My best friend Katie and I marched toward a house up the block and buzzed the bell. A finely wrinkled woman opened the door, a drawing pencil securing her bun of ash-brown hair. Her eyes glinted aluminum. In a Romanian accent that ended in curlicues, she asked us what we wanted. We were on a secret expedition, we told her. She said her name was Zili and welcomed us in. Identical to ours in layout, her house made me feel at home. But every surface was crowded with paintings—I'd never seen such a place. She invited us up to her studio, where we had to be careful not to step on drawings scattered all over the floor. The charcoaled ovals, cylinders, and cubes on those papers reappeared in oil paint on nearby canvases. Geometric forms became a face, a neck, a house. The paints were still wet. Left alone, I might have tasted them, their scent filling my nostrils like liquid velvet.
The world we entered that day defied rules of logic—my father's gray world of law. Zili ushered us into our imaginations. She set two places at a table, gesturing to us. Giving us clumps of wet clay, she told us, "Trust the clay. It'll tell you what it wants to be." I squeezed the clump. A curve rose from an oval, seeming to form itself: the neck of a mother swan. Mother's Day was just a week away. I sculpted two baby swans riding on her back. Katie molded a tulip.
Days later, we returned. Zili showed us our dried sculptures and the colors we could use to paint them. Names I'd never said before oozed from tubes—titanium white, alizarin crimson: feathers and beak.
I presented the sculpture to Mom on Mother's Day, telling her I'd seen baby swans riding on their mother's back at Lake View cemetery. Mom made a nest of her palm and put my sculpture on the mantle. Impressed by my newfound enthusiasm for sculpting, Mom introduced herself to Zili. She and her husband soon became my parents' friends.
That summer, Zili turned their rec room into a Parisian café. She set up a large semicircle of white-wire fencing, behind which she made a garden of silk lilies, daffodils, roses, and irises. Mounds of sheet moss carpeted the ground, bordered with stones. Four café tables with striped red-and-white tablecloths stood outside the garden. Before the audience showed up, Zili seated the "artistes" at café tables. She then handed out navy-blue berets—as if part of an artiste's official uniform. Mom was one of the performers, so Zili invited me to join. Pulling a beret onto my head, Zili whispered, "Tilt it to look more mysterious." Zili's make-believe café whisked me away: I was suddenly in Paris.
Her grown-up daughter, dressed as a poet named Baudelaire, read poems by him. Everyone else sat on the couches, listening. All the artistes had to perform. When my turn came, I chirped something heard on the playground: "I'm a poet and don't even know it." Instead of clapping, people snapped their fingers, as they did after every poem and song. I liked the laughing sound of their voices—like a wave I was riding.
Afterward, Zili cooked. She had a knack for making that into a showpiece, too. She pressed a lighted match to a puddle of orange liqueur: whoosh! Liquid fire danced around rows of thin pancakes called crepes. The smoky orange smell stung my nostrils. I wolfed the pancakes down, asking for seconds and thirds. Zili had made a world where we could do anything, be anywhere.
Walking the mile from school to home, I passed a black-and-white reelection poster of Dad, the mayor of our South Jersey town, Cinnaminson. His face was gray; his hair black as his suit. I squinted up at the towering photograph and darted away.
Coming to our house, I zoomed past our rock garden. Tiger lilies poked out like speckled flames. I cut a right onto the arched walkway. Zili waited by the front door. "Sweetheart, I have an important message for you and Phillip," she said.
"Let's wait for your big brother."
Zili and I sat on the ledge, watching a praying mantis on a bush. Its body looked like two leaves, perfect camouflage. Zili squeezed my hand, dry clay crusted on her nails.
We spotted Phillip shuffling up the walkway. "What's goin' on?" he said.
"I didn't want you boys to come home to an empty house."
"Where's Mom?" he asked.
"She's … not feeling so good." Zili sucked her lower lip and invited us into her house. Her German husband, Hubert, said hello nervously and disappeared. I knew something was wrong and wanted to run, but felt too dizzy. I stood there staring at her paintings, woodblock prints, and sculptures—thinking back on the previous summer.
