Growing up, my sister Alice and I were forbidden to watch most shows on television. My foreign-born mother felt that it would Americanize us — a dilemma that she would constantly battle throughout most of our lives. She also quickly realized that I absorbed the infamous quips of any sitcom that I was even briefly exposed to. I had a tendency of repeating these lines at any given chance, and she perceived herself as the ultimate victim of humiliation if we were to go somewhere public. If we were at the supermarket and she refused to buy me a box of Lucky Charms cereal, I would counter loudly with, “What’chu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” Or if she casually picked up a box of Jell-O pudding pops from the frozen food aisle I would exclaim, “Dyn-O-MITE!” Most mothers would have cooed over my cute and clever delivery. But mother found this behavior insolent and overall disgusting. Therefore, we spent the majority of our time listening to old albums that had been collected by the family over the years. These, too, I mimicked, and I memorized songs with a startling ease that was coupled with the willingness to sing at any given opportunity.
The summer I was eleven and my sister Alice was six my mother decided to send us to CYO day camp, in an effort to keep our minds active and occupied. It was the 80’s. “Eye of the Tiger” was constantly blasting from the huge boombox in the back of a very muggy school bus where all the counselors sat together. The girls wore satin shorts with white trimming and snug-fitting day camp T-shirts. The guys also wore the same thing, but they smoked cigarettes that were safely tucked in their tube socks, which were pulled up to their knees with a dangerous assuredness. The smell of Hubba Bubba permeated the air. The tan leather seats stuck to the backs of my knees and made a suction cup sound every time I repositioned my legs.
And all the while, as I sat there looking through the window, marveling at the row of trees that neatly followed one after the other, various tunes would hum through my head. While waiting for the camp school bus to pick us up, I would sit outside of the house on the lawn and provide all of 113th St, my sister Alice and anyone else who was willing to listen, with the entire Annie soundtrack. I had eleven years of experience sitting in front of a record player and its crackling needle, which provided me with lovely melodies from musicals such as “My Fair Lady” and “Gigi”, to name a few. I deviated from this, of course, during my mother’s once a week cleaning schedule, which was punctuated with the “Guilty” album featuring Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb.
One particular afternoon the counselors and campers are changing into their clothes after swimming in the pool. I am standing in a large bathroom with the rest of them, trying unsuccessfully to braid my long brown hair with the same precision that my mother demonstrated that very morning. I’m humming “Tomorrow” to myself a bit too loudly, and it catches the attention of one of the more gullible and unsuspecting counselors. When she asks me what song I’m humming, I try to hide my glee and push down a triumphant smile.
“I’m just practicing,” I say, and continue humming, having no idea where I plan on taking this.
“Practicing for what?” she asks, and it takes every ounce of self-control to suppress the hysterical giggle rising in my throat.
“I’m not supposed to say anything to anyone. My mom told me people would make a big deal about it,” I answer with a whisper and pretend to fidget with my braids.
“Oh, you know I won’t say anything! Why don’t you tell me?” she urges.
I feign hesitation for a brief moment, displaying a visible struggle between my mother’s instructions and telling Jynell, this bony-kneed, metal-mouthed goof, my alleged secret.
“Well,” I begin, eyes darting from one corner of the room to the other, “do you know the play Annie’?”
Jynell nods anxiously.
“I auditioned for it two weeks ago. And I got the part. I’m going to star as Little Orphan Annie.”
Despite the painfully failing resemblance between myself, a brown-haired, brown-eyed Armenian — with olive skin, no less — and Little Orphan Annie, all confidentiality between Jynell and myself was forever lost.
She whirls around and jumps up and down, yelling, “Guess what, everyone?! She’s going to be in Annie!” and points at me. After a few more of these exclamations, everyone stops talking and the room is quiet.
Jynell looks pleased to the point where she might as well have been the casting director.
“Aida, why don’t you sing us something?” she says, standing behind me with her hands on my shoulders.
“I don’t know what to sing,” I say, looking down at the floor, forming figure eight shapes with the toe of my sandal. I look up and everyone is waiting with a quiet expectation. This was the first time in my life I had the full attention of an entire room full of people, and I wasn’t about to fuck it up.
“Whatever you were singing before,” Jynell says, standing behind me and squeezing my shoulders with reassurance.
“Okay,” I say, and take two steps forward.
I clear my throat and look around the room. I begin singing my rendition of “Tomorrow.” My hands begin to move with emotion, and for the few moments that I unclench my eyes, I see two-dozen watching me. Looking back, I have no idea if I was any good, but when I finished, they all clapped with awe. Had I sung “I’m a little tea pot” I would have inspired the same reaction; it was my bravado that had been impressive. The point was: I was a star on Broadway. And, after that day, for a week or two, I was treated with a quiet reverence. I, too, was convinced of my impending fame, until it was all forgotten, as most things are once the novelty fades.
Unlike myself, my younger sister Alice lied in the opposite fashion: she withheld information instead of inventing it. This, coupled with our mother’s deep-seated penchant turned one particular afternoon into an interrogation. If it wasn’t exhausting enough for our mother to fulfill her parental obligations of guiding and reprimanding Alice and I, my mother had also assumed the tireless role of the household private detective. Never was a diary, notebook, or letter read with the stealth and enthusiasm that my mother graciously exhibited during all the years I lived with her. I should have been flattered. She was my number-one fan. No one in this world has read as much of my writing as she has. And although my master’s thesis sat on her night table collecting dust for ten months and was ultimately left unread, I know this was only because she was more attached to the material I had produced in my formative years. No, she was no snob. She didn’t like the fuss of big words and fancy grammatically correct sentences.
