Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com
Time Lapse Tillie
Tilda sat on her bed and pulled the back of her hand across her mouth, wiping off thick red lipstick, Tangee Red-Red, a new dramatic colour for her new life, her brilliant singing career. Then she yawned so hard her jaw nearly locked. It had been a big week. She relaxed her face and leaned back onto the pillow, allowing her black hair to flow outward in a open wave. this was her fifth show in a row, each day since Monday, when she arrived with a nothing more than a battered case and a borrowed fitted suit. Jennie Grossinger herself had picked Tilda as the winner of a singing contest in Central Park, her fingers blue with cold as she sung in her best alto, telling jokes through the music. A reviewer said she was like Ethel Mermen and Vivien Leigh rolled up into one. The audience laughed at her dirty jokes, and cheered her to multiple encores. Tonight the applause went on so long that she even took time out of Eddie Fisher’s show: the big act she was opening for. She licked her smudged lips and tasted bitter wax and a hint of the Hurricane cocktails she'd sipped after the show - grenadine and rum, a nod to the sweet tooth that would ultimately dog her into diabetes. Eddie didn’t seem to mind the encore. He put his arms out wide into a “T” of encouragement, and made her take one more bow, before she walked off into the free drinks and admiration of adoring fans.
Until this week, she’d always been Tilda Grace Goldstein. Now she was “Time-lapse Tilly” the miming jokester with a voice to melt the hardest heart. Though it was only one hundred or so miles from her Brooklyn Heights home, she was a million miles away from that small, insecure girl who slept in an attic and coaxed her suicidal mother from the roof each night.
Her body shook even though her hotel room was warm: someone walking on her grave. Premonitions were an unwelcome gift that she'd fought from her childhood. She sometimes lost her hold on the present, and sensed a future that should have been uncertain, though it was hovering in front her her life a vision through the keyhole. She closed her eye, pulled over the satin quilt and breathed in and out slowly, loathe to pull herself back into the present tense, to get up and wash her face, take down her hair, end the dream. In the here and now, she was the heroine of her own Hollywood dreams. Hollywood in upstate New York, the epitome of glamour and culmination of everything she'd dreamt of in all of her nineteen year old audacity. Freedom was sweeter than the cherries that sat on the top of the drinks that kept coming last night.
The dream surrounded her until she fell asleep with the sound of applause still ringing through her head, her lips parted in what she knew could only be a temporary ecstacy.
By morning the feeling was gone, replaced by a buzzing she couldn't get out of her head. The taste in her mouth had morphed from Hurricane Cocktail to musty. She rubbed her eyes. Her next show wasn't until Monday and she was free to loaf around in the hotel, flirting with the many GIs, and getting a feel for her new summer home. Stretching languidly, she rose from the bed, ready to slope into the bathroom and clean up what she'd left on her face the night before when a heavy knock thudded on her door.
"Tilda, where are you? Tilda, c'mon!"
She rubbed her eyes in confusion and padded in her still-stockinged feet to the door. The voice was familiar, female, but she couldn't place it with a name.
When she opened it, the name came to her. Sarah. Sarah something. She couldn't remember. There were so many names, and so many faces she'd taken in over the past week.
"I've just woken up. It's Saturday."
"Oh for God's sake you silly schmendrik. You've forgotten, haven't you? I knew you were tipsy, but I didn't think that drunk. Get dressed. ASAP. We've got dates with those rich GIs from last night, and you look like chopped liver. So neu, do I have to stand in your doorway?"
"No, no. Come in."
Sarah's voice came through the tunnel of Tillie's hangover. Dates. With those GIs she'd been talking to last night. She didn't recall any dates, but she'd have to take Sarah's word.
"I don't remember a thing. I'm sure I wasn't that drunk. Never mind. Give me ten and I'll be ready. Make yourself comfortable. I haven't even put coffee on yet, so you'll have to help yourself. There's milk in the fridge." So much for an easy Saturday. Still, maybe the GIs would take them somewhere nice today. A day out in the Catskills. She hadn't seen anything yet beyond the hotel interior.
The cool in the backseat was delicious after the heat of her room. Tillie reached her hand to hold onto her head scarf. She hadn't time to roll her hair. didn't have time to roll it up after Sarah had come knocking. So here she was in the backseat of a GIs V8 convertable like some fast gal from Manhatten. Harald sat in the back with her, a handsome blond boy with green eyes, talking about the war and predicting that he'd soon be part of it. He radiated confidence but with her usual insight, she saw fear radiating behind his irises. He was one of many good looking guys she'd flirted with every night after the show. He laughed against his fear, and she laughed with him. A picnic date was just the thing for a easy Saturday. Better than mooching around.