A whiff of buttered vegetables tugged me back to the present. Hubert padded into the room with a bowl of carrots and snow peas. Zili carried a platter of steaks. I flooded mine with A.1. Steak Sauce—the dark liquid rushing into the cracks. The steaks were shaped like South America and Africa.
"What's wrong with Mommy?" I asked.
"She's gone to a hospital to help her feel less … sad," Hubert said.
"They put you in the hospital for being sad?" Phillip asked.
"A different kind of hospital," Zili said.
The questions I didn't ask poured into the gaps between their answers: Did my brother and I make her sad? Was it because I cheated on a math test? Because I talked back? Maybe Mom wasn't sick—maybe it was worse. Besides, what would a "different kind of hospital" be? Instead of saying what really happened, Zili and Hubert had that embarrassed, too-polite look adults get when they're scared. Did Mom die?
Once in the woods behind our house, I saw a trap bite clear through a rabbit's leg, its fur bright red. Now, my mouth-trap wouldn't let words out. Consonants—b's and m's mostly—stuttered from my lips. Even though I had stuttered at school, I'd never done so at home. Without realizing it, I bit the soft inside of my mouth and tasted blood, but I couldn't get up. I stared into the blue-gray flicker of the TV.
The doorbell chimed. Dad had come to bring Phillip and me home. Dad's black hair was oily, as if he'd been sweating profusely. He wouldn't look us in the eye.
On the way home, he tried to explain what the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital was. He said it had a funny nickname, the "Toot," which made me giggle. The following day, Dad, Phil, and I visited Mom there.
She met us in the lunchroom, hair pulled back in a ponytail. The "sadness" Hubert told us about floated in her eyes like something she couldn't blink away. She walked in a trance, and we followed her into it. We came to a lawn where patients and visitors played volleyball or talked in Adirondack chairs. Some people stared into space or babbled to invisible friends. Sauntering across the lawn, I could make the patients' bad feelings disappear. They greeted me with "ooh" and "aah" and "Hello, little boy."
We followed Mom into the shade of flowering catalpa trees. The scent mixed with her perfume. Dad picked a flower, tucked it behind her ear, saying, "Sofia, I wish I—" Whispering, my parents dodged each other's eyes, their heads almost touching.
I turned away and noticed a lady in an orange wig headed toward us. Because she bounced as she walked, I figured she was a clown. Offering my brother and me sticks of chewing gum, she said—all in one rush—as if unfamiliar with the notion of a pause, "Hi my name's Peggy and I want to be your friend and look I have chewing gum for you it's all different flavors each with a funny different striped wrapper in different colors you know yellow and pink and orange and blue they all go with the flavors inside and when they're done I make jewelry out of them aren't they pretty I wear them and I can make some for you but would you wear them too?"
That colors and flavors could go together made sense to me. It was a way of ordering things. It reminded me of how I collected leaves—dried with alum powder, ironed between waxed paper, and labeled in my scrapbook with shadowy names: Hornbeam, Hawthorn, Winged Elm.
I told the Clown Lady how much I liked her jewelry but said my friends wouldn't understand if I wore them. I promised to see her the following week.
Instead, we met with Mom and her psychiatrist. He talked Dad into getting Phil and me to see therapists too. "The trauma of seeing their mother hospitalized can be damaging," he said, as if we weren't there. He convinced Dad that I was too close to Mom. To correct my one-sidedness, Dad took me to see a male psychologist—handsome Dr. Handford. I liked to look at his hands. Unlike my stubby little fingers with bitten nails, his hands and nails were perfect. I told him I hoped to look like him when I grew up. He smiled and asked me to play with a doll family, whose rubber bodies caved in when I squeezed their hollow legs. He scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad, like Dad's.
My brother saw a woman psychologist, to correct his one-sidedness. And because our therapists and the Toot were all in Philadelphia, we packed those activities into the same day: Saturday. But for the whole year before that, I had gone to Emily's art classes every Saturday. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss them.
During one of our visits to the Toot, Mom showed us photographs of Phil and me that she carried in her inner pocket. She said they were her medicine. I figured our pictures had some kind of swirling, miraculous power that glowed in the dark.
