Chapter Two – ‘Raindrop Diamonds’
Swoosh, floom, blam, plap, plap, plap!
The wind and rain blew hard against the window next to her bed. Pulling the shade back just far enough to peek outside, she watched it pelt the glass. Lightening crackled from nowhere and illuminated the black skies like a surprise midnight film shoot at the MGM lot down the street.
Adrenaline swept through her fine-boned body and her heart tripper-trapped against her ribcage. She scrunched her nose and forehead, squinted her eyes and hunched her shoulders up all in the same moment, and as the thunder rumble-tumbled and roared, she grinned.
She loved the electric excitement of the storm. When it rained hard in Los Angeles the streets flooded, and that meant she could rush out the next day in her rubber boots to splash through the puddles.
“Joy,” called her mom, “time to settle down and go to sleep. School comes early tomorrow morning.”
“Uh-huh.” Joy remained transfixed by Nature’s fireworks outside her window.
“I mean it,” called her mom. “No more fooling around or I’ll have to get you up at 5a.m. again, and you know that I…”
Joy let the rain and thunder drown out her mom’s voice. Arlene, a fun-loving and creative person who knew a hundred imaginative ways to teach her daughters how to run a spit-spot household (Joy was the middle child of three girls) still had a matter-of-fact approach to keeping schedules, which probably came from being raised on a chicken farm on the coast of Delaware as a child.
“….won’t budge on this one. Now stop looking out the window and get to sleep.”
Joy sighed, let go of the shade and quietly switched on the radio. She loved to stay up late at night, resisting sleep, listening to the classical radio station and the orchestra strings surging like wild waves on a stormy sea then suddenly hushing and shimmering as though they were pearls forming in shells hidden deep in the seaweed on the ocean floor.
She kept the volume as low as possible so that her mom wouldn’t come in to turn it off. She didn’t know that her mom always heard the radio but didn’t interfere because she thought it helped Joy go to sleep. And that it did, but not before Joy had been transported to a mystical music land where goose bumps raised the hair on her thin arms. She would fall asleep as the melodies and harmonies slowly drifted away from her like a pink and blue evening sky surrendering into the afterglow of a sunset’s lavender mist. Joy never knew when her mom came in to turn off the radio. She only remembered journeying into sleep with the music.
“Time to get up, Joy,” she heard her mom’s voice piercing through her lovely dream and snuggled further into her covers.
Brrr, I don’t want to get out of bed.
The house had only one heater, a floor heater in the hallway next to the room that she shared with her younger sister, Becky. Her parents kept it off at night in the wintertime to conserve fuel, and this morning the damp ocean air near Culver City, the small movie town where she grew up that sat like an island in the middle of Los Angeles, chilled her bones.
Joy never had an ounce of fat on her, not with the kind of food her mom cooked since Becky came back from the hospital. Now, every morning before school, she lined up behind Diane, her older sister by three years, to down the mandatory tablespoon full of cod liver oil that her mom fed each of them, followed by a worse-tasting tablespoon of brewer’s yeast mixed with peanut oil. These made her burp throughout the day at school, and each burp surfaced with a reminder of their combined tastes.
Next came unsweetened soy or leftover oatmeal pancakes laced with toasted wheat germ, which weren’t too bad. Not too bad, that is, when compared to the breakfast concoctions that gave Joy the most creeps, which, of course, were the ones with cow brains in them.
Her mom served these in two ways, either fried in an egg batter or blended raw into what she cheerily called a “milk shake.” Not exactly kosher, but hey, you do what you do when one of your children might die and the doctors give you advice about nutrition.
The feeling of fried cow brains in Joy’s mouth always made her want to gag, but it was easier to take than drinking the raw goop. At least the first way of serving them was an honest approach because she knew what she was getting. The second way, a ruse made with a few ingredients found in a real shake to try and mask the taste and texture of the brains, never worked.
The chocolate ruses were the worst.
Joy liked the feeling of staying in bed, partly because her sheets were always crispy clean, and had a fresh air fragrance from hanging on the backyard clothesline, and partly because they were ironed and tightly pulled around the mattress with “hospital corners,” which made her feel like she was safe.
Her mom learned how to make hospital corners when Becky was ill and being treated at the U.C.L.A. Hospital. Joy wasn’t allowed to visit her because the rules only allowed family members above a certain age, and Joy was only eighteen months older than Becky, so she didn’t qualify.
Once, however, she was allowed to stand in the cement courtyard outside the building and look up to the fifth floor window where Becky weakly waved at her. That experience made Joy feel like a shrunken Alice looking for a key on a table towering above her, but there was no key.
It’s not fair that they won’t let me see Becky.
No one ever heard what she spoke inside her mind. Not then. Not ever.