"Hey gorgeous, pass the bread." Harald winked at her, leaning a little closer, while Sarah and her date, some smooth talker name Josef, slunk off for a walk.
Tillie took another bread roll, and then put it back. The food at Grossinger's was so copious and rich that she had already put on five pounds. The fitted dresses she wore were pulling tight on the waist. She'd have to cut back, tomorrow maybe. Sarah brought hot coffee in a flask, and Tillie poured a cup and put a few lumps of sugar in to take off the bitter edge. Harald was easy, and the light wind off the lake lifted his hair. When he smiled, his straight white teeth and posh accent indicated a well-to-do upbringing. Ease, luxury, power. No dirt under his fingernails - unlike her own home, where they struggled for basics against her father's unemployment.
She laughed and batted her eyelashes, but didn't feel anything other than a gentle camaraderie. There had been so much darkness in her life that Harald's lightness seemed alien. On the way back he tried to kiss her in the back seat and she swatted him off, pulling back. Something in her resisted him, even though he was a 'good catch' as her mother would say.
By Monday, she had squeezed herself into another cinched dress, applied her makeup, rolled up her hair, and was standing alone, in that crystal moment between dark and light, sandwiched between thick velvet curtains. Her life had come together to this point. The band was playing their opening in the pit below, while she emptied her mind, prepared to become someone else. Someone tougher, bigger, more immune. As the curtains opened she took one more second's pause, and then stepped forward, now six feet tall and breathtakingly beautiful. She smiled before uttering a single note: angelic, simulaneously high and low pitched as it broke through the tinkle of glasses and conversation, the deals being struck, the lives in the process of being lived. Tille sang in the enormous gilt ballroom, at times so softly it was as if she were a waif moving among the tables and whispering into the patron's ears, then so powerful, the glasses on the tables might have shattered with the intensity. Then she stopped singing, and told a joke, shaking the audience out of their trance. The applause went on for several minutes and once again she sang an encore into Fisher's show, exiting with a flush that radiated down her small chin and through her body.
After the show, in the ug of self-satisfaction, she sat down with Sarah again, at a table full of energetic and appreciative young GIs. Once more the Hurricane cocktails appeared by magic, wrecking her diet, though she tried to drink them a little slower this time. Harald was there too, though she avoided him, and sat on the other corner of the table, near the intense fellow who had been staring at her so hard during her performance that his gaze almost hurt.
"I'm Bernard." He put out his hand and smiled and suddenly his serious face lit up and became boyish. She couldn't help but smile back.
"Your voice is like a choir of angels." Bernard blushed, holding her hand for a moment longer than decorum might have suggested. She sat back a bit, startled by the contrast between his earnest gaze, his loopy grin, and the poetic nature of his words. He wasn't as classicaly handsome as Harald, or that other boy -- Joey something that she saw a few times, but there was something really masculine, and yet soft at the same time in him that drew her.
"My troop's leaving for Iceland in two week's time." He shrugged, as if that was an explaination for his sincerity. "Would you like to dance?"
Then he led her up, the parquet floor gleaming below them, reflecting up the click of her shiny heels. In that moment when he took her hands and glided her forward, something in her changed. It was an almost chemical reaction that she would deny later when she was asked, as she often was, by her many children and their inquisitve friends, about the moment when she first met Bernard. But if she had been honest with herself she would have been able to come back to this moment, when her dreams morphed into the mirrored movements of this sturdy and strangely graceful man. As if they'd had lessons together, they danced a perfect rhumba,and then straight into an unstructured swing full of fire and energy, though she could hardly feel anything under his solid fingers as he spun her, moving forward and backwards. Whirling from left to right, her single separate self had disappeared and she had no fear, no anger, no sensation at all, as she'd transcended time's illusion in a ballroom already decayed into exposed beams, late afternoon light, and termite infested debis. This was a snapshot moment that would exist in a perfection no less real than the crunching of Bernard's steel capped army boot on her best dress shoes. She winced, jumping back in pain.
"Oh God. Oh, I'm so sorry! Come, let me sit you down. I'm a clumsy ox."
"It's okay," Tillie said, sitting in the chair and taking off her shoe. She couldn't see any damage to her toes. It was almost a relief to feel tangible pain in her feet against the swish of her brain. Bernard put his hands on her foot, which started a tingling up her leg.
