When Myra invited me to her birthday pool party, I dreaded asking my Uncle for permission. In our apartment, a new disagreement would sit at the dinner table every night, shouting its way into every conversation. When I mentioned to Myra that Uncle didn’t like me to go to other people’s houses, she laughed and told me to stand up for myself, “After all, you’re in America now. You have rights!”
“Where does she live?” Uncle’s first question.
“Westchester, by the beach.” I said in a studied, casual tone, trying to hide my eagerness.
“Who’s going to be there? That immigrant girl you hang around with at school?” My aunt’s jumping in.
Uncle’s wife was a native New Yorker, did not like any body too rich, too poor, or too ethnic, regretted the life she left behind and worried about her hair turning gray. More than anything, she hated the idea that I was doing well in school, and that my visa was renewed every year. She enjoyed disagreeing with me; and if anything might bring Uncle to be nervous with me, she fed his paranoia.
We had just finished a meal I had prepared carefully, washing each pan and putting it away before dirtying the next tool.
She disliked a messy kitchen. She wanted nothing to do with sauces that had to simmer, or meals that required multiple pots. Her perfect meal was filet mignon cooked on a bbq outside, with a side of baked potato. She always had dessert and coffee. If she didn’t like the spaghetti I prepared, she wouldn’t even come to the table. She took the dessert to the living room, and sat there with her coffee and by herself. Always with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, she told everyone what their place was.
After each discussion where she didn't get her way, she added, “You are here temporarily. Don’t forget.”
I pretended her comments did not bother me, responding as though we were just kidding with each other.
“When will it end?” She asked me about Myra's party.
“Who knows! She'll be driving me back at her leisure!”
"NO. That will not do! You must be home by ten, not ten after, twelve after. Ten. You understand?"
Myra had taken care of every thing. “By the way,” she had said, “ no presents; and don’t worry about a bathing suit either; we’ll have extra suits you can borrow. All my friends want to meet you.”
“She can’t just drive about, gallivanting all over the place! ” Aunt was using words I didn't know. Now, I was speechless.
Uncle heard the conversation and just added, “ We’ll see.”
After supper, as I tried to study in the room I shared with my little cousins, I overheard comments about my request, low rumbles like winds gathering strength in the distance, preparing to explode all around the house. The party I wanted to attend was an excuse for other arguments to gather strength.
"She sasses me. I swear, she does. ” Aunt was readying for an argument.
“You want me to talk to her? I promised she could live here and go to school as long as she wanted. What did you expect?”
“You’re taking her side! You should be supporting my decisions. Now she wants us to go to parties; before long she’d want to date; she’s trouble; and I’m sick and tired of her sauciness. She is trying to be like the neighbor girls.”
Each word was a sneaker wave pulling me under, choking my confidence.
The comment about the girls living next door was unkind. In their company, Aunt was all smiles and encouragements. They had showed me how to style my hair, shave my legs, wear lipstick for special occasions, and purchase the right bras with extra help, to achieve my ‘potential beauty.’ In America, there were no ugly people, only those who had not read the right magazines and not purchased the right products. I was learning that my uncle and aunt’s expectations and rules did not match any other adult’s. The girls next door were fun loving and nobody yelled at them for looking at magazines, for purchasing products to look glamorous, for listening to music and doing homework.
“It’s our duty to look our best, to enhance Mother Nature.” Erin would show me how with just a little help, I too could look like those movie stars in magazines. I was looking enhanced with their help and expert advice.
It was the girls’ aunt who interceded with my relatives about this party.
Saturday, stiff from sleeping on the rigatoni contraption that gave my hair a glamorous wave, I welcomed Erin's help to ready me for the party. She brushed and styled my hair, added a bit of face cream and color on the lips, and even lent me an outfit she put together from items in her closet.
“Don't you have any birthday or party dresses?” She asked, "When is your birthday?”
“Oh, we don’t celebrate birthdays in Italy. Only our Saint’s Day.”
“Well, you’re in America. And We celebrate birthdays. Bet on it. This birthday party you’re going to is a big deal here.You need to look good.”
Wanting to look like those people on television, I realized that except for my uniform type skirts and tops, I had no civilian outfits and no party clothes. Erin returned with a pretty blouse and a matching sweater and pushed some stuffing in my bras for extra measure.
"There. You're ready. Just remember about the condition of the bras before you jump in the water."
I didn't understand that last comment because Myra was honking the car downstairs and I was eager to go. "Thanks for everything." I hugged Erin and rushed out. Erin was babysitting the kids for me; nobody else was around.
