A Closet of One’s Own
I fell in love with a room when I was nine years old; not just with a room but an apartment in its entirety, with all of its strange ways and airs. Mommy, Daddy, my brothers (five years and twelve months old) and I had just moved into a spread-out apartment on the upper deck of a two-family tomato-red brick house in Brooklyn, and to me this spelled:
A D V E N T U R E.
Unlike the squashed feeling of the one-bedroom apartment we left behind,this place seemed magical, with a tub that stood on feet that looked like a lion’s paws. It had ceilings which opened to let the sunshine flood onto our kitchen and bathroom floors (and seep through the walls into all the other rooms). There were French doors providing a border between my room and my brothers’; they creaked open mysteriously at night to allow Stevie and me to tap out our secret codes, plan spy missions or sneak attacks on the grocer downstairs, to giggle dangerously loud, and even to wake the baby.
There was a most wonderful invention–a porch–where we could be cool at night and talk to two young Italian girls on the next porch. They were so pretty in their starched short-sleeved blouses and flowered skirts, revealing plump forearms and shapely (though unshaven) calves. These girls encouraged me to cross the low brick barrier between porches, run through the thick tomato fog filling their apartment, and into the kitchen where their mama would press a large spoon of sizzling sauce to my lips and smile when I nodded. The girls liked to sit me on a wooden chair, my back to them, and set my hair with tissue paper into hundreds of tiny swirling pin curls, then tell me how I could easily pass for a nice Italian girl, with such dark rippling hair and pale freckled skin. Out on the porch, the girls would sit, legs crossed, back to the traffic, and sew whole wardrobes, trousseaux, for my five inch doll nicer than any clothes I had ever owned.
I was in love with the strangeness of it all, in love even with the evil landlord who rushed upstairs, cursing wildly in Italian, each time my baby brother thudded his spoon on the wooden tray of his high chair.
But the best was the closet. What I call the closet was not exactly a closet and certainly it was not a room. It was a passageway, maybe six by ten feet, leading out from one end of my bedroom through the back of my brothers’ bedroom and onto the porch. I could close the two glass doors at either end, lie down on the cool floor, and with luck not be seen. The floor was bare; the walls, beige. It was a naked room, a hall, the most welcoming sight I had ever seen.
“Can I have it, Mommy, please? I pleaded.
My mother, six months later, took the room back and turned it into a real storage closet. But coming upon it for the first time, it seemed to me like a memory that hadn’t been lived yet. I saw it so clearly, like stepping onto a strip of beach in a storysomewhere, the sand stretched before me like panes of glass, smooth and undisturbed. I would be the first to leave a footprint!
Stretched out on the floor, looking up, I could see that not one gull had ever shattered this silence or swooped down upon the shallow water lapping this bay to shop for breakfast. I could see a quaint hamlet a short distance from the beach with little clapboard houses arranged haphazardly. No one’s mother puttered on hands and knees in the yard, no children’s faces were at the windows fogging them up, no whiffs of a grandmother’s bread baking filled the kitchens. No dog escaped from its yard to dash across the beach or to run gingerly into the water to wet its paws and then stand, convulsively shaking itself dry.
The shores of this closet, in this railroad flat in the middle of New York City, were silent and uninhabited. Only I was there. I stepped onto its shores each time like Peter Pan alighting in Neverland. Each time I closed the doors with care, pushing out the sounds, smells, sights, tastes and touches of family life; of fourth grade in a new school; of being misunderstood and pleasingly plump; of having two pesky brothers and no sisters; of having a father who was always at work; of a young woman, desperate to succeed as a 1950’s housewife –my mother– who was always about, needing to pull all the strings (especially mine) in order to feel she had everything and everyone under control.
In my closet, no one could find me. I placed a chair near either end, stretched an old green army blanket across them, and camped out on the beach. I invited my dolls inside and whispered my dreams into their porcelain ears, hugged their sharp little bodies,dressed and undressed them in their hand-tailored ensembles, married them off to my teddy bear, involved them in all sorts of soap opera shenanigans, family machinations, elementary school dramas. For example, they had to act in the class play, too (after being unanimously nominated by the class for the part); like me, they had to pirouette in place and recite the immortal lines Short and stout/Can’t turn about so the Prince would reject them, too, and choose Alison Rosette to be his princess.
Sometimes others were asked in. Stevie could come in with his “men.” We crumpled up the green blanket, making hills and valleys, and played for hours at “war.” Maybe once I even let the baby in to play at blocks. Hours and afternoons rolled by soundlessly when I perched on sore hands and knees, drawing pictures atop sheets of slippery butcher paper from Daddy’s store, which ran from one end of the closet to the other. I’m a poor artist and I knew it even then, but draw I did, undaunted. Lots of red and yellow and orange suns, flowers towering over little tomato-red brick houses. I think of how I stood on those chairs, shakily pinning my pictures to the walls of my cave, my closet, my own true home, my palace to decorate. How I stood in the center of the closet, eying my creations, thrilled at my accomplishments. I was so lucky. At nine, I had finally found that which no one could ever take away.
Janet Garber has had a L O N G career in HR while moonlighting as a freelance journalist, fiction writer and poet, book and movie reviewer, and author of a non-fiction book. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in a score of literary journals and anthologies. Her comic debut novel (March 2016), Dream Job: Wacky Adventures of an HR Manager, is available on LuLu, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Visit her at www.janetgarber.com.