Share the Chameleon
My mom shows me her new tits then asks me to draw a tattoo on her shoulder before dinner.
She went from a B to a D-cup overnight. I'm seventeen. She's forty-two. But age has nothing to do with it. I could have been forty-something myself and it would have all seemed normal. This is her new normal and so it is mine.
She is practicing for a contest and I want to hide. The brown suede sectional in the living room is disassembled and stacked in a corner, like puzzle pieces fresh from the box. My sister sits on its cushions and watches. I am to be part of the act.
"Put this on," she says to me.
"What is it?"
"A sailor's cap. Like in the video."
"What video?" I ask.
"Just put it on." So I do.
"I feel stupid," I say.
"You look handsome. Like your father." My sister jumps down from her perch and snatches the cap from my head and put it on herself. She prances around the living room repeating, "I'm so handsome! I'm so handsome!"
My mom is sheathed in a black and white checkered fur. Midway through the song, when the drums beat louder, she throws the wrap to the ground and starts prancing around the room in a semi-transparent black leotard. A thong reveals her entire ass.
This is her new normal, and so it is mine.
Afterward the lines of the tattoos I've drawn smear from sweat. Blur. She's breathing heavy and hard. A lizard scurries up the blinds and onto the ceiling. He tries to blend into the background, like I wish I could. If he could fade to white he would. If he were just a ghost, I suppose he could. We both could.
The contest was at the Cross County Mall. Mom looked the part but skipped around the stage too much. It was an embarrassment. But since the entire judge's table was comprised of men, Mom took second place.
Not long after her picture appeared in the Palm Beach Post, my mom started going out at night, leaving me alone while she tried to earn extra money as a part-time Cher impersonator. Armed with her best friend Rosa's compliments and the help of Nick—a Neil Diamond impersonator—she joined Famous Faces, after a talent scout spotted her in the Palm Beach Mall by an Orange Julius and confirmed Rosa's own unprofessional assessment. She was gone five or six nights a week, driving down to Miami in the light of day and returning home in the dark, dancing for men in their sixties and lip-syncing to If I Could Turn Back Time.
If only I could, I thought.
Although she could have passed for Cher without the make-up, her costume was her centerpiece and consisted of a wig the color of black marker, dark nylon tights and a silver-studded top that accentuated her natural cleavage. She wore silver crosses around her willowy neck, although hers weren't real silver. And she had a few painted on tattoos, compliments of me, and my uncanny ability to copy anything I could see. Sometimes she would drag me along and make me watch. Other times I would even be her little Sonny and she would dance around me as if we were a couple, a duo, a duet, which I suppose we were. At least that's how we'd been since my dad died.
Then one night, after a show, some of her coworkers—Willie Nelson, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe—came back to our place to take part in adult behavior. Beers were split and dark liquor came out of the cabinets. Something called marijuana made its way around the room and put out a strange kind of smoke, different than the smoke my father used to make with his filter-less cigarettes. I watched from our stairwell, as this odd cast of characters laughed at things I didn't know were funny. Marilyn's boobs heaved when she giggled. Marilyn left with Michael Jackson; Willie left all alone. Not long after there was a knock at the door. My mom answered it without question, thinking Marilyn had forgotten her keys or Willie Nelson had left his guitar.
I heard a man's voice and my mom asked, "What are you doing here? You shouldn't be here."
Their conversation was muffled. From my perch, I could see familiar sideburns and an acoustic guitar. I thought I heard him sing "Hello Again" and then silence.
Neil Diamond would stay the night and make noises with my mom in the other room. For a while I just did what I always did—watched Johnny Carson and pretended to be asleep. After an hour, I decided to do some banging myself, pounding on the wall and yelling for them to stop. Mom rushed in, not even bothering to cover up. She was naked and sweaty and yelling at me. "What the hell are you doing up?"
"I can't sleep."
"Well, you better go to sleep right now or else!" she screamed, her black wig still on, her phony tattoos melting down her shoulder from the drips of sweat. That was always her weapon, "or else!" I knew what it was, this weapon of hers, and to tell the truth, I wasn't as afraid anymore. I wanted to cut her wig; I wanted to snip off the curls one by one with a pair of her own scissors. I could be that thief who had once broken into our townhouse when my father was still alive and stood in her bedroom over her dresser. I would stand over that hair and rip it apart as she slept.
