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Mystery Selves Part 1: As Nature Intended

Nicole Jeffords 6 months ago

The summer she was sixteen, Julie Hassler had three jobs: one as a chambermaid at a local inn, one as a regular babysitter for the Mclntyres who had more children than they knew what to do with, and one looking after the house of an older couple, the Randolphs, who were away on a prolonged vacation. Of the three, the last was the easiest since she could go there whenever she wanted (the Randolphs lived just on the other side of the woods, half a mile from Julie’s house), and all she really had to do was feed their cat. She could get to two of the jobs by bike (the Mclntyres, six miles away, usually provided transportation), and from early morning till quite late at night she seemed to be running ragged. If you asked what motivated her to work so hard, she’d say “Money,” which was the truth. Julie liked dollars. Her family was well off, but Julie, secretive by nature, liked being in charge of her own funds, even if they didn’t amount to much more than $80 a week.

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She also liked getting away from her parents, Gail and Frank, who were always and forever intruding in her business. Gail taught cello at a nearby conservatory. She was a tall, blond, slow-thinking woman with a lugubrious streak that came out when she practiced in her studio behind the house. What mournful sounds she created! Little pieces of melody, lilts and crescendos that affected Julie’s heart like the deepest utterances of pain. It seemed that all of Gail’s insecurities flowed from her stooped and kinked-up body to her cello — her fear that she wasn’t good enough as a parent, that she was a disappointment to friends, that she’d never really measure up as a musician, that even as a wife she was wanting — all these were expressed in the sad, fraught way she practiced her music. Julie frequently wanted to take Gail’s cello and smash it to bits. She hated hearing her mother play for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was the guilty feeling that she herself might be the cause of her mother’s unhappiness. And so she tried to be out of the house as much as she could, lying sometimes, saying she would be spending the night doing homework at so-and-so’s, when she really planned to go to a party several towns away.

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Frank, Julie’s father, didn’t have the same insecurities as his wife. Nor was he as gullible. Big and honest-faced, with hair the dark rusty red of an old pipe, he owned two health food stores, one in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where he spent the majority of his time, and the other,­ which he often joked ran itself, in Springfield. Although he might be able to see through Julie’s lies, he usually got home too late and too tired to want to deal with sorting out his daughter. Easier to leave that to his wife. If Gail came to him weeping because of some shrill scene with Julie, a shouting match, a suspected untruth, he’d finish eating the dinner that had been left for him and plod unhappily up the stairs to Julie’s room to question her. Had she really gone against their wishes by driving in the car of someone they didn’t know? Was it true she’d been hanging around, smoking cigarettes with a bunch of do-nothing kids behind the diner in Brattleboro? Julie would give him her wide­-eyed, lamby look of appeal, the look that always softened him up. “You have to be nicer to Mom,” he’d say, glancing uncomfortably around her room at the trail of abandoned clothes, the fashion pics thumb-tacked gracelessly to the walls, the tangled piles of beads and earrings and trinkets. “Menopause is no picnic.”

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Julie fervently wished her mother would take drugs, estrogen, instead of struggling with the changes in her body “as nature intended” (a favorite saying of Gail’s). Both her parents were like that, kind and decent people who enjoyed doing things the hard way. Julie was sick of hearing how wonderful they were, how lucky she was to have them as parents. (Not that anyone would dare come out and say that to her face.) She had been adopted from Korea when she was seven months old, and so while Frank and Gail were fair and blue-eyed and robust, their cheeks turning a ruddy red, their hair bleaching of color in the harsh Vermont winters, Julie was fine-boned and sleek with honey beige skin and narrow, tilted eyes that were black as ink in a tiny, doll-like face. She was so small that people still lifted her up and swung her around when they greeted her.

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From the beginning, even before she could articulate words, Julie had known she came from somewhere else. “You grew like a little fish in another lady’s tummy,” Gail would say, determined to protect Julie from any nastiness or shock regarding the truth of her origins. “Daddy and I cried with happiness and love when the social worker carried you off the plane from Korea and put you in our arms.” Until quite recently Gail would stop whatever she was doing, stare at Julie misty-eyed and say: “We love you probably even more than a child of our own flesh.”

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Love was the point that was stressed. Love, love, love, love. Growing up in Vermont, usually the only Asian girl in her class, Julie was made to feel she needed far more love than most other children, gobs and gobs of it, like extra padding against the cold. In time, Julie came to resent this love not only because it set her apart, but because it was like a giant, sticky net tripping her up, impeding forward movement. Gail and Frank insisted on scrutinizing every inch of her life to be sure there weren’t any rough spots or shadows that might blow up in her face. They worried about drinking and drugs (Gail could have sworn on several occasions that the smell of marijuana wafted up from Julie’s long black hair), about self-esteem, Julie’s occasionally low grades, the possibility of her getting in a car with the wrong person, or falling in love with the wrong boy. The summer she was sixteen she did fall in love with the wrong boy, but it was a while before her parents found out about it.

Tune in next week for PART 2: LEO WYSOCKI