ust around the corner from the pencil marks were a flight of stairs that led to the second floor—in my mind, the floor above the pencil marks wall. What did it matter how many floors a house had, unless each possessed a marker or monument of some sort, or maybe an entire battlefield with soldiers hidden in the closets?
On this second floor was my room, my parents’ bedroom, which contained two separate twig-like beds, a bathroom with a tub I named “Roundy,” and that place of closed and supreme mysteries, my mother’s dressing room.
No one was allowed into this room, though both the maid and my father had temporary passes, but only when my mother was present. I, the pencil-measured, Mr. Major-vexing child, had no such permission slip.
My reflections on my early years will emphasize my father, as he played the most active role. But the Dressing Room Incident also played a role, creating what seemed for a long time an insurmountable divide between mother and child.
The incident, if I properly remember its military unfolding, occurred when I was six.
One day, after the joys of Maret School, I was returned home by the bus and found a note explaining that my mother was with her friend down the block—they were assessing dresses—and wouldn’t be home until my father’s return, just after 5 p.m.
Instantly, my battlefield training and mischief instincts coalesced (as they did often) to formulate a plan. I would swiftly put down my things, ignore the cookies within my reach in the kitchen, and make straight for the sacred and forbidden room.
I knew little of my mother because she spoke to me little, giving my father wide berth (which he took in full), and applied herself to me only when she tried to teach me multiplication tables, which I, in turn, insisted were subversive and did not actually exist: They had been manufactured with the intent of wasting my time.
I knew my mother was beautiful and dressed magnificently, and also styled herself as a princess because she’d once been married to an Albanian nobleman who was advisor to then-King Zog. All this seemed to me like pure invention, another scheme created by the makers of multiplication tables. Later, I would ask my father about all these tall tales. They are all, in fact, true.
None of this entered my mind when I unlocked the dressing room door, its key under a small rug, and entered this strange female kingdom that had an odor like that of a swamp in reverse: lush with sweet and heavy smells that had no relationship to cooking. These smells emerged mostly from many little and larger bottles and containers situated on a table near the vanity and also beside the full-length mirror, beside which was the closet: a separate and deep house of wonders.
The table was the anointed home of potions, balms, creams, and scented liquids so rare and, to me, bizarre that I guessed my mother kept them locked up to keep them focused entirely on her own needs. I saw a white box with the marking Chanel No. 5, which even I knew was clearly a misspelling of the word “channel,” which I knew because Channel 5 was my favorite cartoon channel. There was a bottle of Miss Clairol “Flaxen Blonde,” some kind of elixir, and Pond’s Cold Cream (where, then, did she store the Hot?) The room was so rich in female mystery that all seemed possible. I found a sock that was not a sock but longer, and black and tall, like a spider’s web made for a human leg.
On and on it went, with several smaller mirrors and brushes and tiny little pincers I could only guess were used to vex ants (but why would they need vexing from an adult mother?).
In the closet I found all of her dresses and gowns, profoundly colorful, and from drawers I extracted all kinds of tiny pants, as if meant for a kitten. And peculiarly connected cups with straps that I assumed must have something to do with elbows or perhaps could be worn around the eyes when sleeping. But why were these cups so big?
On the floor, perfectly arranged, were shoes, their heels as tall as skyscrapers in my child’s mind, surely impossible to wear. Perhaps these could serve as hammers or tools or have some other arcane battlefield function.
Hairpins in all sizes and shapes I recognized and played with, and imagined taking up the front-yard pine tree when I next climbed it. These pins could make me seem, to the tree, more like its friend, a mountaineer and an explorer, since had I not done the impossible and explored my mother’s dressing room?
I was so proud of this undertaking that I dabbed myself with a drop of one of the elixirs I’d found in one of the bottles, a blue one. This was a mistake. I then left, made sure there was not a trace of my incursion, and locked up.
My mother returned and paid me little mind. My father then came back. Several hours had passed since my invasion but as I stood before my parents I saw a scowl take over my mother’s face. She said nothing but sternly commanded me upstairs.
I went, expecting the worst, but not what took place.
She invited me, for the first time ever, into her sacred chamber.
“So,” she said in French. “You think to multiply is a joke, as is disobeying me.”
She asked me to come closer and I did. She slapped me twice across the face, hard. If she did it twice more, she said, the whole would equal four. Did I understand?
I laughed nervously.
She then pulled me toward her with her right hand and dug her long red fingernails deep into the flat of my hand until she began to break the skin. I broke down into something like simpering.
When your mother tells you something, you obey her. When your mother says no, she means no. Your mother’s things are hers and no one else’s.
I could have talked back but wanted above all to leave that room, by now no longer a battlefield but the worst of minefields. My mother released me and I ran from the room, never to return and vowing I would from that point forward leave the world of humans and their blue aromas and their cups and live in a world in which my caprices prevailed over all others. If I could vex Major Hyde, I could also remove myself from my mother, since my father was already my sun and moon.
I could escape this prison and rise into the pine tree, and it would take me in. Or so I thought.
— This is one in a loosely linked series of autobiographical essays in which the author recollects his childhood years, spent largely in Washington, D.C., and Madrid, Spain. Some names and details have been altered for reasons of privacy.