Myra looked glorious, even more elegant than she looked on a daily basis. Her place was packed, and after a few introductions I was on my own. Someone would talk to me for a few minutes, then they moved on. I realized one had to keep moving about. There were over fifty people I had just counted by standing still and watching how many people went to get drinks.
All the young people were swimming, chasing each other in the pool. I must learn to swim and buy a bikini, like Myra’s. First, though, I had to put on some weight. And maybe with more weight I would finally develop into a bosomy Italian, like Gina Lollobrigida. Italian girls were supposed to look like her.
There was music and dancing. A boy called Mike introduced himself as Myra's stepbrother. “Are you having a good time?” He asked.
“I don’t know anybody. It’s hard to even hear people.” I said.
“Come, I’ll show you around.” We moved to another part of the backyard, to a pool house where he showed me dressing rooms with extra swimming suits. Then, he was called to do something and I was alone again with very little else to say to anybody.
I went over to the BBQ area and Myra's mother introduced me to her friends and neighbors who were helping out with the cooking. I tried to eat a hot- dog; fortunately the cake served later was great.
I now knew four, five people among a crowd. Most were dancing. A few were swimming. A handful were eating and talking. I kept moving, pretending to know how to do this. When I saw Mike again, he seemed too busy. I spotted Myra a few times, once in the pool, once on the dance floor.
Most of the dances were animated. “Let’s do the Twist”, the singer was shouting on the record, as everyone gyrated with their hips. Someone pulled me into a group, and I too swayed back and forth. Then, a slow dance started, and I was alone again, as everyone was leaning toward each other, holding close, head on each other’s shoulder, drops of sweat trickling from brows. “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” the singer swooned, and gently, everyone did just that.
Before the next song, I was standing next to the record player and someone turned to me and asked what music I liked. I must have looked confused. “Hey, you must have some favorites no? Do you want me to guess?” Before I could answer, Mike walked over and the two of them talked. Then, Mike turned to me and asked what music I liked. I told him Elvis and the Platters. He shouted out , “Rick, put Elvis!”
After the cake, Myra opened her presents. Her parents were busy serving food and clearing trash. I felt bad not having brought her a present. She had told me not to. I figured then that telling people not to bring presents must be a polite way to say, come even if you can't afford a present.
It was late before I could approach her to get a ride home. Since she was distracted, I waited a while longer and then tried again. I was the last person there. Myra had forgotten about my ride. “Sorry, Rosy. Can’t you spend the night here? Call your Uncle and ask. My stepfather took the car.”
I woke my uncle when I finally called home.
“What time it is?” Uncle asked, full of sleep.
“Myra wants to know if I can stay the night.”
“Well, it’s late. Be sure they bring you home tomorrow before church. We’ll talk later.”
He hung up with a loud thud.
There, I hated how this was turning out. This party was not worth getting all excited about. While I was thinking how complicated every little thing was, Myra popped in the kitchen where I was telephoning and sounded excited,
“Brian is here for Mike. They’ll be working in the studio all night. First, though, we’re going for ice-cream, cause he missed my party and wants to make it up to me. Come.”
“Wait. I just called and told my Uncle I did not have a ride.”
“So? We’re not the ones with the car ! Let’s go.”
She yelled back at her mom who was still cleaning up.
“Mom, we’ll be back in a half hour or so.”
Myra and I hopped in the back seat. Mike and Brian were talking about the work they had to do later, and how this song was going to be on the radio. Myra explained that their band had one song that might be played on the radio. If that happened, the band would be on their way.
At the drive-in, attendants on roller skates brought banana splits and sundaes. Mike paid for all of us.
Instead of driving us right back to Myra’s house, Brian drove for miles on the Pacific Coast Highway, arguing with Myra, nervous and excited about the possibility of his song on the radio.
”Baby, I had to work all day. It’s all worth if they play it on the radio tonight. It’s almost time.”
With the surf pounding and the wind blowing through our hair, we rode for hours listening to music and singing.
“Girls, listen, they are playing IT. There!” Mike turned the volume up and the boys sang along.
Myra explained the song was Mike’s and Brian’s, and their band was The Beach Boys.
“You’ll see, they’ll be famous.” She said.
“We’re there already!” Shouted Brian.
The Beach Boys became famous, though I just think of them as boys, night cruising down on PCH, the wind in their faces, stopping at an ice-cream drive-in with girls in the back seats.