Chapter 19 – Alice

Hello Beautiful

september 1997–February 2002

Whe i th Grade beGa , alice was six foot one. This shocked everyone who came in contact with her. The volleyball and

basketball coaches at her private school followed her down the hallways, trying to entice her to join their teams even when she explained that she was too uncoordinated for sports. Her height also pulled her father back into the picture. Everyone from Mrs. Laven to the mailman to the headmaster seemed compelled to say some version of: Wow, your father must have been a really big guy, huh?

Julia and Alice now looked almost nothing alike. When Alice was young, there had been something about the shape of her eyes that tied her to her mother, but even that seemed to be gone. Their differing taste in clothes didn’t help either. Julia wore skirt suits and silk blouses during the week and skinny black pants and a type of drapey top on the weekends. Alice, on the other hand, had a sneaker collection and wore sweatpants in different colors. It was hard for her to find clothes and shoes that fit her, due to her skinniness and height. Sneakers, though, were unisex, which gave her more options. Her mother had studied her quizzically one morning and said, “You don’t look feminine at all.” Alice had laughed and said, “It’s 1997, Mom. I don’t need to look feminine.”

Alice took some pleasure in the fact that she apparently resembled her father. It made her feel like she had two parents, even if one of them was gone. Her father walked around with her—or his

genes did, anyway—and that made her feel stronger. She needed the strength. When she started high school, she was too tall to make slouching—which she’d mastered in middle school—an effective tactic to look “normal.” There was no longer any way to contort her body so that she resembled the petite girls in her school. Carrie had stopped growing at five feet, which shone an even brighter spotlight on Alice’s height, since the two girls were always together. When Alice hugged her mother or Carrie, she had to bend at the knees in a way that always felt awkward. She walked faster than everyone else because her stride was so long. Her neck often ached at the end of the day because she had to look down while she spoke to people. She was regularly called Giraffe or the Jolly Green Giant by the kids she’d grown up with. A female math teacher said to her, clearly meaning to be kind: “You must always wear flats, my dear, to make the boys more comfortable.” Men on the street extended themselves to their fullest heights and puffed out their chests when they passed Alice, as if her size somehow challenged their manhood.

Alice decided, when ninth grade began, that she was going to stop wasting time feeling ashamed of her appearance. Whether she felt ashamed or confident, the result was the same: She was very tall, and people were going to talk about it and make fun of her. She was unable to blend in; her height kept her apart from everyone else, quite literally. This meant that Alice felt lonely, but since there was no alternative, she decided to accept her reality. She walked down the school hallways at her full height and made herself smile when some puny boy cracked a joke about how the school was going to need to raise the ceilings. More to prove to herself that she could do it than for any other reason, Alice wore heels to her first high school dance. “You’re very brave,” Carrie whispered, as they walked into the school gymnasium, but Alice shook her head. “It’s not bravery,” she said. “Everyone stares at me, no matter what shoes I wear.” She was shocked, though, when the captain of the basketball team asked her to dance. He was shy and had a stutter, but he looked her directly in

the eyes while they danced, and that was exciting. When he asked her out on a date later that week, she was shocked again. The surprise cleared a space inside Alice, though, and she heard a small voice—was it hers, or her mother’s?—whisper no. She had separated herself from the other kids her age, and she would stay separated. She felt safer that way.

“No, thank you,” Alice said, in as kind a voice as she could manage, and walked away. She felt a welling of relief inside her. The tall boy had asked her a question she’d never considered before, and the truth had come out of her mouth. She wanted to be like her mother: independent. Alice didn’t tell anyone, not even Carrie, but by the end of the day the entire school somehow knew that she had rejected the popular senior.

It was strange, but in the weeks that followed, other kids’ faces turned toward her like flowers. Most of them were shy or social misfits in some way. They glanced in Alice’s direction from behind their bangs or over a textbook. They timed their locker visits to match hers. They fell in step beside her in the hallways. They thought Alice was brave, and that made them feel brave too. They wanted to feel better about themselves, and they found that they did, in Alice’s company. I’m not brave, Alice wanted to tell them, because these kids were regularly insulted like she was—called fat, or stupid, or ugly—and she didn’t want to mislead them. But she couldn’t think of a way to explain herself that wouldn’t make them feel bad, so she kept quiet and kept their company.

“What in the world is going on?” Carrie said, wide-eyed. She had spent all of middle school telling boys and girls off for teasing Alice about her height, and she’d started high school poised to do the same. Alice shrugged. She had a sense of what the truth was—she had refused to feel ashamed, and that gave her classmates permission to do the same—but she was unable to put any of this into words. No one else asked her out for a date, though, and that was a relief.