Phil and I always left our parents alone during the visits. He went to play in the gym, which stunk of old sweat, like rotted Campbell's soup. I went to find Peggy and learn her bouncy clown-walk.
Dad, Phil, and I usually got back home around dinnertime. When Zili couldn't cook for us, Dad took us to his favorite diner—a long, narrow building, which had been an abandoned train. He fed the jukebox dime after dime, playing sad love songs, like "Moon River," "Volare" (Mom's favorite), and "I Fall to Pieces." Although Phil and I hated those songs, we understood how important they were to Dad, so we didn't complain.
The overcooked food ranged in color from monkey brown to moth gray. I added brightness with ketchup. This overcooked food was nothing like the garlic, dill, and oregano flavors—the greens, reds, yellows of Mom's cooking. When would she come home?
Although it seemed as if she'd been gone for years, it was only three months. The Friday before she returned, Dad drove Phil and me to the florist to buy her favorite flower—forsythia. She called it for-Sofia. After helping to arrange the tall yellow swords in vases by the entrance, I hurried upstairs. I was drawing our house and rock garden—in colors of butter and flame. Along the top, I crayoned Welcome Home to the Best Mother Ever.
As I waited in my bedroom, a black car rumbled into our driveway. I yanked back the curtains. Mom slid out of her seat and walked with the man who hoisted her suitcases. We rushed out to greet her and haul the luggage. Her smile was a glass bowl she carried into the house. I made it my duty to protect her happiness.
During the day, I'd hear her crying for hours with the voice of a little girl my age. My parents' bedroom was next to mine. I'd knock on her door, to see if she wanted company. She welcomed my visits.
Once, she called me over to show me something. On the nightstand, she had stacked two dozen Miltown bottles at different heights, like an imaginary city.
"Dean, look—I'm going to Miltown."
Her silence flowed through me the way the creek next to our house flowed under the bridge. I told her I made pretend worlds too. But I didn't tell her I was a doll god, twisting toilet paper into dolls, the way I pictured God had made humans. I kept seventy-five dolls with names on their backs (four whole generations) in a box under my bed. I planned out their lives. Some died of cancer and heart attacks; one committed suicide; another was stabbed. But most died of old age—I gave those dolls wrinkles and gray hair.
I was also the doll undertaker.
When a doll died, I temporarily buried it in the sand below my swings, stabbing twig markers, so I could dig it up later. At night, muskrats the size of Chihuahuas patrolled the back lawn. I watched from the veranda. A month later, I'd go back to the markers and dig up the dolls to see what death looked like: lacy, eaten away. I dressed up in a bathrobe and a construction-paper miter, waving a censer. In made-up New Testament Greek words ending in "on" and "os" (angelon, kyrios, dollios, deathios), I chanted prayers over my dead dolls, burying them in their final grave—below swamp willows, in the creek's clay banks.
Mom did know about the sets and costumes I made for the puppet stage that she and Dad had given me one Christmas. I'd spend hours in our basement—painting, cutting, gluing—to put on holiday shows. I heard my family's footsteps overhead. But this was my private world, as Mom's was hers. Conversation was where our worlds met.
"Sweetheart, why didn't you bring me juice? You know my mouth gets dry."
"Okay, I'll get you some."
"Don't you care about Mommy?"
"Of course. Grape juice, that's my favorite."
"Sweetheart, are you making fun of me?"
"Mommy, let's talk about Miltown."
"You're not listening to me, Dean. I won't have you ganging up on me like this."
"If your father was here, you wouldn't talk to me this way." She started sobbing again and asked if I wanted her to have another nervous breakdown. "Don't you know how much I love you?" she asked. "Even in a crowded room, I can feel your presence and know where you are."
"Do you know how special our bond is? But you," she stopped to dry her eyes, "don't care about Mommy at all."
"Of course I care. I love you bigger than the Empire State Building," I said, stretching open my arms.
"Fine, I see how you are. Can't believe I never saw it before."
"Mommy, what can I do to make you happy?"
"If you have to ask, you really don't love me. Sorry I shared my private feelings with you."
