Anna thinks she’s smarter than I am. “You’re the one who gets all the A’s, sure, sure,” she says. We are sitting at a café in Greenwich Village, Anna’s feet resting (more like showing off her clunky new Doc Martens) on a chair she has pulled over from a nearby table. She grabs a cigarette from an outside pocket of her bookbag, lights up, frowns when I shake my head, no thanks. She takes a drag, her words come out in one long breath. “But I’m the one who’s going places.” High school is three months from being a thing of the past. Her dream is to work for a record company. She’ll be an executive secretary, go to all the parties, mingle with rock stars. Nobody can take a letter as fast as she can. She reaches into her bookbag, something she wants to show me, a page from her notepad. I try to decipher the sweep of curves and lines reminiscent of the poems in Persian miniatures we saw on a class trip to the Brooklyn Museum. “All You Need Is Love,” she says. Transcribed into Gregg shorthand.
I get a call from Anna two weeks into her first job, secretarial pool at a law firm, midtown New York. She’d been working for a temp agency when the law firm made her an offer she almost refused. She liked the flexibililty and the flitting around – one week here, another week there – wasn’t sure she was cut out for full-time. Until they dangled the carrot of celebrity clients in the music world. That’s all she needed to hear.
“Can’t talk long,” I say. I had a paper due the next day, irony in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”
“When did a paper ever stop you from talking?”
I try to tell her it’s different in college, more demanding. What I don’t tell her is that there’s a girl behind me, breathing down my neck, waiting her turn for the dorm phone.
“How’s the job?” I ask.
“They lied to me.”
“About what? You’ve only been there two weeks.”
“Doesn’t take long to see the writing on the wall.” The corporate ladder notched with not-so-secret liaisons, all the promises that come with a climb into a rising partner’s lap. “They said I’d get to travel.” They never said what it would cost.
“Why’d you go so far away?” Anna had begged me to stay in New York, go to Columbia, share an apartment with her. As a graduation present, she gave me a book, Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows. Her favorite poet, maybe the only one she read. In it an inscription, To my very best friend forever. Is this what you mean by ‘economy of words’?
She stayed at the firm six months, got a paralegal she’d become friends with to sublet her apartment. Took off with Guy, an airline pilot based in Los Angeles whose only promise (she’d been seeing him all of three months) was a chance for her to get away. Her younger brother had recently OD’d, too much tequila (cocaine-fortified) in too short a time, a blameless death for which her parents blamed her. Wasn’t she the one who introduced him to marijuana (which, as anyone with half a brain knows, once you’ve made the plunge there’s no turning back, only a growing appetite, insatiable, for new and better highs)? She could talk till she was blue in the face, tell them it was the other way around, the younger brother asking the bigger sister to take him for a drive, a friend’s house, the basement a den of Dead Heads. He was sixteen at the time, she a bigshot flashing her new driver’s license. She could talk till her face was blue and she could not talk anymore, but they would never hear the truth for what it was.
I came home for the funeral, stayed for a few days. For Anna. I took her for walks, at night, to get her out of the house crowded with friends and family paying their respects. This shiva thing is good, she said. For my parents. We were sitting on a bench in our favorite playground, a meeting place between her house and mine when we needed to talk where our parents could not eavesdrop. It was good for her, too, the seven days of confined mourning, if only to make her see things more clearly. When do you stop trying? She lay her head on my shoulder. When do you stop crying?
Within a year of living in L.A., one temp job after another, Anna talked her way into a job, receptionist, Capitol Records. It was easy to picture her decked out in her miniskirt and knee-high boots, dashing to the elevator each morning, thirteenth floor, the reception area all gloss, made even brighter by those green effervescent eyes that greeted anyone walking up to her desk. Something about working in a building designed to look like a turntable added to the thrill of it all. Must mean something, she figured. I had recently transferred to Columbia, not feeling so cut out for the college-town life Wellesley offered, even with Boston within reach. Besides, I was beginning to think more about journalism and the window of opportunity to transfer was a small one. So I went for it. The timing was perfect. Anna was about to renew the lease on her rent-controlled West Side walk-up, her subtenant was about to move to higher ground, her boyfriend’s East Side penthouse. She made sure to add my name to the lease.
Often, late at night after hours in the library or out with friends, I’d come home to brief messages on my answering machine:
David Bowie winked at me.
Diana Ross needs to eat.
A surprise is coming in the mail.
She had him autograph it, for me, Everyone needs a ‘Brand New Morning.’ She believed it had collectors’ item written all over it, Bob Seger acoustic and his heart stripped bare. And she told him so.
I played it over and over, something about the raw emotion running through the songs. Brian, a political science major I was seeing, was dismissive, he’s no Bob Dylan. Neither are you, I said. He thought that knowing how to string a guitar gave him an edge when it came to talking about music. He thought that writing a column for The Village Voice made him some kind of undergrad counterculture guru. Not that his way with words (and the way his hair fell in silky strands just to his eyes) isn’t what attracted me. Not that I didn’t melt when he strummed a Carole King tune (my request). We broke up that night. I smoked a joint, listened to Bob Seger and Bob Dylan. And Carole King. Until I cried mself to sleep.
Graduation got me a job, editorial assistant at a start-up women’s magazine. Anna was back in New York, my roommate now, a would-be flight attendant, Pan American World Airways. She’d walk up and down the narrow foyer of our apartment, her voice bouncing off the walls – come fly with me / let’s fly, let’s fly away – her svelte body pivoting left and right, imaginary passengers reassured by a presence that grounded them as they fastened their seatbelts, up up and away on the Queen of the Skies. Poetry in motion. She never said exactly why she left L.A. and she never really had to. I knew her long enough and well enough to read between the lines.