"What are you doing anyway?" I asked, with venom.
"None of your goddamn business!"
"It is my business," I said, bravely, with vigor.
"What did you just say?" I could see her breasts bobbing in the light of the hall, silhouetted against the stair rails. She was sweating even more. "You go to sleep right now or so help me God—"
"What? You'll count to three?"
With those words the hitting began. Not just slaps this time, but punches about my head and face and ears, whatever she could find to pummel, to bang. They came in waves, in combinations of rights and lefts. They came from above and below and side to side. But this time was different still, for every time she reached back for another naked blow, I was there to block her; I was there to say no, never again.
Whether she was tired or defeated, or a little bit of both, she would finally stop, and walk back to her bedroom, and keep on banging. Neil Diamond would stay the night that night, and many more after that. I thought I heard tears coming from the other room, but who knows what I was hearing anymore. My ears were different. They finally fit my face. My mom may have thought she was Cher, but I would promise myself to be no Sonny to her.
"You're both coming with me," she said. "I don't have time to find a babysitter."
"I don't need a babysitter," I said.
This was the best news I'd had all day. I dressed in a furry, throwing on jeans and an Op T-shirt and Yankees baseball cap. My mom slid into her costume and jewelry. Her wig sat on a white, foam bust—a face in the dark you couldn't tell wasn't real. Her own hair sat in a ball on top of her head.
"God, my wig looks like a rat's nest," she said, as I drew in her signature tattoo carefully on her right arm. "Speaking of rats. You haven't seen any more have you?"
I shook my head quickly "no."
"That's good. They carry diseases you know."
"I know," I said, like I had said it a thousand times before. To my mom, everything carried some kind of disease—rats had the plague; roaches had something called typhoid; and who knows what those damn lizards I liked to catch had. Nothing, and no one, was immune.
"Hurry up," she said. "We're late." My mom was shaking and stretching to catch glimpses of herself in the mirrors behind her. She checked and double-checked her belly, sucking in her tights.
"Hold still," I said.
"You're smudging it!" she said, going to put a crack across my face but stopped. I didn't even flinch. I kept on with the task at hand, knowing full well that stopping meant more yelling.
At nine o'clock, thirty minutes late by my mom's estimation, we hurtled south down I-95, speeding by lights craning over the highway, each one coming on as we passed. We passed the Cherry Lane Swim Club. The sign that used to have a lisp now read: "You've arrived in paradise…Join the Cherry Lane Swim Club Today!"
"They fixed the sign," I said.
"Never mind," I said.
Paradise restored? I thought.
Another orange sign welcomed us to Boca Raton, but said nothing of the Mouth of the Rat. Nonetheless, I felt safe there, even though I would have sworn we were breaking some kind of speed record or barrier of some kind.
We arrived at a place—a dark place with dark windows. A place that, in the black of the night, looked as though it was missing its roof. This was what adults called a club. One door in the side of a building on the side of a side road.
"I think this is the right address," she said. We exited the car and snapped the doors shut. "Did you lock your door?" she asked. I had. "Take your sister."
The back of the building looked the same as the front—a single door against a dark chocolate of a building. Although it was night, I thought I saw a lizard scurry by. There were ropes and tape and a wide-bodied man at the back door. His name was Les. I wondered if he had seen the chameleon. Perhaps it was his own pet.
"Good," said Les, "you're here. The rest of you are inside." He said it like my mom was an alien, that "her kind" was waiting for her on the other side. "The boy's not really allowed in. Or the girl."
"I'm a man," I blurted out.
"He's part of the act," my mom said.
"I am not."
"Yes, you are," she said to me, teeth tight. "Where would Cher be without Sonny?"
"He don't look like no Sonny," Les said.
"Too short?" she said.
"I'm not that short."
"You're pretty short kid." He was right; I was. My height hadn't yet caught up to my age.
"Fine," he said. "Go on in."
Inside, fur and velvet and corduroy and leather. Women, and some men, were clad in fur jackets and leather pants. Even the bar was decked out in a black velvet lining. Disco music rang out of speakers taller than me, and a Disco Ball spun like a giant jeweled planet above the dance floor, spitting out light, shades of blue and silver, making dancers look like they had on electrified suits.
