Helen on Eighty-sixth Street
I hate Helen. That’s all I can say. I hate her. Helen McGuire is playing Helen, so Mr. Dodd says, because, out of the entire sixth grade, she most embodies Helen of Troy. Great. Helen McGuire had no idea who Helen of Troy even was! When she found out, well, you should have seen her—flirting with all the boys, really acting the part. And me? Well, I know who Helen was. I am unhappy.
My mother doesn’t understand. Not that I expected she would. When I told her the news, all she said was “Ah, the face that launched a thousand ships.” She didn’t even look up from her book. Later, at dinner, she apologized for quoting Marlowe. Marlowe is our cat.
At bedtime I told my mother, “You should have seen the way Helen acted at school. It was disgusting, flirting with the boys.”
Mom tucked the sheets up close around my chin, so that only my head was showing, my body covered mummy style. “Vita,” she said, “it sounds like she’s perfect for the part.”
So, I can’t play Helen. But, to make it worse, Mr. Dodd said I have to be in the horse. I can’t believe it. The horse! I wanted to be one of the Trojan women—Andromache, Cassandra, or even Hecuba. I know all their names. I told Mr. Dodd this, and then I showed him I could act. I got really sad and cried out about the thought of the body of my husband, Hector, being dragged around the walls of my city. I wailed and beat my fist against my chest. “A regular Sarah Heartburn” was all he said.
“Well, at least you get to be on the winning team,” my mother said when I told her about the horse. This didn’t make me feel any better. “It’s better than being Helen. It’s better than being blamed for the war,” she told me.
Mom was helping me make a shield for my costume. She said every soldier had a shield that was big enough to carry his body off the field. I told her I wasn’t going to be a body on the field, that I was going to survive, return home.
“Bring the shield, just in case,” she said. “It never hurts to have a little help.”
Mom and I live on West Eighty-sixth Street. We have lived in the same building, in the same apartment, my entire life. My father has been gone for almost three years. The truth is that he got struck with the wanderlust—emphasis on “lust,” my mother says—and we haven’t heard from him since.
“Your father’s on his own odyssey,” my mother said. And now it’s just me and Mom and Marlowe and the Keatses, John and John, our parakeets, or “pair of Keats,” as Mom says. When I was younger, when Dad first left and I still believed he was coming back, it made me happy that we still lived in the same building. I was happy because he would always know where to find us. Now that I am older, I know the city is not that big. It is easy to be found and easy to stay lost.
And I also know not to ask about him. Sometimes Mom hears things through old friends—that he has traveled across the ocean, that he is living on an island in a commune with some people she called “the lotus eaters,” that he misses us.
Once I heard Mr. Farfel, the man who’s hanging around Mom now, ask why she stayed in this apartment after my father left. “The rent’s
stabilized,” she told him, “even if the relationship wasn’t.”
At school, Helen McGuire was acting weird because I’m going to be in the horse with Tommy Aldridge. She wanted to know what it’s like: “Is it really cramped in there? Do you have to sit real close together?”
I told her it’s dark, and we must hold each other around the waist and walk to make the horse move forward. Her eyes grew wide at this description. “Lucky you,” she said.
Lucky me? She gets to stand in the center of the stage alone, her white sheet barely reaching the middle of her thighs, and say lines like “This destruction is all my fault” and “Paris, I do love you.” She gets to cry. Why would she think I’m lucky? The other day at rehearsal, she was standing onstage waiting for her cue, and I heard Mrs. Reardon, the stage manager, whisper, “That Helen is as beautiful as a statue.”
At home Old Farfel is visiting again. He has a chair in Mom’s department. The way she describes it, a chair is a very good thing. Mom translates old books written in Greek and Latin. She is working on the longest graduate degree in the history of Columbia University. “I’ll be dead before I finish,” she always says.
Old Farfel has been coming around a lot lately, taking Mom and me to dinner at Italian places downtown. I don’t like to be around when he’s over.
“I’m going to Agamemnon’s apartment to rehearse,”
I told Mom. Old Farfel made a small laugh, one that gets caught in the back of the throat and never really makes it out whole. I want to tell him to relax, to let it out. He smells like those dark cough drops, the kind that make your eyes tear and your head feel like it’s expanding. I don’t know how she can stand him.
“Well, the play’s the thing,” Old Farfel said. “We’re all just players strutting and fretting our hour on the stage.” Mom smiled at this, and it made me wish Old Farfel would strut his hours at his apartment and not at our place. I hate the way he’s beginning to come around all the time.
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