Reel Life


July, 2003

The movie had started. The psychic was reading Dorothy’s future in a crystal ball, and Betty felt a strong inward pull in her womb, a sense of life giving her another chance, a way forward. She looked around her. Her oldest, Sam, was stretched out on the floor so close to the TV screen that the images illuminated his face; her youngest, Nick, was curled against her, sucking his thumb and blue blankie at the same time; the missing rebel, her middle child, Clay, was in the basement battling it out on PlayStation’s Lord of the Rings. These moments with her children were what made sense, Betty thought, resting her eyes shut.

Then the banging started up again. “Mom!” Sam screamed, and she opened her eyes. “Tell Dad to stop hammering. I can’t hear!”

“You don’t need to yell,” she responded calmly.

Dave, her husband, was upstairs repairing the A/C. It had almost been a relief returning home from California to find him immersed in a busted condenser, the upstairs flooded. To be so consumed moving furniture and airing out the carpet with fans that she had no time to dwell on the fact that her little escape to California was over, that Monday Betty would go back to work, and Dave would begin his job search. That their lives would continue on the same.

A ferocious wind knocked and banged. “Go out and find your dream,” said the psychic to Dorothy in the face of that black, ominous tornado swirling in the distance. He was frantically boarding up his trailer and urging Dorothy on her way, and Betty reminded herself that things could never be the same. Sweating now, she unstuck herself from Nick, got up, and went to shut the window. Better to keep the stifling July air out than in, she decided.

“What does that mean, Mommy?” Nick said urgently, popping his thumb from his mouth. “To find your dream?”

She turned toward him quickly, intent on his odd question and the sight of Dave standing in the shadow of the kitchen light with the dirty filter. He was half smiling at Nick’s question, also waiting for Betty’s answer, and they held eyes for the first time that day, perhaps for the first time in weeks, since she’d told him she was pregnant and he hadn’t said a word, not so much as a word.

She looked back at Nick, wanting to say something meaningful, something real, something the opposite of what her own mother might say. “It means you need to find what makes you happy,” she settled on finally, as Dave pounded back up the stairs in search of his own dream. Or what she thought was his dream: to fix up this run-down farmhouse where he could have a workshop and studio to craft his furniture. He would make a living off his art. He would do what he loved. She wasn’t sure whose dream it had been. It was all so convoluted, now.

She went back to the task of shutting the window, which wouldn’t budge. A waft of hot, muggy air hit her face and she gave up. She came back to the couch and stuck herself back to Nick, who’d been mulling on Betty’s answer. She gazed down at his angelic face, thinking about her own dreams and what had become of them. Because here she was, thirty-nine years old, planted on a Power Ranger bedspread before the TV with bowls of buttered popcorn and peanut M&Ms, and dressed in one of the terrycloth robes her mother still sent her every year at Christmas. It was her dream to have a family, to be the mother her own mother wasn’t. She pushed her hand through Nick’s long curls, wondering if that dream was possible now.

“Like candy,” Nick blurted out.

Betty stifled her regrets. She’d almost forgotten the question, but looked at him and laughed nonetheless. “Exactly, like candy.”

“I love you, Mommy,” he said, with such stabbing innocence that Betty blushed.

“I love you too,” she said, never feeling anything truer, more powerful in her life. Betty, too, had looked up at her mother with such adoration once. She had asked her mother a similar question about dreams. The answer was long forgotten now, but surely, knowing her mother, it wasn’t grounded in any reality. And Betty so much needed to face her own reality: this pregnancy. It was only now starting to sink in. “Vasectomies aren’t foolproof,” she’d told Dave. He’d accepted that answer apparently. “I’m giving up the workshop,” were his only words regarding the subject days later. “I’m going to get a nine-to-five job because with a new baby we can’t survive on one salary anymore.”

My salary, Betty had wanted to remind him.

