Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fairy Tales of Manhattan: The Brown Swan

Fairy Tales of Manhattan: The Brown Swan (The Ugly Duckling)
by Julie Baumgold

Soon after Yolanda entered the Stevens school, which was all girls in those days, a jacket went missing from the open coatroom.

Polite suspicion fell on the new girl who was tall and brown and heavy and, most of all, new. Not that these things hadn't happened before but there was the whole presence of Yolanda, twisting her long neck, always peering into things with her notebook clutched to her chest, already not participating.

The school was cautious, as it always was with its scholarship students. When any of them left it was considered their failure and one girl had already dropped out that year. So they said nothing but somehow Yolanda knew they suspected her as she knew she had not done it. She knew by the way they looked at her that week in the halls and on the stairs as she clomped along in her orthopedic shoes, always in pain from the osteo arthritis she had developed as a child.

Because she was the tallest girl in the class, and maybe because of her color they suggested she play basketball. Yolanda refused.

She walked from class to class carrying her journal and when none of the girls asked her to join them, not even the two other black girls who were older, she would sit and write. The writing made her look important and busy, and if she was writing she would not have to participate, and no one asked her to anyway. She wrote for herself and the school paper, and then went home to the Barrio where she and her sisters did their homework at the kitchen table on brown paper bags from the grocery store. Her mother sat with them, and they taught her what they were learning in school so that she might get her high school equivalency degree.

The sisters and the mother were small and thin and Yolanda, who had her absent father's height, loomed over all three. Sometimes her mother looked at her a bit startled as though a stranger had come into the apartment. None of that mattered then because there was love in the room and downstairs too where her grandmother lived. Her grandmother was the neighborhood shaman, a master herbalist with upslanted eyes and hair down past her waist in a single thick braid. Yolanda used to go downtown with her to the Chinese markets collecting herbs which they would wrap in brown paper twists. They would cut them and mash them and strain them through cheesecloth for poultices. They made creams and potions.

Old Jewish women came to her, and the Hasidic men with the beaver hats and black coats who lived in the past where magic was closer. Asians came too and the Hispanic people in the neighborhood and all who needed help for headaches and stomach troubles. The important thing is that they returned, which must have meant the potions worked. Yolanda began using the creams on her skin and in her hair and on her hands.

"Beautiful hands," said one old man bending forward in his black coat with his fur hat almost brushing her shoulder as he avoided the touch of her long fingers.

Yolanda's grandmother had her height and the same beaked nose that looked like the profile of the American Indian on the nickel and the Bourbons of France. She too had skin the color of the brown paper bags she used for her herbs. She did not do spells but those who trusted her enough to drink her potions found some of their ailments cured. Most of the time the broken hearts stayed broken.

Yolanda's sisters were afraid of their grandmother and stayed upstairs, so this place with its seeds in the air and Caribbean smells was her own.
Every year, the Stevens freshman class went on a ski trip. Most of the girls had been skiing since they were five or six. At thirteen, they were on the advanced slopes and had been through many expensive ski outfits and goggles and binders and gloves and years of lessons. These girls had lessons in just about everything you could imagine. At the slightest hint of trouble there were tutors and helpers marching past their doormen to replace the nannies who had cocooned them from birth. Their closets were stuffed with outgrown gear.

Yolanda had no ski clothes so one of the senior girls took her to West 57th Street where they bought her the thinnest black jacket.

"You are not going to the mountains in that skimpy thing," said her mother and she went out to the Salvation Army where she got all of Yolanda's clothes and bought her a big puffy man's jacket.

The girls who were lined up at school for the bus were all wearing thin Bogner jackets filled with lift tickets and knitted ski caps with their long straight hair hanging down and they gave Yolanda half a look and smiled into their collars.

"I see you got a jacket," one of them said. The others said nothing, which was worse.

Yolanda took out her journal and wrote down "Shit" as many times as she could. They got on the bus with Yolanda looming over them in her grayish brown jacket with her elegant beaked nose like a bird, puffing itself out in the wrong flock.

Everyone had been given $10 for expenses but the other girls had credit cards which made this a joke. Someone had taken the $10 from her jacket pocket when she went to look. Yolanda said nothing nor did she mention it when one of the girls burned a hole in her jacket with the cigarette she should not have been smoking.