Probably because Alice had more of a life outside her apartment, she now found herself able to accept the silences from her mother about her past and the lack of photographs on their walls. The smallness of their two-person family no longer felt deeply precarious to her. Alice and Julia still made dinner together most nights and watched movies in their fuzzy bathrobes on Fridays, if Alice wasn’t sleeping over at Carrie’s. She and her mother made each other laugh by putting on silly voices and competing to answer the questions first on Jeopardy! But Alice also felt some satisfaction that her very body—with its ridiculous, awkward height and her straight straw-colored hair—was somehow the embodiment of the past that her mother refused to mention. Alice still didn’t know the details, or even the broad strokes, of her mother’s Chicago life, but she no longer felt like she needed the information. She was growing into herself, and she was old enough to be confident that if the time came to save herself, she would have the strength to do so.

By the end of high school, Alice had figured out how to manage her life. She felt less like a zoo animal walking down the school hallways. She slept over at Carrie’s most weekends, and in the middle of the night the two friends quoted their favorite movie lines, and sang along to records, and talked about whatever was on their minds. Alice visited her grandmother in Florida once a year, without Julia, because her mother and grandmother no longer got along. Alice was now fully aware that her mother had cut her sisters, her home city, and to a large extent her own mother out of her life, and so Alice was careful to tread inside the lines that her mother had drawn around them. Alice loved her mother, and even though she didn’t think she could lose Julia, this data said otherwise. Still, Alice couldn’t help but note the look that sometimes passed over Julia’s face when her daughter entered the room or stood tall. There was a quiver to her mother in those moments, an opening to another life, and even though Alice wasn’t allowed entry, she was glad to be the one who occasionally rattled the door.

julia drove alice to Boston University at the beginning of her freshman year. Julia talked at her daughter while she drove. Alice thought she knew all of her mother’s moods, but today Julia was shooting out sparks that sometimes looked like excitement and sometimes looked like warning signs for an engine that needed repair.

“I want you to have fun at college,” she said.

“Sure,” Alice said. Her hands were sweating—they did that when she was nervous—and she wiped them on her shorts.

“You didn’t have enough fun in high school. I want you to be happy.” Julia flashed a look at her daughter, to make it clear that she was taking this conversation seriously.

“I had fun,” Alice said. And she had. She’d had fun staying up late listening to music in Carrie’s room and watching movies with her mother. She’d started drinking coffee in her junior year, and wrapping her hands around that warm mug every morning had sent a thrill through her—that fell under the heading of fun, didn’t it? One of her worries about college was that the coffee in the dining hall wouldn’t taste as good as what she made at home. She had many worries about college, actually. She didn’t like the idea of being crammed inside a dormitory with a lot of kids her age. Kids her age were loud and messy, and Alice would never be alone. Luckily, Carrie was attending Emerson, which was also in Boston; it gave Alice great relief to know that her best friend would be close by.

“Oh, these drivers,” Julia said. They were traveling from New York to Boston on Interstate 95, a giant thoroughfare that ran up the East Coast. Motorcyclists, enormous sixteen-wheelers, and cars danced around one another, looking for space. She said, “You should date, go to parties, stay up all night, things like that.”

“Is that what you did at college?” Alice asked.

Julia seemed to consider this. “My situation was different. I had to live at home for financial reasons, so I wasn’t really part of campus life. But you can do anything you want, baby. Smoke pot, even. Or, what do the kids call it, hook up?”

“Jesus, Mom.”

Mrs. Laven had transitioned from calling Alice my little girl to— once Alice passed her in height—my old soul. Alice hadn’t minded; she felt a little proud of the nickname, because it suggested that she was mature. It was a reason that she had no interest in dating boys. She was different, ancient on the inside, and did best on her own. The idea of flirting, kissing, having sex, filled her with horror. Alice’s old soul also helped explain the dread in her chest about the next four years.

She sighed. She knew her mother got scared when she thought Alice might be sad, and so Julia was always trying to shove her daughter toward happiness. Alice had taught herself to smile when she walked into rooms her mother was in. She knew that smiling would relax Julia immediately. But this was tiring work, and Alice said, her voice closer to tears than she would have liked, “I’ll do my best, okay, Mom?”

