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The Wonder Spot

by Melissa Bank

Hardcover, 324 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $24.95 |


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Book Summary

Struggling with ambivalent feelings toward the passions and identities that are important to other members of her Jewish Pennsylvania family, Sophie Applebaum makes observations about her family life over the course of twenty years. By the author of The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. 300,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: The Wonder Spot

The Wonder Spot

Viking Adult

ISBN: 0-670-03411-8

Chapter One


You could tell it was going to be a perfect beach day, maybe the best one all summer, maybe the last one of our vacation, and we were going to spend it at my cousin's bat mitzvah in Chappaqua, New York. My mother had weeks ago gone over exactly what my brothers and I would wear; now, suddenly, she worried that my dress, bought particularly for this event, wasn't dressed-up enough. She despaired at the light cotton, no longer seeing the tiny, hand-embroidered blue flowers she'd been so charmed by in the store. She said the dress looked "peasanty," which was what I liked about it. Maybe tights would help, she said; did I have tights? "No," I said, and my face added, Why would I bring tights to the seashore? When she said that we could pick some up on the way to Chappaqua, I reminded her that the only shoes I had with me were the sandals I had on. I said, "They'll look great with tights."

"You don't have any other shoes?"

"Flip-flops," I said. "Sneakers."

My older brother came to my door. "Dad says we have to go."

She turned to Jack now and said, "Is your jacket small?"

If it was, I didn't see it, but my mother had already worked herself up into what she called a tizzy. "How is it possible for a person to outgrow a suit in a matter of weeks?" she wondered aloud, as though we had an unsolvable mystery or a miracle before us, instead of the result of Jack lifting weights and running all summer. He'd lost his blubber and added muscles where once there had been none; about once a day I'd put my hand around his bicep, and he'd flex it for me.

My father appeared in my doorway. "Just unbutton the jacket," he said.

Jack did, and my mother said a small, "Oh."

Then my father said, "Let's go," meaning, We are going now.

We followed our leader out to the driveway.

My little brother, Robert, was already in the station wagon, reading All About Bats, in his irreproachable seersucker suit. Beside him, our standard poodle sat tall and regal, facing the windshield as though anticipating the scenery to come.

When my mother tried to coax the dog out of the car, Robert said, "He wants to come with us."

"The dog will be more comfortable here," she said.

I thought, We'd all be more comfortable here.

Robert said, "Please don't call Albert 'the dog.'"

My father said, "Never mind, Joyce," and my mother said, "Fine," in the tone of, I give up.

I was about to get in the car when she said, "You're not wearing a slip." I'd decided slips were a pointless formality, like the white gloves my mother had finally given up asking me to wear. But she said, "You can see right through."

I was horrified: All I had on were white underpants. "You can?"

Robert said, "Just in the sun," and I relaxed; bat mitzvahs were seldom held alfresco.

My father said, "Everybody in the car."

I sat in the way back of the station wagon with Albert, farthest from my mother's tizzy and my father's irritation, though I would also be farthest from the air-conditioning, which would be turned on once my mother realized the wind was messing up her hair.

Until then, my brothers rolled their windows down all the way, and Albert and I caught what breeze we could.

I had to close my eyes when we drove by the parking lot for the beach, but Robert turned full around at the tennis courts.

"Dad?" he said. "If we get home early enough, will you hit with me?"

I could hear the effort it took for my father to make his voice gentle: "We won't get home early enough."

Robert said, "But if we do?"

"If we do," my father said, "I would be delighted to play with you."

Robert was just going into fifth grade and would probably be the smallest boy in his class again, but he was almost as good a tennis player as my father. Robert ran for every shot, no matter how hopelessly high or unhittably hard; he was as consistent as a backboard. At the courts, he'd play with anyone who asked-the lacquered ladies who needed a fourth, the stubby surgeon who kept a lit cigarette gritted between his teeth, the little girl who got distracted by butterflies.

* * *

On the Garden State Parkway, nobody spoke. My parents were miserable, probably because they'd agreed not to smoke in the car. Robert was miserable because they were, though he was the reason they weren't smoking. He was always begging them to quit, and they half pretended they had.

I was miserable because we were rushing toward the boredom only a bat mitzvah could bring. Jack seemed oblivious; he was looking out the window. Maybe he was imagining himself away at college, which he and my father talked about nonstop. Whenever I reminded Jack that it was a whole year away, he'd say how fast it would go; I'd say, "How do you know?" a question apparently undeserving of a reply.

* * *

Rebecca, whose bat mitzvah we were going to celebrate, was hardly even related to me. Our mothers were distant cousins who'd learned to walk on the same street of row houses in West Philadelphia, and then when their families had moved to the suburbs, the cousins had gone to the same private school, camp, and college. I'd seen pictures of them as babies in sun bonnets in Atlantic City, as girls in plaid shorts in the Adirondacks, as young women in sunglasses in Paris. Both were petite, both had dark hair, and my mother said that both had gotten too thin during their phase of Jackie Onassis worship.

