Dad Was a Soprano
If you’ve taken the Universal Studios tour, you may remember when the tram rumbles over a bridge and a giant robotic shark pops out of the water. It is the very robotic shark used in Jaws, which is to say, a rather large shark with fierce metal teeth.
As the shark surfaces, the tour tram tips sideways, threatening to drop passengers into the pond. The effect isn’t especially thrilling for an adult, but it’s enough to terrify a four-year-old who fears only three things: snakes that swim up through the toilet and wait for you to pee so they can bite your bum, slithery things that hide under your bed at night, and sharks.
I took the studio tour with my dad. He was a big guy who liked to whistle and drum his enormous thumbs against the steering wheel when he drove. Dad had a deep voice, a full beard, and a conspicuous fondness for Hostess snack cakes. I remember sitting next to him at the back of the tram, swinging my legs, and picking absently at the hem of my sundress. Everything was just fine. It was sunny outside and we were headed over a pond while the tour guide quacked along about Murder, She Wrote. My dress had a little red sailor knot in the front that I could tie and untie, easy as pie.
Suddenly, our tram lurched sideways and the shark lunged from the water a few feet to my right. I did what any little girl would do when faced with gnashing robotic shark teeth: I screamed like my hair was on fire. It was a long, healthy scream that lasted much longer than necessary. When I finished, everyone on the tram turned to stare at me.
The blood rushed to my face, and I looked up at my dad with brimming eyes. He put one hand on my back and held the other to his throat:
‘Ahem,’ he coughed. ‘Excuse me.’
Grandpa Still Has the Tape
When I was twelve, my aunt asked me to sing at her wedding. I’d never been in a wedding before, and I was thrilled. I practiced the theme from Ice Castles in front of my mirror for weeks. I delivered the last line particularly well, singing passionately, with dramatic pauses and my best vibrato. ‘Looking through…the eyes…of looooooooooove!’ I was stupendous.
When the day came, I stepped up to the podium, twisted my hands together and exhaled. The church seemed bigger from there: My aunt and new uncle stood at the altar with the minister, and they looked oddly exaggerated, like giant cake toppers. The pianist started, and I began to sing.
‘Please…don’t let this feeling end. It’s everything I am,’ I scanned the rows of pews in search of Mom and my big sister, Raina. Raina is six years older than me, and had already moved out of the house. Because of the age difference, we’d never been especially close. As a toddler, I ruined one of her favorite books with my crayons. I was banned from her room from that day forward. When she moved out, Mom said I could move into Raina’s room; I was amazed to realize I didn’t even remember what it looked like.
My sister had driven down for the weekend to attend the wedding and visit. I found her and mom about five rows back from the front, and I smiled at them. Mom smiled back, but Raina crossed her eyes, and stretched the sides of her mouth open with her fingers. This was hilarious. This was comedic genius. My breath hitched, but I looked away and tried to concentrate.
Raina smelled blood. Eventually, my eyes wandered back to her. She had pushed the end of her nose up with her index finger, and was lying in wait. When we made eye contact, she snorted. She snorted loudly, in the middle of church, with Aunt and Uncle Cake Topper standing solemnly by.
I whooped into the microphone, right in the middle of a verse. Raina gasped, then grimaced at me apologetically. I was in hysterics. I tried to struggle on, but there was no calming myself. I was up there, before God and country, guffawing through my aunt’s wedding ceremony.
Grandpa stood at the back of the church with his trusty camcorder. It was his new toy, and he’d promised my aunt he’d tape the ceremony for her. The lens was trained right on me. ‘Grandpa gets the job done,’ I thought. This, I thought, was very funny.
I giggled, sang a word or two, giggled more. My aunt looked stunned and vaguely sympathetic. Well, as sympathetic as can be expected of a woman in a white veil when things don’t go according to plan. My uncle, like everyone else in the room, was suddenly fascinated by his shoelaces. It was horrible. It was hilarious.
Grandpa moved slightly to the right, so as to better frame his shot.
I forgot where I was in the song; the lyrics were gone. I found this amusing. Riotous, really. Mom was furious with my sister and began elbowing her in the ribs. Raina’s expression was alternately giddy and horrified. As my mom poked her, she mouthed ‘I’m sorry’ over and over. My sister was a trout; a gasping, penitent trout. I began convulsing, tears streaming from my eyes.
I snorted and coughed my way through the song. The pianist had panicked almost immediately and started playing at a roller-derby tempo, so I tried to keep up between gasps for air, ‘Please, don’tletthisfeelingend, it’severythingIam…’
I faced row after row of bowed heads. Some family members were trying not to laugh themselves, others simply fixed on the floor and waited for the song to be over. I wiped my eyes, stood up straight, and belted, ‘Looking through…the eyes…of looooooooooove!’
The last piano note died out, and the church was pin-drop silent. From the back, I heard a soft whirring. Grandpa looked up, gave me a satisfied nod, and flipped the viewfinder shut.
His Mama Raised Him Right
My junior prom dress was perfect. Bright pink satin, almost crimson, with a full skirt and three-quarter sleeves. It had a flounce underneath that was edged in satin, and it swished when I walked. Swished, I tell you. It was exactly what every sixteen-year-old wants, a dress that is different, distinctive, and indisputably normal all at once.
The day of the dance, I spent hours getting ready, carefully paging through my hoarded magazine clippings. I steamed my pores, perfected my pedicure, and silky-smoothed my legs. My mom helped me curl my hair, and stuffed tissues next to my ears where the hot rollers burned. After she zipped up my dress and left me in my room, I actually spun around to watch the skirt flare. I did a few practice cancan kicks. A-cha-cha! The flounce had a reassuring rustling sound that made me sigh.
My boyfriend and I went out to eat before the dance with a big group of friends. I ordered pasta in a cream sauce with vegetables al dente. As I was trying to spear a particularly undercooked carrot, my fork slid across the plate, collecting a mound of fettuccini and depositing it on the bodice of my pretty-princess frock.
For a moment, I had trouble breathing. The table paused in awestruck silence. I looked around at all the wide eyes and decided to laugh instead of sob (though it was a very close vote). Everyone at the table guffawed with relief. Everyone, that is, except Sean Anderson. Sean Anderson was appropriately, endearingly horrified. As my boyfriend and the rest of our friends laughed along with me, Sean rose from his seat, gathered me up, and ushered me to the women’s restroom.
He pretended not to notice the tears standing in my eyes by the time we got to the bathroom, and asked me if I’d like him to wait while I got cleaned up. I shook my head; he nodded and returned to the table.
The dance was mercifully dark, and I enjoyed myself. In the photos from that night, I’m facing my boyfriend and peeking over my right shoulder in a way that would seem kittenish if you didn’t know about the Texas-shaped cream stain on the front of my dress.
A few years later, my boyfriend went off to college and didn’t write. Sean sent letters once or twice a week and called me when he was feeling homesick. When he came home for Christmas break, we pawed at each other for a few weeks before abandoning the attempt as misguided.
I’m still glad we gave it a shot. He was the first real gentleman I ever knew up close, and one of the few I’ve met since.
Chagrin and Men I Have Loved
Shark attacks, public gaffes, ruining a prom dress: as topics for nightmares, any may cause a bad night’s sleep. But only our writer has survived them all in full daylight, with the help of a few good men.
Dad Was a Soprano