The electricity in Julia petered out, and she nodded. They were both quiet for the rest of the ride. When they reached Boston University’s campus, her mother helped her carry her things up to the second-floor dorm room. They had arrived before Alice’s roommate—a girl named Gloria from Louisiana—so Alice chose the bottom bunk and the desk closest to the window. Alice let her mother hug her goodbye, but she couldn’t hug back, because she thought that if she did, something inside her might break and she would cry. Alice never cried—another loss of control she shied away from—and she couldn’t afford to start now.

she Fou d the First month of college stressful. She’d worried that the lack of solitude would bother her, and it did. She liked her roommate, who had a wonderful, belting laugh, but Gloria spoke only in terms of gossip—“Did you see the guy with the baseball hat flirting with that blond girl?” or “Those two clearly hate each other’s guts.” Alice nodded in vague agreement, but it seemed too early for gossip, like going on vacation and buying a house on the first day. She thought, But we don’t know any of these people. I don’t know you. We’re all strangers.

Because of her height, she was unable to blend in to the scenery. She crisscrossed the campus on her way to class and felt people staring. Girls looked shocked when they saw her but rarely said anything. Some would adopt a pitying expression, the embodiment of the words you poor thing. She knew they were whispering prayers of gratitude for their own smallness, for the fact that they were feminine and could hide themselves when necessary. The boys asked her if she was on the basketball or the volleyball team. When she said neither, they were shocked. “Is your dad Larry Bird?” one guy asked her. She thought he was joking, then realized he wasn’t. Certain boys could accept her height only if she was a serious athlete or, apparently, related to one. Otherwise, her size bothered them, like a piece of mail they couldn’t find a mailbox for. Still, there were other young men—the slightly older versions of the high school boys who’d walked the halls with her—who grinned at the sight of Alice.

“Hell yeah,” a boy named Rhoan said to her when they were introduced at an orientation event. “Right on.” His smile was so infectious she couldn’t help but return it. He and Alice became friends, and when he was stoned one night, he tried to explain his initial reaction to her. “You were this giantess, and you were owning every inch of it. You’re a badass, Alice.”

“I’m not, actually,” Alice said. “People mistake my height for bravery. It’s been happening for a while now.”

Rhoan looked like he was considering this. “Okay,” he said. “Fair enough. Maybe what I’m seeing in you is the potential for you to become a badass.”

Alice smiled. “That’s not going to happen,” she said. “But thank you.”

Carrie visited one Saturday afternoon in October, and after walking around Boston University’s vast campus, she, Alice, Rhoan, and Gloria hung out in Alice and Gloria’s room. Their door was open, so they were able to watch students traffic by. Someone down the hall was playing James Taylor, and his melancholic voice twisted through the air.

“I like you,” Gloria said to Carrie at one point. “I’m glad that my girl has a cool friend. Alice is so shy, I was getting worried. I keep trying to set her up with different tall men on campus—she’s a beauty, and she’s getting looks.”

“Oh, please.” Alice rolled her eyes.

“I like you too.” Carrie was cross-legged on the beanbag in the corner, beaming under her pixie haircut. “Alice is a slow bloomer, that’s all. She’s going to get there, but she’s playing the long game.” Carrie gave Alice a warning look: I’m going to be honest. “Now that she’s away from her mother, I’m hoping she’ll start living more.”

“Hey,” Alice said, surprised.

“So that’s the issue?” Gloria said. “I’ve known my fair share of controlling mothers, that’s for sure. You poor chickadee.”

“Alice is doing great,” Rhoan said. He was encouraging by nature; he attended college track events just to cheer on the slowest runners. “You and I can look for men together,” he said to her. “Or I can look, and you can keep me company. You do you, baby.”

Part of Alice warmed at Rhoan’s kindness and the attention of these friends, new and old. Another part of her, though, was uncomfortable. This afternoon was exactly what she’d been afraid college would be like. Too much unscheduled time, too many hours at loose ends with your peers, inventing dramas out of perfectly fine

lives. “To be clear,” she said, “how I live has nothing to do with my mother. I love her.”

Carrie met Alice’s blue eyes with her own. “I didn’t say anything about you not loving her.”

Alice frowned, to signal that she was done talking about this. Carrie knew that Alice was touchy when it came to her mother, so Carrie usually kept her thoughts to herself. But Carrie had told her friend once, during high school, not to model herself on Julia. “I like your mom a lot,” Carrie had said, “but anyone that dresses and does their hair as carefully as your mom does every single day is unhappy on the inside. She’s trying to hide all her messiness, and I want better than that for you.”

o e tuesday aFter oo i the middle of February, Alice returned to her room after a class and found her mother there. Julia was standing by Alice’s desk. She was wearing a suit, and her hair was in a fancy layered bun.

Alice stopped in the doorway. Her mother hadn’t been back to campus since dropping her daughter off at the beginning of the school year—Alice had traveled home for long weekends and holidays—and Julia never showed up anywhere unannounced or unplanned. “Mom?” she said. “What are you doing here?”

Julia didn’t look at her daughter. She leaned closer to the wall. “These images,” she said, in a tight voice. “Where are they from?”