I saw James Dean, Michael Jackson, and Madonna, or was it Marilyn Monroe?—I couldn't tell which. And there was a Neil Diamond. Was it my Mom's Neil Diamond? I squinted through the disco light. My Mom did the same.
"I'll be right back," she said. "Stay here."
"But I have to pee," I called out.
"So go then," she said. "But take your sister."
My mom parted the crowd and disappeared while we wandered in circles, passing the same people over and over again, until I found a neon sign that said Men. I hesitated but remembered I had had my Bar Mitzvah already. I was a man. "Stay right here," I said. "Don't move." And I blindly went inside.
The bathroom was like a darkroom, dim but the blue light of a few blacklights. My sneakers glowed. Anything white glowed like neon—my shoelaces, my Op T-shirt, my teeth, like they were coated with whiteout. I felt like I'd been radiated, on another planet, like I was finally experiencing Jupiter in all its strange and wonderful glory. I tried hopping into the air, to see if I was weightless. Instead of floating away, I just fell to the floor.
I found a mirror, or what I thought was a mirror, to check my hair. The glass was more of a polished metal. It made my face look warped. Like a Salvador Dali painting, I was melting.
Men stumbled in and out, using the urinals and returning to the dance floor. The music got louder then became a distant neighbor as the door opened and closed. I found an empty stall and took a seat, leaving my pants pulled up for the moment. Noises echoed from the toilet next to mine. Voices.
"Hello?" I said.
Nothing. No answer.
I pulled down my pants and started going. Again, voices. Whispers. I finished, not flushing, and went back to the sink. Someone had left white powder, like sugar or flour, on the rim of the faucet. I looked in the mirror again and fixed my wavy hair as best I could. The voices, like moans now, came from a stall in the corner.
"Hello?" I said again. "Are you okay?"
I moved toward the sounds, edging closer like I was stalking a bug with a newspaper. Maybe they had a rat in their toilet, I remember thinking.
The voices grew louder. Just then the music came up and some drunken guy fell into the bathroom and puked in a urinal. I turned away until he was finished. I could smell and taste the vomit in the air. I met his stare while he was at the sink washing his face and mouth. He saw the white powder and brushed his teeth with it.
"How old are you?" he said as he left. The music. Then nothing. I didn't say a word.
Back to the stall I crept. Closer. Closer. Curious of the noises. The doors moved, rocked, swayed. I expected to see a rat or white powder or a man in distress. I opened the stall door just a crack and peaked inside.
There were bodies—limbs locked together. And sweat. And skin. I didn't know what I was looking at. Was that Neil Diamond?
"Don't tell your Mom," I think someone said. The voice sounded familiar, but warped, like a record on the wrong speed.
I couldn't tell who was who or what was what. It was like being taken by the ocean, pulled under by the tide, not knowing which way was up.
Was it two men together? What were they doing? Why was I watching? Why did I stare? This reminded me of the first time I heard the term Birthday Suit. I was five. It was on TV, while watching Wimbledon one summer on NBC, when a man apparently ran naked onto Centre Court during the Men's Final. "Streaking" is what Dick Enberg and Bud Collins called it. The players, Björn Borg and Ilie Năstase, watched as the man darted around the grass in his Birthday Suit, their heads on swivels, as if they were attending a tennis match themselves.
The second time was the night my mother was to meet my father at The Breakers Resort, just across the Intercoastal Waterway, in Palm Beach. It was their anniversary and this always gave my mother permission to cover herself in gold Lamé, a can of hairspray, and L'air du temps toilet water. Even with an average Florida thunderstorm stalled overhead, nothing was going to deter her from this annual ritual.
"Why do they call it toilet water?" I would ask, watching her carefully pencil in thick black eyeliner. She was naked, except for an off-white bra that bared her nipples and a pair of nylons that came in an eggshell and called themselves the color "nude."
"I don't know," my mother said.
"The toilet is gross."
"It's not the toilet in the bathroom," she said. "It's French. Eau de toilette. It says it right there on the box."
"Eau is right," I said.
Once her face and hair were put into place, my mother asked me to stand on her bed—the only time I was ever allowed—and help zip up her dress. She took the gown out of a vinyl bag.