"I wanted to know about your magical town … but now you can just take your plastic bottles. In fact, they look pretty dumb," I spat. I wanted to knock down the carefully arranged vials. Instead, I stormed out and headed to my bedroom, where my cat slept. Stroking his white fur, I heard Mom crying. I slid the doll box out from below my bed, lifted the mother doll up, and hissed, "I love you."
Over the next several months, I remained devoted to her, ignoring any confusing things she said. I was convinced my hard work was paying off. Day by day, her spirits were brighter. Finally, she had "great news." She was going to drive me back to my Saturday-afternoon art classes with Emily.
It was an October day, a corduroy day. When I got to Emily's house, she told two other students and me to climb into her cigarette-littered car. She drove us to the countryside, where trees' colors seemed to have no edges: alizarin crimson, Indian yellow, raw ocher. I loved to say those names.
We stopped at an abandoned farmhouse, or what was left of it: a window, part of the mansard roof, a chimney, a porch. Ivy had devoured the rest. Stepping on pods dropped by "stinko" trees, we laughed and squealed, accusing each other of having farted. Ginkgo trees lined the path like the Greek letter ΨΨΨΨΨΨΨΨΨΨΨΨΨΨΨ. I knew that was the first letter of the word psyche, or soul.
Planting my easel's three legs into dirt in front of a white farmhouse, I drew the house and trees with charcoal onto the canvas, and squeezed oil paint onto my palette. With palette knife and linseed oil, I blended magenta with sap green to paint shadows. Emily was impressed by the way I found colors hidden inside other colors—a rosy slate, where another student might have painted the roof gray. Instead of white, I daubed the wall a creamy blue-green.
Back at Emily's house, in Rancocas Woods, Mom waited with a treat in her car: sour cream with blueberries and sugar. The sweet-sour taste burst between my teeth. As she drove me home, I jabbered about how Emily had complimented me on my talent for finding secret colors, and how she taught us to see the air between things before putting paint to canvas—the silky blue between branches. Between mother and son, I did not say. We said nothing more until our car purred in our driveway.
Home was 413 Wayne Drive, Cinnaminson, New Jersey. Mom said the four stood for the four of us, and the thirteen was unlucky. Our flagstone and clapboard house was one among many in a curving succession. Five or six styles repeated with different variations of colors and details of shutter and door. In the summer, you'd hear the ca-ching, ca-ching of children's three-wheelers and the irritating singsong of ice cream trucks. Some of the houses left Christmas lights up all year round, plugging them in only in December. In winter, carolers trudged through snow, door to door. A fire engine sounded its siren on Christmas Eve. Santa rode atop his roof-throne, hurling candy canes to us children like blessings. Mom and Dad watched from the walkway.
Soon, that all changed.
Within six months, "The Ban" started. I was forbidden to step on people's lawns. Some neighbors yelled, "No, you can't come here!" or "Don't get any closer!" Some waved their hands, as if shooing a stray dog for fear of rabies. The curving stretch of houses that had been my world was now off-limits. I walked in the street.
Katie Hempfiger's mother had started The Ban. Her mother was a Girl Scout leader and church choir director. That's what other people saw. I saw another side.
Her miserly husband didn't allow his family to flush toilets until the third time someone peed. (How did they know—by the shade of yellow?) And he only let his wife buy one pair of shoes a year. Wanting to help her fight back, Mom invited her to go shopping for shoes. When her husband found the red pumps, he banned his wife from the world: no friends, no phone calls, no Girl Scouts, no church. Her life became a prison until she brought back the shoes and ended her friendship with Mom.
One ban deserved another.
Mrs. Hempfiger decided that because Mom had spent three months in a mental hospital, she must've been crazy. Mrs. Hempfiger said this sickness was spread by "crazy-germs"—her term. And I was a "carrier." At twelve, Phil spent little time on the block. But I was a seven-and-a-half-year-old threat. The tall words of adults were law.
In the summer sun, neighbors' zoysia grass dried into claws. Maybe the people behind those lawns knew some terrible thing I had done. Had they seen me cheat from Dennis Quigley's math test? Did they know I fantasized about Jesus' almost naked body writhing on the cross, thinking he was even more handsome than Dr. Handford? Maybe I was evil and deserved to be treated that way.