My sister Alice would also agree about our mother’s detrimental snooping habit. When I was younger, I would hide the usual accoutrements that most teenagers did: a pack of cigarettes, black eyeliner, a diary, and perhaps one of my mother’s lipsticks. But Alice would hide her underwear. This random and puzzling phenomenon enraged my mother one afternoon while she was doing the laundry and realized that none of Alice’s underwear was in the hamper.
As an aside, I feel it necessary to emphasize the importance of underwear in our household. I suppose it is best to say that my mother was the underwear Kommandant. Not only was the number of underwear regulated (i.e. we each had fourteen pairs), but the frequency of how often we changed them was also monitored, and she would remember to ask us at the most unforeseen moments. Sometimes during a car ride to school, or when we were sitting in a Burger King for lunch, she would lean over, make eye contact with both of us, and whisper (in Armenian) “Did you change your underwear today?” If this systematic scrutiny were not enough, we were only to wear one type: white underwear that if you pulled up, would safely meet your bellybutton. This mandatory dress code went unquestioned and practically unnoticed until Alice dared to walk to the local Woolworth and return with a six-pack of dark purple and fuchsia underwear. Aside from being an irresponsible oversight, my mother wanted to know: how did Alice expect her to wash them? As if all our clothes were white and there was no pile of dark laundry that this defenseless underwear could’ve been thrown into. Poor Alice. Any aspirations of breaking away from this enforced uniform were quickly dissolved.
One afternoon Alice and I were sitting in her bedroom shoving chocolate in our mouths. Chocolate was doled out sparingly in our household, and Alice had stolen the Godiva box that was reserved for guests out of the liquor cabinet and had scrambled into her room. The door flew open and there we were with chocolate stuffed in our mouths and raspberry crème oozing from our chins.
“Where is your underwear?” my mother yelled. In addition to her high-pitched, gypsy-like screaming, my mother’s accent has been a source of amusement for my cousins and myself for as long as I can remember. She rolls her r’s and replaces any ‘th’ sound with a ‘d’. Once I realized that this was the formula for imitating her, it was like learning to speak a new language with little effort, and impressing dozens upon dozens of listeners.
Alice gazed up at my mother, unable to answer.
“Where is your underwear?”
“I don’t know,” she mumbled, without swallowing.
“You don’t know. Where. Is. Your. Underwear?”
“I lost it.”
I looked down at the floor, trying to fixate on something fascinating. The scene I was anticipating would be too much to bear.
My mother pursed her lips, grabbed both of us by the arm, and flung us out of the room, with chocolate spewing out of our mouths. We sat on the floor and pressed our ears against the door, listening to drawers being opened and slammed shut, closets being rummaged through. I looked at Alice and she said nothing. She reminded me of a Little House on the Prairie episode when this new mute girl was introduced to the class in Walnut Grove. When all the children said, “Hello Myra!”, the mute girl just looked blankly at the floor and didn’t answer in return. I suppose Alice’s mind was worrying over the party in the courtyard that afternoon. She had been looking forward to seeing her friends all week, and the weather was perfect. Suddenly we heard the crackle of a plastic bag and the door slowly opened.
“Aida, stay outside. Alice, get in here.”
I stood up and walked to the other side of the apartment, where my mother’s sharp voice was betrayed by the acoustics of the room. “…and that’s it! No more garden party for you! I ask you: where is your underwear. What do you say to me? You lost it? Here it is! Here it is!” and I heard the aggravated shaking of the plastic bag. “No more! Finish! No garden party!” and the door flew open with my mother stomping down the hallway. When she had disappeared into the laundry room I peeked my head in and saw Alice sobbing in the corner. A few minutes later my mother returned less perturbed, and walked into Alice’s room.
“Okay, I have an idea,” she said calmly. Alice sat in the corner of the room in her newfound stupor.
“Alice, I have an idea,” my mother said more firmly. Again there was no response.
“Alice! I have an idea!” she screamed, and Alice jumped as if jolted from her trance.
“You can go to the party,” she said, lowering her voice again, “but under one condition: you have to wear a sign on your neck.”
“A sign?” Alice croaked. It was the first word she’d uttered for an hour.
“Yes, a sign,” my mother said, trying to sound reasonable.
“The sign has to say, ‘Liar’. I will make it for you. You hang it on your neck and wear it, and then you can go to the party,” my mother finished, in a tone conveying the impression that she felt this was a fair and acceptable term of agreement.
Needless to say, Alice preferred to stay indoors instead of parading around the courtyard to display her shameful logo of dishonesty. Instead, she sat in front of the window that overlooked the courtyard and watched her friends play in the sun, where they occasionally waved at her, ultimately unmoved by her incarceration.
About the Author
Aida Zilelian’s work has been featured in Pen Pusher (UK), SN Review, Visions, Slushpile, Wilderness House Literary Review, Suss: Another literary journal, The Fertile Source, Lowestoft Chronicle, and most recently Halfway Down the Stairs.