Distinguished. He looks like a young Ray Milland. Doesn't he, Doctor?"
Dr. Wisdo didn't like me because of my bad attitude during the first visit. "Well," he mumbled reluctantly, "now that you mention it."
This all occurred during the fever of puberty and Beatlemania. The summer before, at the basketball courts at Fitz Field, a kid named Billy Grillo had shown me and Marty Overturf a stack of rain-wrinkled paperbacks he'd found out in the woods in a plastic bag: Sensuous Sisters, Lusty Days & Lusty Nights, The Technician of Ecstasy. I'd swiped a couple of those mildewed books and taken them out past the picnic tables where I read page after faded page, simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the things men did to women, the things women did to themselves and each other. It flabbergasted me, for instance, that a man might put his dick inside a woman's mouth and have her "hungrily gulp down his creamy nectar." That a woman might cram a glass bottle up between another woman's legs and that this would make both "scream and undulate with pleasure." I'd gone home from basketball that day, flopped onto my bed and fallen asleep, awakening in the middle of my first wet dream. Shortly after that, the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Behind the locked bathroom door, I began combing my bangs forward and beating off to my dirty fantasies about all those girls who screamed for the Beatles--what those same girls would do to me, what they'd let me do to them. So the last person I wanted to look like was Ray Milland, one of my mother's old fart movie stars.
"Could you just shut up, please?" I told Ma, right in front of Dr. Wisdo.
"Hey, hey, hey, come on now. Enough is enough," Dr. Wisdo protested. "What kind of boy says 'Shut up' to his own mother?"
Ma put her fist to her mouth and told the doctor it was all right. I was just upset. This wasn't the way I really was.
As if she knew the way I really was, I thought to myself, smiling inwardly.
Dr. Wisdo told me he had to leave the room for a few minutes, and by the time he got back, he hoped I would have apologized to my poor mother.
Neither of us said anything for a minute or more. I just sat there, smirking defiantly at her, triumphant and miserable. Then Ma took me by complete surprise. "You think glasses are bad," she said. "You should try having what I have. At least you can take your glasses off."
I knew immediately what she meant--her harelip--but her abrupt reference to it hit me like a snowball in the eye. Of all the forbidden subjects in our house, the two most forbidden were the identification of Thomas's and my biological father and our mother's disfigurement. We had never asked about either--had somehow been raised not to ask and had honored the near-sacredness of the silence. Now Ma herself was breaking one of the two cardinal rules. I looked away, shocked, embarrassed, but Ma wouldn't stop talking.
© June 1998 , Wally Lamb. Used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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