When she came home her sisters laughed at her and her mother told her Yoli, never mind. So she went downstairs to her grandmother who put some of her good creams on her chapped face.

Throughout her time at Stevens, Yolanda made the white girls nervous because of her size and her bearing when she unbent herself from her notebook. She had a proud expression. She put herself together every day in such a way that compelled people to notice her. Early on she knew they would stare anyway. She made her own jackets, sewed rims on the pants to make them longer, added pieces here and there. There were those little touches of style, the way she tied a scarf, the street bracelets that the other girls noticed but did not copy.

By the time she graduated, the youngest in her class because she had been skipped ahead, she was tired of being the first of her color through many doors. She felt she would never get used to that feeling of being the stranger who is stared at, and yet, part of her liked it.
At Sarah Lawrence Yolanda was interviewed by a woman in a sari with skin darker than hers who did not ask about extra curricular activities and foreign travel but seemed most interested in Yolanda's journals and the school paper she had edited. She liked the fact that Yolanda, though tall and heavy, had danced at school and she explained their dance program in great detail. Financial aid was just assumed as part of the package of this talented student.

She sent Yolanda into another room and told her to write an essay about where she would be living if she was not an American and Yolanda deliberately gave them just what they wanted: she would be running through the jungles of Africa.

She went to Spain for her Sarah Lawrence Junior year where she ate chocolate and chorizo sausages, croquetas, paellas, and her favorite –fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce. She grew even heavier until one day on the Calle Goya she saw herself reflected in the window of a store. A small head, a long long neck and then a big swell of a body perched on the unusually long legs.

Still she danced. She had been dancing since she was eight when her mother sent her off to dance class to help her arthritis, and she would not stop. She towered over all the Spanish men in her flamenco class, raising her arms with her castanets, twirling her flamenco skirt, stomping her dance shoes, looking down with her helplessly haughty face into hopeful Spanish eyes.

She felt herself the youngest, the brownest, the tallest, the most different girl in Madrid, and now was she to be the fattest? Yolanda stopped eating the chorizos. She ate only fish and apples and lost much of the weight which made her dancing easier. By the time she returned to the United States, she was a thin, quick dancer. She had finished so many courses that she could graduate and do what she wanted which was to begin her real life.

Her mother told her to stay the extra year in Bronxville and she listened and stayed at school to study with Joseph Campbell. She went into the city to dance on a scholarship with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater three days a week.

"If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take." Joseph Campbell said. "We must be willing to let go of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us."

Yolanda thought he was right and that she would make herself a new path through the forest and dance right down it.

She listened to all Campbell said about following her bliss, entering a cave, finding a magical helper—I've been waiting, she thought. She thought of his "road of trials" as her years at the Stevens School and knew there would be more ahead.

He talked on about threshold crossing, shedding the old skin—She felt she had left that in the Barrio, she had left that in Madrid. She kept dancing, though every step hurt.

She danced her way onto Broadway, show after show, and in those days she was often the only dancer of color. There was no brown Rockette. She was a singing and dancing hooker in white face in Pippin, she was a citizen of New York in Seesaw, a girl in Doctor Jazz, the fiery street dancer, and then she went on tour and her van full of dancers was run over by a twelve wheel truck.

She was mauled, she was attacked by great pain on top of her normal pain and when, after months, she was put back together she could no longer be a dancer.

"It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life" Campbell had said. "Where you stumble there lies your treasure."

It was too painful to dance but she could still walk and she had her height, and, finally, all that remained of her career, the stride of a dancer.

Some of the model agencies had an Exotics Division and that is where, as she entered her thirties, Yolanda found herself. She was home at last in the land of the long-legged, narrow- hipped women who could master a sixty second clothing change and walk quickly down a runway in furs and ski clothes and evening dresses with an expressionless face.

She did not do print but Yolanda walked. She walked for Bogner, the maker of the ski clothes she could not afford long ago, and she became their favorite.