Sarah, who had been watching all the while, was laughing so hard she'd snorted drink out her nose, which got them all laughing, and Tilda started telling dirty jokes about sore feet until the whole table was shaking with the hilarity of their loss of control, and it was almost as good as the dancing, though her foot still throbbed as she laughed in the face of mortality.
After that Bernard couldn't be kept away. He called for her in her room every day, and sat up front for her shows each evening until one evening on the way to her show, Harald grabbed her roughly in the hall to ask whether she'd ditched him.
"I didn't know we were anything other than friends."
He produced a small bunch of flowers, a posy, and asked for another chance.
"You're too young and pretty to get serious so quickly. I've done a little digging on that Bernard Levenstein, and he's dirt broke. You could do better."
He winked at her and then invited her to go boating with him on the lake. She accepted. She didn't care that Bernard was poor--she was poor too, but he had been getting serious quickly. After all, she was a singer. There was a career ahead of her. If she let love sweep her so thoroughly, she would lose this--all this, her freedom and youth would be gone in a flash, as she moved from the servitude of youth to the servitude of adulthood. She didn't think she was ready for that. There was more singing to do, so she accepted and let herself enjoy Harald's exquisite picnic, and let him row her around the lake. Who would have thought she'd have two suitors. There was a slight desparation in Harald's eyes as he pleaded with her for a promise, as he was off to Europe the following day. But still she resisted him, with all his flashy insoucience.
Later that evening Bernard came to see her and they danced again, his strong body pressing so hard against her that she could scarcely breathe, though this time he didn't step on her toes. Instead he lifted her up and around and she felt so small and cared for in his arms that she forgot the fun she'd had that day rowing on the lake. There was no question that the US would join the war - it was just a matter of when. Along with 40,000 other American soldiers, he would be going to Iceland to replace the British in defense of the Island and to set up strategic bases along the North Atlantic sea-lane. He'd ordered some champagne for them to share, and she sat holding her flute glass tightly, scared of what he might say, but also flush and excited from the dancing and toast to the future they'd just had.
He reached into his jacket pocket brought out something she didn't want to see, a small bakelite box. She lifted it in her hands, cradling it gently. Bernard went down on one knee. "I'm leaving tomorrow and I want to make sure you'll be waiting for me when I return. Tilda, marry me, please."
Her world slipped a little sideways. She was too young for marriage. Too young to settle down with any man, let alone a man about to go off to fight in a strange frozen land and war all around them. She closed her eyes briefly, and then opened them, looking into his pale blue eyes - like the eyes of a child - eager, innocent. Could she destroy this person, with all his passionate intensity? She thought of her mother's dark face etched with pain.
"Can I think about it, Bernard? Till the morning?" He nodded and then kissed her, his kiss was filled with hunger and desperation. She yielded then, letting him take her, turned on by need and terror until she could no longer say anything, only let him remove her clothing and push her down into a place where there was no separation between them.
Afterwards, numb and contrite, she dressed slowly and Bernard walked her back to her room. His eyes were soft, and he hugged her for a long time by her front door. In the warmth of her room, she shivered again and once more had that horrible prescience that had dogged her since she was a child . For a moment she felt old, at the end fo her life, her children grown and husband long buried. Then she looked in the mirror over her dressing table and saw how beautiful and young she was, her hair dark and gleaming, her eyes shining with youth and expectancy, and her lips rouged 1940s red. Relief flooded her, and then the nausea hit her hard. She ran to the bathroom and threw up, heaving three times until she was empty. Returning to her dressing table she knew, that this was the end of her singing career and that she was already tied to Bernard. Of course she would say yes, and the fairytale would end, a reversal of the classic Grimm's stories her mother read her when she was a child, before the depression took hold. Tillie wasn't going to be a movie star or famous singer. She wasn't going to be famous. She would be a dutiful wife and mother, and the lives she would create would draw the spotlight from her. Although it was already near midnight, she stood up, and walked back to to Bernard's room, knocking loudly.
He opened it quickly. Too quickly. He was so eager. Could she cope with this intensity for the rest of her life? Could she leave everything she'd dreamt of becoming behind and become his partner, supporting him through the impending war, the intense trials of fatherhood, helping him create his own career, and outliving him into the long lonely path of eventual widowhood. To his searching, near desperate glance, she replied, "yes."
The relief in his face was almost enough. She felt it fall against her as she slipped between the past, the present and the future--a nomad time traveller of her own life. The feeling would pass. It always did.
Afterwards in her room, Tilda sat on her bed and pulled the back of her hand across her mouth, wiping off the thick red lipstick. She wouldn't need such a strong shade again. The sound of applause was fading as she fell asleep on top of the satin cover.