Her stomach grumbled and turned over. Glenda, the Good Witch, was waving Dorothy off on her journey with that shrill voice and glossy smile. It always gave Betty the creeps. Nick must have sensed her discomfort. He moved off the couch and sprawled onto his stomach next to Sam, who was still engrossed in the film. The sight sent Betty back to when she and her sister, Jamie, lay sprawled out side by side before this same film. Jamie was always so absorbed, anxiously waiting the end so that she could discover, once again, that it was all just a dream and then jump up and point out to Betty which Oz character corresponded to the ones in Dorothy’s Kansas life because this was the part––when everything returned to black and white––that Betty stopped paying attention. Betty preferred to believe that Dorothy and her friends experienced all those crazy things in Oz. Otherwise she felt cheated out of two hours and forty-five minutes. But Jamie liked to boast that she could see right through facades, particularly Betty’s. This pregnancy had put an end to their plans for Betty to be Jamie’s surrogate. “It was an accident,” Betty had told Jamie when they were together in California. Her sister didn’t say much, but her expression was painfully clear. She didn’t want to know anything more about it. If only Jamie had probed Betty then, in that moment, even just a little, maybe Betty would have told her everything she’d come to feel about her life with Dave. Maybe she wouldn’t feel so trapped now. But Jamie didn’t probe. As always, she just left.

Dorothy was clicking her heals now.

Could the movie be over already? Betty fixed her gaze on the glittery red shoes and asked herself, “Did I really put everyone’s dreams at stake?” Then she closed her eyes to block out any possible answer. In fact she seriously considered turning off the TV now, before Dorothy got back to Kansas. But then she saw Clay out the corner of her eye pretending not to watch from the hallway. And Sam and Nick were both still riveted. It wouldn’t be fair to them to turn it off now. And as for herself, could she really live on in a dream like that? When this baby grew up and asked Betty questions about his or her origins, would she tell the truth? Would she tell Dave the truth?

** 1972 **

Their mother loved old movies, especially those big song and dance extravaganzas, the ones where the girl always meets her prince. The Wizard of Oz didn’t exactly fit this happy-ending formula, but the girls were enamored by it and so their mother did everything in her power when it aired on TV each year to make the evening special, dreamlike, an evening with her babies in Oz. Though they weren’t babies anymore, Betty nine and Jamie eight. But babies fit better into their mother’s need for organization and structure, skills that transferred over from her job at L.A. Unified where she created custom learning programs; babies will be content if contained inside a playpen with toys and stuffed animals, just like students will be productive if they have a dedicated, clean workspace with sharp pencils and good light.

“We didn’t have TV when I was a young girl,” their mother was saying, attacking their red manes with baby shampoo. Same bath, same pigtails, same hair bows—they were a year apart, but their mother liked to think of them as twins; in fact, if she could turn them into one being, she would. “On Saturday nights I’d ride the Red Cable Car down Hollywood Boulevard to see whatever film was playing. I didn’t have any siblings, and my parents, well…” She drew a blank for a long moment before settling on, “Movies were my escape.”

Betty didn’t want pigtails. She wanted her hair loose, free, and dark like her mother’s. She wanted her mother’s olive skin. In fact, the girls looked nothing like their mother, something she often compensated for by dressing them in outfits identical to hers. For movie nights in front of the TV they all wore terry cloth robes that zipped up the front. Each year she’d present them with a new set just for the occasion. Tonight it was yellow with red trim. “When I was a young girl, people got dressed up to go to the movies,” she’d say, as if they were all prancing around in ball gowns. Then their mother would go and retrieve, rather ceremoniously, her Mary Jane shoes from the closet, those she wore as a young girl to see the premier of State Fair at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Betty, as the eldest, got the honors, and just seeing the glossy patent shoes on Betty’s feet always made their mother light up like a Christmas tree. But this year Betty was struggling to get them on. “Your feet look like stuffed sausages,” Jamie announced, plucking a shoe off Betty’s foot and sliding it on her own like Cinderella did the glass slipper.

“Mom!” Betty blurted out, before biting her tongue because her mother was already staring at her like she was a distant relative. “Mom’s giving them to me,” Betty, steadying her voice, kindly reminded her sister, who’s expression said that she knew better, and they both turned now and searched their mother’s face for the answer. But their mother’s gaze remained on the shoes––one, then the other. “Aren’t they just the most precious things.”

Silence. They were waiting.

She sighed, for she hated choosing. “Well, certainly Jamie should have a turn.”

No, she shouldn’t, Betty wanted to cry, pulling off the other shoe as if glad to share. For Betty knew how her mom reacted to crying, how she reacted to negative feedback in general: she crawled upstairs into her bed. Things had to go perfectly. Loud noises or bad words would be like throwing water at that witch in the movie. So Betty kept quiet, vowing that Jamie would get hers later. She wasn’t sure exactly how, but then she wasn’t sure how Dorothy actually made it home from Oz either, even though Betty had seen the movie three times now. Apparently if you wished for something enough, it just happened.