I can fly in my dreams so I should fly up there right now!
And when she got home that day, she had tried jumping off her bed to fly. It didn’t work, so she flew in her dreams that night, high above the adults and trees, far past the buildings and electric wires. The only thing that troubled her while she was flying was a nameless man who chased her and tried to pull her down. He never reached her, but she never found her sister either.
“Joooooy,” her mom called from the kitchen.
Joy knew by the way the vowel in her name was zooming through the air that she couldn’t stay in bed any longer, so she threw off her covers and ran to the heater, standing over it with feet spread wide apart so as not to burn her toes on the hot grill that kept everyone from falling down into the basement where the heater blasted up its heat. Her powder blue flannel nightgown with crocheted trim, the one her mom had made, captured the forced air and billowed out around her. Joy felt a different kind of chill when the heat touched her private place. But she was only six years old and it didn’t mean anything to her yet.
“All right, that’s enough time on the heater. Go get your clothes on, breakfast is ready. ” Her mom came down the hallway from the kitchen.
“Just a little longer, Mom, please? I’m so cold,” Joy shivered. She was cold, but the thought of breakfast didn’t motivate her to move any faster either.
“No, you’ll be late for school,” Arlene turned around and headed back towards the kitchen. “Your breakfast is getting cold, so get going, you know what happens when you drag around here….” her voice trailed off as she turned the corner.
“Okay, Mom.” Joy felt less enthusiastic than her voice showed, but she didn’t want her mom to wake her up at 5a.m. the next morning, so she tried hard to sound cheerful. Her mom wasn’t just threatening either. Once, Joy had shuffled around the house before school, unintentionally delaying the clockwork precision of the household’s morning routine, and the next morning her mom dragged her (not meanly, just matter-of-factly) out of bed at that early hour when it was even colder than it was at this moment.
Joy rushed around her bedroom, quickly making her bed and pulling on her clothes. She took only a second to peek out the window. The sun was shining and everything around her seemed to glitter.
It’s so beautiful. I can hardly wait to see what the rain did.
With that she bounced into the kitchen, hastily ate her breakfast – cod liver oil, brewer’s yeast, brains and all – took her brown bag lunch from the counter and rushed out the back door, down the steps and driveway until she was on the sidewalk, alone and free from the four walls of her home.
The air surprised her with a flower fragrance so sweet she could almost taste it. She sucked the air in deep gulps, as though she’d been sick in an oxygen tent for months. The dirt and smoggy grime of Los Angeles had washed out to sea and the trees, houses, cars and blades of grass looked like someone had polished them with a silken cloth from India. Birds happily singing amidst newly washed leaves provided music for the flowers – oh the flowers – which danced delicately in the breeze as they cradled rain drops that looked like fairy diamonds in the palms of their petals.
She bent down to look at the flowers more closely. Prisms of color swept her into a world more real than all the rules and schoolbooks in the world. Feeling like she would burst from the beauty of it all, she began dancing in a circle with her umbrella for a partner, humming and singing as though the entire fairy kingdom were listening.
“Whatcha doin’?” Jan Rosenbaum, the boy who made her heart skip like an old record scratch, smiled at her through thick glasses that magnified the deep brown of his big eyes. Jan, small-framed and kind, he never made fun of her or said mean things behind her back like the other kids at school.
“Oh, nothin’. Just singing with the birds and looking at all the fairy jewels. What’choo doin’?”
“Um, just going to school. You comin’?” he plied.
“Sure, ‘na minute.”
Any other day Joy would have been thrilled to walk with him. After all, he was her first true love. But, this morning she was more interested in bending her head over a bright yellow flower whose petals, she was sure, were the dress of a princess.
“Be right there,” her voice faded away as she cocked her ear to listen to a bird trilling its happiness to the world. She felt like a hummingbird needing to taste nectar from every flower in sight and her body tingled with excitement. Beauty was the subject of the day; bird songs were the textbooks and time lost its meaning in this radiant schoolroom.
She never caught up with Jan. He seemed to fade from sight as she twirled in big circles and swung her bright pink umbrella around and around above her head.
“Hello little birdie, and how are you today?” she sang out to a little robin pecking for earthworms that squiggled in and out of the soil because of the rain.
“I’m fine, and so happy to see you,” he chirped back.
“I think I’ll fly way up to the clouds with you now,” she exulted.
“Then together we’ll go see the fairy king and queen,” he chimed.
Completely entranced by the mystical music around her, she could not stop dancing and singing. Peace was teaching her a lesson and she didn’t want to miss it.
Suddenly, the music stopped, the flowers quit dancing and Joy realized that she was completely alone on the streets that should be filled with children jostling and laughing on their way to school.
She too stopped dancing and singing. What happened next made her stop listening to the music for a long time to come.