Teams of people painted her and stripped her and redressed her, and kneeled to fix her hem and hand her the gloves and put on the fur hats and hand her the ski poles and the binders in different European cities. Then she would be in evening clothes dragging some pelt down another runway. She did car shows caressing experimental cars, she did boat shows in a white swimsuit with her long shiny legs stretched out on deck.

Yolanda traveled and roomed with girls who looked like her even though few were her color and they shared clothes and wine at night and they looked each other right in the eye for they were all five feet ten at least. They were beautiful girls and she was the token "exotic" but they never made her feel the way the girls at school had.

One day at a show for sports equipment in the Coliseum, Yolanda noticed the same man kept coming back, kind of lounging against posts near where she worked, and staring. On his badge it said that he was Julian Dancey III, a man of important position in the sports world. Yolanda kept putting him off because she did not trust men who were that handsome.

Somehow Julian Dancey found his way to her mother and, since Yolanda seemed to want nothing to do with him, told her mother that he was well employed, honorably divorced, prominent in his field and, like Yolanda in her sphere, the first black man to…. He did not tell her that his fraternity at a black college in the south discouraged its members from dating any girl whose skin was darker than a brown paper bag. It really didn't matter.

Finally Yolanda relented and went out to dinner. When they walked through the restaurant just about everyone in the place looked up and the eyes followed them all the way to their table.
The best time Yolanda and Julian agreed was walking home late at night. They walked up Fifth Avenue with their arms around each other wondering how they would look in the clothes from the store windows that they passed. This was the time, next to bed, when they were closest. Yolanda, thought of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman walking home in "Indiscreet" both knowing they would kiss, both waiting for the kiss, as her car followed slowly behind them. Yolanda had seen Ingrid Bergman once in an airport, a woman her height in a mink coat, standing in a circle of good luggage.

Usually they carried home things they had accumulated from the evening. There were the movie ticket stubs in Julian's pocket, the matches from the restaurant where they sat, the napkins in their laps like white flags of mutual surrender.

They stood for a moment looking into the Sherry Netherland's bar, feeling invisible as they saw faces reflected in the mirrors; white women staring back at them from among the plants like random lilies. Yolanda imagined she was one of those women with her eyes wide and dark being watched by a man like Julian at the bar.

We are nomads downtown, Yolanda thought, raising our tents here, resting and eating, then striking the poles to move on to the next caravanserai. She liked the way the colder night air blew on her face, the long steps of her legs in harem pants, the way the night had conspired to feed them images of romance. They saw a limousine stop. A man hurried into an apartment building followed by his chauffeur carrying a suitbag. Yolanda and Julian laughed because they understood the whole affair—the fact that the man would stay over, that he didn't yet keep clothes at the woman's house.

"I wonder what that story is," Yolanda said.

"It's nighttime in New York," said Julian.
There was a luncheon at the Plaza and all the clothes were Chanel's Spring collection. Yolanda had not bothered to find out what group was running the luncheon. She walked to the end of the runway with her usual expression which was indifference. A table of Stevens girls from her class were looking up at her—Adrienne, Katy, Joan, Wendy, Alice, Debbie, Nancy, and Catherine .All of them were in various stages of young motherhood and, despite their best daytime efforts, looking their age.

No hot mama-jamas there, thought Yolanda, a bit surprised she even remembered their names.

"Is that Yolanda?" one of them said and she heard it.

They all leaned forward.

"She looks beautiful," Nancy said. "Totally transformed."

"Oprah says 'Black don't crack'– it certainly seems true," Wendy said.

"I thought she became a dancer," said Debbie.

"I wonder if that man is with her…" said Adrienne "Have you ever seen anyone so good looking…"

All of them turned to stare at Julian Dancey in his blazer and vicuna overcoat standing on the side of the ballroom.

Then the show was over. Yolanda was out of her clothes and into a black sweater and pants. She piled on a lot of ivory bracelets, wrapped her hair in a turban and threw on one of her furs. Long day.

As she swept through the tables to the back of the room, head high on her long model neck, many women turning, she saw Julian Dancey III, smiling as he waited. She knew that as long as he lived, he would always be there waiting.

She linked her arm through his and they went out through the swinging front doors of the Plaza into the snow, making their own new path with every step they took.




For more on Julie, visit juliebaumgold.com