Downstairs in the living room, their mother had laid out their rainbow bedspreads, plus Betty’s dolls and Jamie’s stuffed horse, all cozy before the TV, where Betty and Jamie were settled now. It was a sparkling new, sixteen-inch color Panasonic that their mom had surprised them with in celebration of her promotion. One-to-One, the teaching program their mother had developed for adults going back to high school was going district wide. The Certificate of Outstanding Achievement was already framed and hanging on the living room wall. Now the girls could watch Oz in Technicolor, and their mother could watch the girls in her own colorful reflection. Their dad, on the other hand, seemed less than thrilled about it. The TV was something she’d done without his consent. There was a din going on in the kitchen about it now, about her promotion, Betty couldn’t help hearing. Like who would put dinner on the table now that her hours and commute into downtown would be longer. But their mom had already lined up one of her student aides to baby sit; she’d filled the freezer with frozen pizzas and Tater Tots; and the kids were old enough to make their own lunches. She had an organized answer to each one of his concerns except the main one, the one that he could never seem to articulate. Finally she just said, “We need the extra money, Tom.” And with that there was a long and bitter silence, and then the popcorn exploded out of the pan.

The girls looked at each other. They’d been lying on their stomachs with chins propped on hands, waiting for their father who had instructed them not to touch the TV until he was present. But the way things were going…they decided in a silent exchange that they couldn’t wait.

A guitar string broke, or so it sounded. A small white dot appeared center screen and exploded into zebra lines, and stayed zebra lines as Jamie frantically tried other channels. Their mom came in carrying the bowls of popcorn, but stopped short when she saw the fuzzy screen.

“It’ll be OK Mom,” they both instinctively blurted out, as their dad limped into the room just behind her. “I specifically asked you girls not to touch the TV.” As a family therapist, he liked to sing his words when he was angry so that he wouldn’t sound angry. But it was the “you girls” part that stung Betty, because, technically, it was Jamie who’d defied his authority. But no matter who did what, they were always you girls. Sure they both had the same Raggedy Ann hair, but they were two different people. Didn’t anybody see that? Betty searched her mother’s face for acknowledgement, but she seemed lost inside that box, unable to fathom it not working, something going wrong after all her efforts to make it just right.

“I told you,” Jamie said, as the images suddenly came into focus, life got its color back, and their mom sighed with relief.

Their dad moved behind the set and began fiddling with the antenna anyway; sure he could make the picture better.

“Dad!” Betty and Jamie yelled in unison.

“Just one minute girls.”

Someone exhaled.

Their dad was notorious for unfixing things that didn’t need fixing in the first place.

“Dad move, it’s starting!”

“Oh all right,” he sighed, letting out a long slow hiss like he was contemplating the futility of his entire life’s efforts. He stumbled back around the couch behind where their mother had taken an unsettled seat, and they all watched like that for a while, stiffly, until Judy Garland broke out into song about that rainbow and the dreams on the other end of it, and their father started whistling patronizingly along, as if to remind them about what once lay on the other side of his rainbow. Handsome and talented is how their mother, in rare moments, would describe him as an actor. They had met when he was playing King Lear in summer stock in L.A., so he could be something of a snob about film actors, and he carried a particular disdain for Judy Garland and her big, wide, red mouth. This was the part in the movie where he clucked, made faces, and teetered himself down the back bedroom hallway, which he did now, all laborious and noisy. Like the Tin Man, their dad was perpetually poised to fall over. When their mom was pregnant with Betty, he fell from a stage ladder and crushed his ankle into a million tiny pieces. His role as Horatio in Hamlet was cut short so that he could spend six months in the hospital with no medical insurance. He was still there when their mother went into labor, their stays overlapping and their bills exponentially mounting. That’s when he gave up acting and began studying to be a family therapist. That’s when their mom, who’d been choreographing theater productions pro bono for her alma mater, went back to school for her teaching credential. Basically, as it seemed to Betty, all her parents’ hopes and dreams ended once she was born, and she’d always wanted to ask her mother if what happened was Betty’s fault.