In my opinion, Aunt Nora still was, and Rebecca was even thinner. She was a ballerina and kept her shoulders back too far and her head up too high; she would sometimes swoop into ballet jumps out of nowhere-when the four of us were trying to find the car in a parking lot, for example.

That winter she'd been the understudy for Clara in The Nutcracker Suite in New York City, and my mother had insisted we go. I said, "In case the real Clara breaks her leg?"

"We're going because it'll be fun," she said. "It's an enormous honor for Rebecca to be in the ballet."

"She's not in it," I said.

During the ballet I tried to be open-minded, but it made no sense to me; it seemed as likely for a girl to dance with a nutcracker as with a corkscrew or an egg beater.

During lunch, when Aunt Nora asked how I'd liked the performance, I said, "It wasn't my cup of tea," a phrase my mother had instructed me to use in place of yuck but which now seemed to affect Aunt Nora as my yucks had my mother.

Flustered, I told Rebecca that I was sure the ballet would have been better if she'd been in it, and added a sympathetic, "I'm sorry you weren't picked."

I didn't realize my mistake until Rebecca scowled. Aunt Nora gave my mother a look, which was the same as talking about me while I was there.

On the train back to Philadelphia, my mother pretended that the four of us had enjoyed a splendid afternoon. She admired how thin and delicate Rebecca was. "Like a long-stemmed rose," she said.

I said, "She's more like a long piece of hair with hair."

I expected my mother to be angry, but instead she seemed almost glad-not that she said so. What she said was, "You might become friends when you're older."

I said, "I don't think so."

"Why not, puss?"

I shrugged. I told her that Rebecca had turned down a piece of gum I'd offered by saying, "I don't chew gum-it's not ladylike."

My mother saw nothing wrong with this; it was something she herself might've said. She repeated a ditty from her early life with Aunt Nora: "We don't smoke and we don't chew, and we don't go with boys who do."

My mother told the same stories over and over-maybe twenty-five in all; if you added them up, there were only about two hours of her life that she wanted me to know about.

* * *

At a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, we stretched our legs until my mother returned from the ladies' room.

When she did, Robert said, "You look great, Mom."

She did look great. The day before, she'd driven herself to Philadelphia to have her hair professionally colored, a wise decision, as her hair had turned orangey in the sun.

Back in the car, my father said he liked her dress, a mod print in yellow and pink.

I said, "It's a designer dress," which was what my mother had told me.

Now that the trouble seemed to have passed and the air-conditioning was on, I considered asking Robert to trade places with me.

My father, who could be what my mother called a reverse snob, said that all dresses were designer dresses; someone had designed them.

"Not Pucci," my mother said in a haughty voice.

"Ah," my father said, "putting on the dog," which was supposed to be a joke, but she didn't laugh.

I stayed where I was. I patted Albert's fleecy black coat. Looking into his sad eyes, I said, "I know just how you feel."

* * *

We were on the exit ramp for Chappaqua when my mother turned around and smiled in a way that had nothing to do with happiness. It was her way of saying, Smile, without risking the opposite, at least from me.

Before we walked into the synagogue, she said, "I'm so proud of all of you," like she was making a commercial about our family.

This synagogue was about twice as big as the one we went to, and the service seemed ten times as long, as it was almost entirely in Hebrew, a language I did not speak.

Finally Rebecca went to the podium, her toes pointed out. She seemed glad to be up there, in her chiffony pink dress, white tights, and black Mary Janes. She wore her hair back in a looped braid tied with a pink satin ribbon, though she might as well have been wearing a halo the way my mother gazed up at her.

For a second Rebecca looked out at the audience, at her family and her friends and her family's friends and all of the religious fanatics who had chosen to spend the most beautiful day of the entire summer inside. It occurred to me that she saw us as her public, and maybe she wished she could dance the part of Clara that she'd worked so hard to learn.

Then she looked down at the Torah the rabbi had ceremoniously undressed and unscrolled, and she began to read aloud. I kept thinking that she would have to stop soon, but I was wrong about that. She seemed to be reading the entire Torah up there.

Maybe she'd learned how to pronounce the Hebrew words, but you could tell she had no idea what they meant. She read with zero expression, as though reciting the Hebrew translation of a phone book or soup label, the only semblance of an intonation a pause at the end of a listing or ingredient.

In contrast, my mother, who was no more fluent in Hebrew than I, appeared utterly enthralled; she even nodded occasionally as though finding this or that passage especially insightful and moving.

Hebrew comprehension wasn't the only thing my mother was faking. When I pulled her wrist over to look at her watch and made a face that signified, I'm dying, she posed her mouth in a smile. Then she held my hand as though we were in love.