Meanwhile, I was still friends with Katie at school. And we never mentioned The Ban. In late September, we bounded out of the school bus near our houses. Talking and laughing, I followed her onto her lawn without thinking. "Jeez, I'm not allowed here," I said. "I'll get you in trouble!"
"No, you're my friend. Stand wherever you want to." I couldn't believe how brave she was. But I understood. We both felt betrayed by adults. After all, teachers did nothing to stop the bloody fights after school that landed kids in the hospital. I couldn't imagine telling teachers about The Ban.
I couldn't tell Mom either—afraid of making her cry. And I couldn't tell Dad. I could barely talk to him, as he worked for hours on his legal briefs. I asked him what the "briefs" were. Legal underwear? And who was Half O'David (my mishearing of affidavit)? Dad never answered. Besides, my parents had screaming matches, lasting till the sun came up. At that point, Mom would sob in her canopy bed. Dad would sneak into the guest room. My room was in between. I'd knock on their doors, asking if they were okay. They scribbled messages on folded papers, origami birds. I passed them back and forth, but not before reading them:
"Ted, you've ignored my feelings. Again."
"Sofia, I never meant to hurt you."
"I don't believe that."
"Sudsy, we're throwing away something so precious."
After Dad used the nickname "Sudsy," Mom's mood softened, but they still slept apart. When he whistled "Dearly Beloved," I knew they were back together. We were a family again. And I felt safe.
The huge air conditioner breathed for our house like an iron lung. In its hum, I made secret worlds with my drawings, dolls, and poems. Mom had her Miltown pills, Plasticine sculptures, and Brazilian music. I'd lie next to her on the carpet, our arms outstretched, bossa nova music washing over us: "The Girl from Ipanema," "And Roses and Roses," and "How Insensitive." With our eyes closed, everything sad melted away.
Through The Ban years, I also spent time at Zili's. Eucalyptus leaves, in black Oaxacan pottery, filled her rooms with a urine smell. Zili took me to her studio and talked about her paintings in progress as if they were people, "Oh, she's resisting me. Her hands don't know where to go. This one's a bad girl. I'll get her to be friendlier or else …"
Staring at her paintings, I could almost hear music seeping from them. I didn't actually hear the music; it was in my mind's ear. It became a new way of seeing.
Zili startled me from the imagined melody, playing an LP of electronic music: Silver Apples of the Moon. She handed me a sheet of thirsty watercolor paper and tubes of gouache. She told me to let my brush dance with the notes. I painted a pewter swan skimming over ripples. Daub by daub, a perfect world. For Zili, a brush was a wand. The spell it cast changed Cinnaminson. By the time I was eleven, The Ban had ended. More important things took its place: marriages, graduations, a Swedish father's suicide. But what Zili had given me lasted. Unable to believe in anything as stupid or cruel as "crazy-germs," she taught me art was as necessary as water.
Dean Kostos's collections include Rivering, Last Supper of the Senses, The Sentence That Ends with a Comma, and the chapbook Celestial Rust. He co-edited Mama's Boy: Gay Men Write about Their Mothers (a Lambda Book Award finalist) and edited Pomegranate Seeds: An Anthology of Greek-American Poetry (its debut reading was held at the United Nations). His poems have appeared in over 300 journals and anthologies, such as Boulevard, Chelsea, The Cimarron Review, The Cincinnati Review, Mediterranean Poetry (Sweden), Southwest Review, Stand Magazine (UK), Stranger at Home, Token Entry, Vanitas, Western Humanities Review, and on Oprah Winfrey's Web site Oxygen.com. His choral text, Dialogue: Angel of War, Angel of Peace, was set to music by James Bassi and performed by Voices of Ascension. His literary criticism has appeared on the Harvard UP Web site, in Talisman, and elsewhere. He has taught at Wesleyan, The Gallatin School of NYU, The City University of New York, and he has served as literary judge for Columbia University's Gold Crown Awards. A recipient of a Yaddo fellowship, he also serves on the editorial board of Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora. His poem "Subway Silk" was recently translated into a film by Canadian filmmaker Jill Clark.