Sharpen a pencil too much and it breaks.
Any real life to the party when there’s partying every night?
Can a man make you forget who you are?
On one of her trips, a London run, she met a man who invited her to a lecture. He said it would change her life. And it did, with its mix of metaphysics and poetry. And music. All embodied in the person of a Mr. Stone, who had a gift, apparently, for revelations of a spiritual nature that would spontaneously issue from him. Soon enough, the medium – voices lifted in song at his direction – would become the message. Soon enough, Anna would be hooked.
Can a man make you sing in a way you never knew you could?
We saw little of each other, ships passing in the night, dropping anchor with teasing words scribbled on Post-Its arranged in pairs on the refrigerator door. She liked red ink on a yellow note. I penned mine in basic black on blue.
— Rio was a blast. Wish you could have been there. Speaking of which, is anyone really cut out for days spent at cubicles in skyscrapers?
—Nothing you can know that isn’t known / Nothing you can see that isn’t shown / Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be . . .
— It’s a secret every Parisian woman knows: fluorescent lighting drains the color from a person’s face; hence, early wrinkles.
—Are you sure it isn’t jet lag and one too many time zone changes that age a person quickly?
After one particularly late night at the news magazine where I now worked, I came home to find that Anna had cleared out.
Cactus flowers are calling.
I read whatever I could get my hands on about Timothy Stone and his Joshua Tree Singers, based in Tucson. Jonestown was still front-page news, collective death teased out into stories of individuals —What kind of people cashed in their savings on a man’s makeshift Shangri-La? How many went gently into that Kool-Aid good night? What made some of them see the light, pass on the drink, run away?
Cults were big news. The promise of bliss, just shave your head, put on orange robes, stand on a street corner singing “Hare Krishna.” Better living through Scientology. Personal transformation via EST.
I read and read and read but all I could come up with was a man who had published a book, ways of knowing oneself, spiritual expression reduced to jingoistic pith. His cover photo showed him seated in an armchair, a contemplative pose, not a misplaced strand on his thick white hair, more Warner Erhard than Jim Jones. He had a weathered face, lines suggestive of, or easily mistaken for, deep wisdom. No Dalai Lama or Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, even if he did cast a spell, philosophy of the divine made simple. Why go off to the mountains of Tibet when everything you want is right outside your door? Why trek to India when all you could possibly need is right here in your heart (if only you listen), your own voice a conduit for the music of the spheres (if only you let it be)?
He wore a big gold pinky ring.
One night, Anna’s few-and-far-between stopovers in New York, she went on and on about the communal kitchen, the new things she’d learned to cook. And dinners, the formality of them, how lucky you were if you were asked to dine with Mr. Stone, a table set for twelve. Nobody getting up to leave until the last drop of food put on each plate was gone.
If she read the alarm my face registered, she did little to allay it.
One lingering note, and what happens to the song?
I would finally get to hear the Joshua Tree Singers, Carnegie Hall, February 1981. I sat with a friend covering the concert for the Times. He took off during intermission (despite the pleasing voice of a baritone he made note of and a solo by one soprano he found ‘resplendent’), left me squirming in my seat. Maybe I would have seen Anna’s radiance for what it was, if not for the black and white of it all, down to the gowns the women wore (designed by Mr. Stone himself) and the birds’-nest bouffants not meant for any woman under the age of sixty. Maybe I would have glimpsed transendence in the harmonies, been lifted by the voices echoing through the hall, if only the words they sang didn’t sink to mud. Ladybugs in cups of cream. A moon resting in a pool of chaos. A grassy field of sunshine.
I’m on a flight, bound for Los Angeles, the beginning of a book tour. The attention is almost too much for me, a first-time novelist, but I accept it graciously; nothing like a short story in Redbook and a journalism award (for a feature story on the history of cults) to bolster a writer’s career. I’ve dedicated the book to Anna, who is solid proof that even in this age of living lives virtually exposed, a person can choose not to be found.
I can’t help but think of Anna as I watch the flight attendant do her pantomime —buckling and unbuckling a seatbelt, slipping on a life vest, blowing into its tube.
Economy of words.
I can’t help but see Anna in Donna, the flight attendant gracefully handing me my mini-bottle of wine, California red. A bag of mixed nuts pulled from her cart, everything within easy reach.
Economy of motion.
One day out of the blue I get a postcard in the mail, Anna doing a one-night, one-woman show at a small club downtown NYC, Peggy Lee numbers. I slip in late, sit at the bar, quickly enraptured by the woman onstage, in her blonde wig and short leopard dress. A bit of heaven in her voice.
Deborah Batterman is the author of Shoes Hair Nails (short stories) and Because my name is mother (essays). She is a Pushcart nominee and took 3rd place in the Women’s National Book Association 2012 Short Fiction Contest. Her stories and essays have appeared in anthologies as well as various print and online journals, most recently Every Mother Has a Story, Vol. 2 (Shebooks/Good Housekeeping) and Open to Interpretation: Fading Light (Taylor & O’Neill). Her blog recently took a new turn—a collaboration with her daughter, also a writer, in which a ‘dialogue’ takes place via alternating posts connected thematically. She can’t say she invented the word, but a ‘diablog’ it is.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/deborah.batterman
2 thoughts on “Read Between the Lines | Deborah Batterman”
A wholly satisfying story, Deborah.
Great read, Deborah! Is this really fiction? Feels so real. Thanks for sharing.