I couldn't see my father, but I thought he probably liked how long the service was. He'd become more religious since his own father had died. Before, my father had only gone to services on the major holidays with us, but now he sometimes went on Friday nights, too. He walked, as the Orthodox did, even though he was heading toward our Reform synagogue, the least religious one possible. Usually my mother went with him, but one night he'd gone alone. I'd watched him from my window, and it was strange to see him walking down our suburban street by himself.

* * *

I was so relieved when the service was over that I let my mother kiss me. Then it was time to go downstairs to what was called a luncheon instead of lunch.

The catering hall was decorated with pink drapes, pink carpeting, and pink tablecloths; a pink tutu encircled each centerpiece of pink roses. Even the air seemed pink.

My mother found the pink place card with my name and table number; she announced that I was sitting with Rebecca and the other twelve- and thirteen-year-olds at table #13, as in, Great news! Like most adults, my mother seemed to believe that a nearby birth date was all kids required for instant friendship.

I told her that I hoped she got to sit with the other forty-one- and forty-two-year-olds. I spotted #13 at the edge of the dance floor but took my time getting there; I circled tables, pretending I didn't know where mine was. When I did sit down, Rebecca didn't even look up; I imagined her saying to her mother, Does Sophie have to sit with us?

The boy next to her resembled the boy I liked at my school, Eric Green-blond, dimples-and he must have asked who I was; I heard Rebecca say the words My cousin, while her tone said, Nobody.

The bandleader called Rebecca's grandparents up to the stage to say the blessing over the candles; he said, "Put your hands together for Grandpa Nathan," while the band played "Light My Fire."

I felt free to eat my roll.

Then a girl wearing a gold necklace that spelled Alyssa in script said, "Where are you from?"

"Surrey, Pennsylvania," I said. "It's outside of Philadelphia."

"I've been to the Pennsylvania Dutch country," she said. "You know, the Amish?"

I'd been there, too, and was about to say so, but she turned away from me, as though living in Pennsylvania instead of New York made me less like her than the somber people whose beliefs forbade the driving of cars and the wearing of zippers.

To the table at large, Alyssa said, "Who's going to Lori's bat mitzvah?"

I felt a pang that I hadn't been invited to the bat mitzvah of a girl I didn't even know.

I was wishing I could get up and leave, but a second later there was no need; the band went from "Hava Nagila" to "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog," and everybody at my table got up to dance. I saw that all the girls were wearing tights; they probably had slips on, too.

I ate my chicken and watched the dance floor.

You could tell Rebecca saw herself as the belle of the bat mitzvah, but the grace that served her so well in ballet deserted her at rock 'n' roll. Maybe she wasn't used to dancing with her heels on the ground; she marched like a majorette in a parade or, it occurred to me, like the nutcracker in The Nutcracker.

The boy who looked like Eric Green danced like him, too; he barely did anything except jerk his overgrown bangs out of his eyes and mouth the occasional phrase, such as, "Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea."

He stayed in one spot while Alyssa go-go danced around him. I studied her, trying to memorize the way she shimmied and swiveled; then I remembered that I'd tried moves like these in front of the mirror in my parents' bedroom and discovered the huge gap between how I wanted to look when I danced and how I actually did look.

I got up to visit my brothers. But Robert was performing his disappearing-nickel trick for the children's table, and Jack was sitting between two girls. One with wavy hair and glasses was making him laugh, and the other, very pretty, was jiggling one high heel to the music. I wished that for once he would like the funny one, but as I stood there I saw him ask the other girl to dance.

I almost bumped into Aunt Nora greeting guests at the eighty-plus table. She wore a pale blue sleeveless dress and her hair up in a bun plus bangs. It seemed possible that she was trying to look like Audrey Hepburn, and she did a little; both gave the impression of fragility, though Aunt Nora's seemed to come from tension and Audrey's from innocence.

Aunt Nora made a kissing sound and squeezed my shoulder, which felt less like affection than a Fact-not, I like you, but, You are the daughter of an old friend.

I knew there was some appropriate thing my mother wanted me to say, but I couldn't remember what and just offered the standard, "Thank you for having me."

She said, "Thank you for coming," which came out cubbing; Aunt Nora suffered from allergies. I said, "You're welcome," and asked where my parents were sitting; she pointed.

As a judge, my father was an expert at making his face blank, but I could tell he didn't like the man who was talking to him. I cruised right over.

I heard the man say, "Am I right, or am I right?" and then my father noticed me and excused himself from their conversation.

In a low voice, he said, "How's it going?"

"Bad," I told him. "Very bad."

He stood up and put his arm around my shoulders; he walked me away from the table and said, "Want to dance?"

The band was playing "The Impossible Dream"; I said, "This one's kind of schmaltzy."

He said, "Do you know what schmaltz is?"

"I thought I did."

"Chicken fat," he said. He told me that people spread it on bread, and we needed to go to a Jewish restaurant so I could try some.

I said, "Could we go right now?"

He took my hand, and I let him move me around to the chicken-fatty music.