Alice felt something sink inside her. She walked into the room, shut the door, and slid off her winter coat. The wall above her desk was covered with photographs of Cecelia Padavano’s murals. Rhoan was an aspiring art archivist, and he’d helped Alice collect the images from various art magazines. They’d had to send away for a few of them, mailing a check for a couple of dollars to pay for an obscure Chicago art journal that seemed to cover most of Cecelia’s

work. Rhoan had blown up some of the smaller images with equipment they had in the art department. It was an ongoing project; Alice was currently waiting on the arrival of a magazine that featured a mural Cecelia had painted for a city school.

“They’re your sister’s,” Alice said. She hadn’t raised the topic of Julia’s family in years. While Alice was in high school, both she and her mother had behaved as if they had no other relatives. Alice visited Rose in Florida but upon her return barely mentioned the trip to her mother. Julia had shut that door between them so many times that Alice had locked it.

It was Rose who’d once mentioned, while her granddaughter was visiting, that her aunt Cecelia was an artist. Alice had tried to find her aunt’s paintings during high school, but she’d had no idea where to look. Cecelia’s work wasn’t in museums or art history books. Alice had also known that, while she was living at home, anything she did find would have to be hidden from her mother. She’d decided that she would renew the search in college, when her belongings and pastimes would be out of her mother’s purview. The promise of searching for Cecelia’s art and being able to display it was one of the carrots Alice had used to convince herself to look forward to life at college, and it had delivered; the wall above her desk was her favorite view. When Gloria went out to parties, Alice stayed in their room, reading or just gazing at the wall in front of her. The more images she was able to add, the more satisfied she felt.

“She’s gotten so good,” Julia murmured. She was leaning against the desk now, to get as close to the display as possible.

“Did you notice?” Alice could feel her heart beating in her chest. “You and I are in the murals.”

Julia gave her daughter a look that was difficult to read—there was incredulity and fear in it—and returned her attention to the images.

Most of the murals, and therefore most of Alice’s wall, were portraits of women. They were close-ups, painted with bright colors

on brick walls. There was one particular woman’s face that appeared on a few buildings and on the underside of an overpass. In most of the paintings, her eyes were open; on one wall they were closed. There was something ancient about her face—she looked like she was from another time. The murals weren’t all individual portraits; there was one image that Rhoan had enlarged of a group of children, perhaps twenty in all. The caption said that the mural was located in a Chicago playground. The children were smiling; they looked like someone had just told them great news. In the back row of the group was a white girl with blond-brown hair that was unmistakably Alice, around the age of ten.

“I sent Cecelia pictures of you when you were little,” Julia said, again in a muffled voice, as if she weren’t speaking to the people in this room.

“There’s you,” Alice said, and pointed. The picture showed a wall that had been painted bright blue, overlaid with the outline of a woman’s face. Ferocious curls flooded the space around her. Her chin was held high. This portrait was different from the others—more spare. It was Julia, unquestionably, but only those who knew her intimately would ever know.

The room was quiet; Gloria was at a biology lab and would be gone until dinner. Julia looked pale, and Alice knew that if she touched her mother’s hand, it would be clammy. “Sit down if you feel faint,” she said.

“I’m not going to faint.”

“I just like her art,” Alice said. “I haven’t contacted her or anything.

You don’t have to worry.”

Julia looked from the wall to her daughter. Her lipstick was bright against the pallor of her face. She looked like she was going to speak, but she didn’t. She nodded instead.

The mother and daughter walked quietly through the cold to a nearby Italian restaurant. Once they were seated, the restaurant buzzing around them, Julia started to revive. She seemed to

remember who she was and why she was there. “I took on a client in Boston,” she said. “I met with them today. Of course”—she smiled at her daughter—“my decision was helped by the fact that this gives me a reason to come to Boston and see you. It’s lonely for me in New York.”

Alice missed her mother too. But she felt lonely right now at the table with her. She knew her mother was about to ask her if she’d decided on a major—she hadn’t—and if she had a boyfriend—she didn’t—and if she was having fun. But she also knew that a part of herself and a part of Julia were still standing side by side in front of the wall of images, looking at their own faces, as painted by a woman in another city, from Julia’s other life.

Alice remembered the time in middle school when she had passed her mother in height and realized that Julia was not a perfect superhero, that her mother was a human woman, which meant she had flaws and a past, which seemed to be at one with her wild hair. Alice had spent her life watching her mother try to harness both her hair and her past, wrapping them up, trying to impose her control on them every single day. Wishing she were back in her room, alone in front of the wall of pictures, Alice thought: She’s done the same with me.

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