“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.” They heard their father say from where he stood with his ear at the bedroom door of his elusive, overachieving, thirteen-year old son––eighth grade class president, debate team captain, honor roll…

The storm had come, Dorothy’s house was swirling in the air, and their mom motioned for the girls to come up with her on the couch. There was always that natural hesitation, then Betty took one of her dolls, Jamie her horse, and, as much as they might not have wanted to, they curled back up into the babies their mother still wished she had nestled on either side of her. When Dorothy’s house crashed down, they all took refuge in the still and silent aftermath, for they were in OZ now. And for a while it did feel dreamlike, all those funny little people in their colorful little world. Until Dorothy, after all that fanfare, came upon the frightening realization that she was winding down that yellow road, alone, and their mom released her grip with a well-then sigh. This was the part where, for her, the movie ended, and she made a move to go. “What was your dream Mom?” Betty quickly asked.

She seemed surprised by the question. “Well my beautiful babies of course. I couldn’t dream of anything more.” She got up.

“But what would you ask the wizard for, if you could?” Jamie added, and their mother frowned. Then she blinked a few times. Finally she just sat back down. “Well, I’m certainly doing things I never dreamed I would. I never would have thought I would be reporting directly to the school board.” She pulled her knees to her chest. “When I was a young girl, at night when my parents’ drinking was at its worst…” She paused. “I would go for long walks to the top of the hill in Hollywood where we lived, and there I would stay for hours dancing around under the twinkling lights.” An idea struck her, and she released her knees. “All my girlfriends wanted to be movie stars, but I wanted to be Jeannie Crain. I wanted to be a dancer.”

Jamie sat up. “That’s what I want to be!”

“No one’s asking you,” Betty said.

Their mom continued, not hearing them. “But I was alone a lot when I was young. I guess what I ultimately dreamed about was having you kids. I thought if I had lots of children around I would never be alone again.”

It sounded better the first time she said it.

“I’m never getting married and I’m never having kids,” Jamie said flatly.

It was an idiotic thing to say, Betty was sure, and she shared a knowing look with her mom, a perfect knowing look, and it was in this look that Betty saw her own dream, both clear and colorful like the Emerald City she and her mother were floating towards now. “I…am the King…of the forrrrrrrrest…,” said the Lion, working on his courage. They’d made it inside the City’s doors, and Betty was reminded of how much she disliked the place––surreal and freaky––Dorothy and crew parading around, getting all buffed and puffed in preparation for seeing the Wizard, rehearsing what they were going to ask for––the Lion strutting around with that rug as a cape and the inverted flowerpot as a crown. “I…am the king…of the forrrrrrrrest…” Only this time it wasn’t the Lion, it was her father’s baritone voice bursting forth from somewhere. “What makes a king out of a slave?” He was lurching into the living room now. “Courage,” he said. “What makes the flag on the mast to wave?” He paused. “Courage.” The rest came quickly, perfect pitch and timing. “What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk?” Another pause. “Courage.” It went on like that, each time “courage” increasing in vigor until the finale: low, steady, bedeviling, “What have they got that I ain’t got?”

“Courage, Dad,” Jamie said flatly.

Applause loomed.

The intermission came on.

Their mom began clearing the empty bowls, and their father shuffled back down the bedroom hall. Jamie hopped up and commenced the pirouettes that their mom had no choice but to pause and watch, her smile growing more distant and faint with each perfectly executed twirl. Then she just disappeared altogether, and Betty wished that her sister would pirouette right through the pane glass window, a vision she imagined now, turning back to face the frozen screen and thinking that she might be too old to see the enchantment anymore. She was almost ten, practically a teenager herself.

