The thematic heart of my recently finished novel, ‘Dancing into the Sun,’ is the changing nature of family and what we think of as home. It rests on a triad — Daphne Roth/her daughter Vanessa/her mother Lottie — and moves back and forth in time as Daphne is catapulted on a journey of transformation that takes her through the Four Cardinal Directions – East, South, West, North – that are the symbolic underpinnings to a fully awakened life. Only after confronting what she’s running from can she find what she’s really searching for. And true home. What follows is a scene that takes place early in the novel. The year is 1990 and Daphne has landed in Las Vegas.
“Nice place to raise a kid.” Lottie turns her head away from Daphne, toward the passenger window of the car, closed against the hot dry air. Her breathing is rapid, erratic. The doctor tells her it’s nerves. He also tells her to stop smoking cigarettes. If I stop smoking, she says, how will I ever calm my nerves? He offered to write a prescription, a pill to help her sleep. Sure, she argued. Swap one addiction for another. Besides which, it’s not just about taking the edge off things. It’s the way you do it. Stretch out on the couch, turn on the TV, light a cigarette. Sip a glass of Scotch on the rocks. Relish that familiar cool burning in your throat. You could almost call it ceremonial. Where’s the pleasure in swallowing a pill? At least with cigarettes and Scotch, she knows her poison. Besides which, if one thing doesn’t kill you, another will.
“Weren’t you always telling me how much you loved Vegas?”
Lottie would like to wring her daughter’s neck right now. Always twisting words, making things seem to mean something more (or less) than they really are. Always taking any path but the one of least resistance. Come home, Lottie pleaded with Daphne, barely coherent, just arrived in L.A. after months in some God-forsaken Mexican town. The grief in her daughter’s voice – home? – so distant, was almost unbearable. From Los Angeles it was a trajectory north, straight to San Francisco, four months into a pregnancy. Only the reality of becoming a grandmother (finally!) could obliterate any shadow cast by circumstance. Sometimes, Lottie thinks, the less she asks the better off she is. She looks out the window, not the Vegas she knew. A smile slips through her restraint when she sees the marquee for the Sands, bright as a glittering flash card. It was her thirtieth birthday, a surprise jaunt. Sinatra at the Sands. Nothing could ever come close to the pleasure she felt. A table up front, Sinatra winking come fly with me.
“It was your father who loved Las Vegas.” Lottie slips a Chiclet into her mouth. “I was mostly along for the ride. Like I am now.”
Daphne refrains from telling her mother to give it up. She would like to enjoy this moment, relish the spontaneity of it all. When did her mother ever decide to hop on a plane, come out for a visit, no holiday, no birthday or ritual attachment? She reaches an open hand across to her mother, a code from childhood. Lottie places the box of Chiclets into Daphne’s hand. “Keep it,” she says. She always has another in her bag.
“Speaking of your father – do you realize he’s gone almost twenty-five years?” Lottie shakes her head, sighs, where does the time go? “He would have loved having a granddaughter to spoil.” Daphne does not believe her mother has ever referred to her father as dead. Always gone, the softer syntax, the implication of return. Even after all this time, too much of it (to Daphne’s thinking) spent alone. She glances at her mother, head tilted, eyebrows and mouth engaged in some internal dialogue. Retirement, after twenty-seven years in women’s lingerie (twenty at B. Altman and Company, then seven at a specialty store ten minutes from her home in Brooklyn), should have been the catalyst to something beyond Friday nights at the Redwood Diner, broiled filet of sole, with her sister Sophie (until she died three years ago) after their weekly manicure. Or Sunday nights, chicken chow mein and spare ribs, again with Sophie and her best friend Ginny. Sometimes Ginny manages to nudge them out, a Broadway show or a weekend in Atlantic City. Lottie talks about getting a job, part-time, just to give her something to do, earn some pocket change to supplement social security. Then she reminds herself – and her daughter – that she has earned the right to these open-ended days. And she likes it this way. Last week she dusted off a book she’s been wanting to reread for years. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Before that it was The Good Earth. This week she will plunge into Sophie’s Choice, a book she bought on a whim when it first came out, thinking it would have some resonance for her younger sister, a woman not known for making good choices, the worst being the married man she carried on an affair with for fifteen years. It was Daphne who elucidated her mother on the substance of the book, suggesting (in her snide way) that there was a reason people wrote jacket copy. She took the book for herself, which, in a way, relieved Lottie of her own unfortunate choice. Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but she still thought the title worthy of her sister’s name. Then just weeks ago on Yom Kippur, a little light-headed from fasting and queasy from the waves of melancholy knocking her off-course, dredging up memories, too much loss in too short a time (her husband dead barely a year after her father, her brother just two years later), and Sophie, not long after Daphne announces (with a certainty Lottie would never find convincing) that she’s never coming back to New York, Lottie found herself taking refuge in the temple library. The rabbi had just finished giving a sermon on the rocky path between repentance and redemption. Was it odd that, of all the hundreds of books on the shelves, the temple’s reading group book-of-the-month was the one with her sister’s name in the title? It brought Lottie to tears. Next thing you know she’s booking a flight to Vegas.