"Are your hands clean?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"Mommy, why do they call it a birthday suit?"
"Because it's the suit you were born in."
"So everybody has a birthday suit?"
"Do they come in different sizes?"
"You could say that," she said. "Is it zipped all the way?"
A young guy from the adjoining neighborhood, maybe 16-years old, was coming to the house to babysit. I'd see him sometimes cut through the trees that separated our streets, to ride his bike in circles, sometimes pop a wheelie, then disappear behind a hedge. He'd pop up later on, or sometimes not, depending on how long I stayed in the window, or if a thunderstorm swept in from the ocean.
"But I'm not a baby," I said.
"No, but you're too young to stay alone by yourself. It's not safe," my mother said.
"But I'm almost six," I said.
"What if a tornado tears through the house?"
"I don't know. It could."
Just then, the doorbell chimed. It sounded deeper than usual, droning on like it needed a new set of batteries. Or maybe it was just the storm. Either way, we both jumped. With the door open, I could hear the slap of the rain on the patio cement, as well as the vinyl and aluminum chaise lounge left on the porch.
The babysitter was blonde, with curls that covered his ears. From far away, his hair had looked darker. His polo shirt was soaked through. My mother offered our dryer, so the babysitter stood with us topless as she handed out the rules: no company, no drugs, no alcohol, no sweets past ten, bed at eleven.
"If the power goes out there's a flashlight in the kitchen drawer underneath the phone," she said. And with that, she left lipstick on my cheek and was out the door. More slapping and wind and the sound of palm fronds rubbing together. Then silence.
The teenager watched as my mother tried to run through the rain in heels, her umbrella disemboweling in the wind. He waited until she was inside her Nova and safely away before asking, "Wanna play a game?"
"What kind of game? Like Operation? I have Operation."
"Sort of like Operation, but not exactly."
"Huh?" I said.
"Hide and seek?"
"Hide and seek?" I said.
"Yeah, you know hide and seek, don't you?"
"So, I'll go hide and you count," he said.
"There's just one thing," he said. "We gotta do it in the dark."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it's groovier that way. Trust me." Off went the lights and I started to count from ten down to one. Standing there, I realized he was still topless. I thought he'd have more chest hair, like my father. Maybe it was just too light to see. I wondered if he cared. I could hear the snapping of buttons in the laundry room. Round and round in the dryer, like heavy rain, or a hailstorm.
I made my way in the dark, feeling the air in front of me, hoping to find familiar things, comfortable things to lean on, to hold—my father's faux leather chair, the brown and taupe suede sectional, the TV stand and the vinyl beanbag that propped me up every Monday night in front of Happy Days. Instead, when I found him, a piece of him, there was skin, or what I thought was skin. I touched it and he didn't stop me right away; he moaned a little, then he said it was my turn.
He made me take off my clothes while he counted. We did this until there were no more places to hide. I thought about going for the flashlight my mother had mentioned but then he'd see me naked, instead of just my shadow.
My mother came home after midnight smelling of alcohol and cigarette smoke. I told my mother what had happened. I told her about seeing the man's pee-pee and touching it and letting him touch mine. "What's going to happen now?" I asked.
"Your father will take care of it," my mother said.
My father was Italian. All I know is the boy never babysat again.
I ran back into the club. Into the alien disco light. Into a crowd. I bumped against bodies, sweat finding me. I looked directly at the disco ball and was blinded for a moment.
"Watch it kid," someone said. Were they talking to me? Was I just still a kid? Had it all been a big lie?
I found an opening. Swimming with my arms, I made it out, forgetting about my sister. I opened my eyes slowly, the glare wearing off. I could see figures, silhouettes in the dark. The rhythm of the music was relentless. It kept coming at me, for me, like a ball machine whose supply of tennis balls sometimes seemed endless. It all hit me at once and when things became clear again I wish they hadn't.
I stood on a chair and looked around the room. My mom had taken to the dance floor,
juking and jiving and grinding her way through a crowd of men in tights.
I ran out into the night, past my sister, past the clade of chameleon inside, past the Bouncer. The parking lot was black. Perfect for hiding. I sat wedged between two Buicks and cried, just another piece of the darkness, and wished I could change colors, too.
–Michael Soloway (from Split Lit Magazine)