Part II began. Betty could hear the soles of those shoes twist and tap against the kitchen linoleum as Jamie made her dramatic return. There was one rather hard landing, then––howls of pain––and Betty whipped around to see her sister crumpled on the floor clutching her ankle. It was an image Betty stared at for a good minute, thinking it’s not the pane glass but this might just do. She turned back at the screen and let another minute pass, until the flying monkeys plucked Dorothy into the air and her sister’s howls reduced to whimpers; no doubt she was just angling for attention that wouldn’t be forthcoming, for their Mom was MIA, and their father was now lecturing Steven in his room. Their bitter monotones seeped through the wall as Betty made her way into the kitchen at last, in the casual guise of retrieving the popcorn bowls their mother had failed to bring back. It was tough to remain unaffected, though, upon closer sight of her sister. “Hold on.” Betty hurried to Steven’s room and got her dad, who went sweaty and pale and seething upon site of his younger daughter sprawled on the kitchen floor. Where’s your mother!” he demanded, his eternal question, and proceeded to limp to the bottom of the stairs and summon her. Steven made a rare appearance at this moment, if only for the intrigue and fascination, for there was a balloon now where Jamie’s ankle had once been. He began debating out loud, logically and methodically, what to do with the shoe, whether they should take it off or leave it on, and if they were going to take it off how to do so. Their dad joined in, which meant an argument, a forced sense of command. Betty went and retrieved some scissors at Steven’s muffled side request, the sight of which sent Jamie into spasms. In the background, Dorothy doused the Wicked Witch with water. She began melting, shrilling, and on queue their mom appeared at the top of the stairs, groggy and disheveled. They all stared at her for an interminable minute, until at last she clicked into gear and came hurrying down the stairs.

Here’s where the crisis became almost comforting: when the witch melted into vapor, their mom’s eyes got their focus back, and all arguing subsided. Ice, towels, and insurance cards appeared at once, their dad remaining soothing and calm. “Everything’s going to be all right,” he said over and over to Jamie in the tone he’d developed to hypnotize his patients. Even Steven stepped it up. He went and found their dad’s car keys and wallet so they wouldn’t have to spend an hour looking for them. Their mom had already called ahead to the hospital and packed Jamie’s bag, “just in case,” and at once they were out the door.

“Ding dong the witch is dead, the witch is dead, the witch is dead…” Betty moved in closer to the TV and assured herself that everything would be all right, because now Dorothy had the broomstick; she and her friends could go back to the Wizard and Dorothy could go home. She covered one eye. Dorothy and crew were making their way towards the Wizard’s great hall. They were shaking and trembling and clutching the broomstick. She covered the other eye. She wasn’t frightened she assured herself, imagining the Wizard’s enlarged, disembodied head. She just didn’t want to see the silly man behind the shower curtain. He didn’t make sense.

Gun fire, trampling hooves, a train whistle; Betty uncovered her eyes. Steven had switched the channel to the Wild West in an attempt, said he, to ease her fright. She fell mute with him on the couch and tried to do just that, until their mother returned an hour later. Jamie would be OK, she reported with a forced smile. She had a slight fracture, and would have an operation tomorrow to set it; their dad was spending the night at the hospital. She then turned and stared so absently at the TV, and for so long, that Betty wondered if she realized they were no longer in OZ. “My baby,” she cooed, sitting down next to Betty and pulling her in close.

“Jamie’s the baby, Mom,” Betty corrected her.

“I know, but you’re my baby too.” She spoke dreamily, from far away, like Glenda the Good Witch ascending in her bubble. Then all of a sudden the bubble popped and she turned to Betty, “You were so brave tonight.”

Steven chuckled at the TV.

“Jamie is really lucky to have a sister like you.”

Betty averted her gaze from her mother.

“I never had a sister. At least one I know of…” Betty’s mom had been adopted, and it wasn’t unusual for her to wonder out loud about a sister or half-sister she might not know about. “Sisters,” she said, as if the word itself were divinity, life’s universal force. “They’re so important, Betty, especially when you get older. You and Jamie will always be there for each other. That’s just what sisters do.”

Betty looked down at her lap, wondering if she should tell her mother about how she’d wished for Jamie to get hurt, and that, like with Dorothy, her wish had come true. But then she somehow knew that her mother didn’t want to hear the truth, or wouldn’t hear it even if Betty did tell her. There was a new, larger bubble around them now, around she and her mother both. “You’re my special daughter.”

This was not the first time her mother had told her this. Now she wanted to ask her mother what, exactly, made her so special. Was it volleyball? Talented, was how the coach described Betty’s play after their last game. Was this what her mother was referring to? And if so, then why had she yet to come to one game? Something didn’t feel right, Betty realized, here inside her mother’s bubble. In fact nothing did, not even the next day when they all went to visit Jamie in the hospital. She and Steven were too young to go inside, so they waved at Jamie from the window. Glenda and Tin Man were at her side. She was holding up her brand-new paper doll set for Betty to see, and Betty wanted to smile back, knew that she should, but all she could think about was what Glenda had said about them being sisters: they would always need to be there for each other. What Betty was starting to wonder was why.