“Close your eyes.” Vanessa’s eyes, squeezed shut, flutter with anticipation. She hears the thrum of a suitcase zipper followed by rustling, paper or cellophane, she can’t be sure. “No peaking now.” Her grandmother’s voice is insistent, playful. She loves surprising her granddaughter. “I think you’re gonna like this.”
Vanessa can no longer restrain herself. She opens her eyes, reaches for the box. Tears off the wrapping paper. Her eyes widen with joy. Sun Gold Malibu Barbie, all dressed up in a cream-colored suit and hat. She is carrying a large souvenir bag, Barbie’s Reunion Phoenix AZ 1986.
“Another collectible,” says Grandma. “I figured you’d appreciate this one –” she casts a sideways glance at Daphne – “in light of where you’re now living. Though of course that can change at any time.”
Daphne bristles. She’d asked her mother, no more Barbies, please. No woman looks like that. To which her mother replied, no woman looks like any doll in existence. On top of which, no one had the right to deprive a child of what grandmothers do best. “You got the wrong state, Ma.” Her mother flings her hand, oh, please. “It’s all the same out here, one big desert.”
Lottie reaches into her suitcase. “And speaking of reunions – ” she pulls out a brochure – “I keep getting phone calls from your college alumni organization. Reunion time is around the corner.” Daphne casts an uninterested glance at the brochure. Let’s-stay-in-touch testimonials from Hunter College’s finest. “Wouldn’t hurt you to consider going. Reconnect with old friends. You never know where that might lead.” Daughters should not be so far away from their mothers. Granddaughters deserve to be pampered.
Vanessa gathers her new Barbies in her arms. “Follow me, Grandma.” She has so much to show her, so much to say. In the corner of her bedroom, sparsely furnished, is a pink and white checkered pillow bed, where her new Barbies can mingle with the old ones.
She sits her grandmother on her bed, and the complaints start cascading out of her mouth. The horrible desert heat. The small bedroom. The dolls and toys she had to leave behind. No real friends, except for Amber who picks her after school on days when her mother is working. Sometimes they go to the mall, walk around, eat ice cream. Look at puppies in the pet store. “Amber had a Papillon – it’s a little dog, and there was one just like it at the pet store.” Sarsparilla was the dog’s name, a happy wanderer that wandered a little too far one day. “Amber thinks she was kidnapped.” Her dog had a bed just like that one – she points to the dog bed, now a divan for Barbies. Starts to giggle. “Amber has like a hundred Barbies –“
“You don’t say? –”
Vanessa shakes her head. “I swear. And this little dog –” she opens her hands twelve inches apart – liked to jump on Amber’s bed just to steal Barbies so she could put them into her little bed.”
Lottie pictures the dog, his teeth clamped on a prostrate Barbie. Already she does not like this Amber, a girl she doesn’t even know. A girl filling her granddaughter with stories of kidnapped dogs. A girl with obviously no sense of limits (a hundred Barbies?), no understanding that value is a correlate of choice. Her vision suddenly turns grim, a pile of mangled Barbies, legs and arms akimbo, lying on a bed intended for a dog.