Birth Defect

Jenny graduated from high school in Claremont in the spring of 1971. When she started, the high school occupied a two-story stucco Spanish style building with a sloping terracotta roof, surrounded by palms. The school sat at the edge of historical Claremont (sometimes called “hysterical Claremont” by its residents, maybe because of its fanatical adherence to the idea of an “old” Claremont, a town with a center and a history, big porches and fieldstone curbs—hysterical because of its constant reference to itself).

That last bit got a little wordy in places, but that didn’t really bother Rose; it reminded her of home, of all those professors’ kids who learned SAT words on their mother’s knee. She folded the laundry as she listened.

Before Jenny finished, the high school moved to a new campus up the street, a cluster of low-slung cinderblock buildings trimmed in orange. The land had been carved out of the old citrus groves. Subdivisions of new ranchettes, with swimming pools in back, lawns and beech trees in front (and sometimes a solitary old citrus tree, grapefruit or lemon, in the side yard), fanned upward from the new high school toward the San Gabriel foothills, forming the unselfconsciously uniform landscape familiar to every suburbanite. The two school locations, old and new, are only about a quarter of a mile apart, which would mean something if the distance between them could be measured in miles.

When I went to Claremont High School, the trim was gradually—and I mean gradually, in the manner of post-taxpayer-revolt-California school administration, over years—being painted maroon and gray (school colors), instead of orange; but the spirit and purpose of the place had probably not changed much since Jenny walked the halls fifteen years before. When I was there, Senior Quad was off-limits to underclassmen, open season was declared on artsy kids whenever the popular types got bored, the faculty advisor to the backpacking club was buying beer for his advisees and dating a series of junior girls…. I can’t say I didn’t learn anything there.

No, it didn’t sound like much had changed. Only, when Rose was in high school it was the fathers of a lot of her friends–professors at the colleges hung with irrigated Boston Ivy that climbed and clung so aggressively under the California sun–who tried to make it with the junior girls. Or, let’s face it–did they even ask how old you were? She supposed they knew what year you were in school since they tried to engage you in conversations about Kant or Sartre or, her personal favorite, Thurber. Before junior year the profs weren’t going to get very far with that Woody Allen shtick. But after….

Ugh, by the time she graduated, Rose was done with the profs.

After three years I left school, headed for a different kind of contrivance at Berkeley, but Jenny put up with all four years, though not to great advantage. She made good grades in the classes she liked and average (or worse) grades in those she didn't. As graduation approached, she didn't have the numbers or the inclination to apply to any of the elite Claremont Colleges or to other schools like them.

My father has told me she was not only adrift in the bureaucratic and social confusion of high school, but also immobilized by the tension between the expectations of her parents and those of the changing culture in which she was becoming a woman. Or maybe it was the impossibility of pinning down just what those expectations were that stalled Jenny. From Oklahoma to California, from 1965 to 1971, from one life to another: did she want things to just stand still for a while?

I can see her walking through the open-air corridors of Claremont High, a book or two held against her hip, her hair fanning out as her head turns to say hi to a friend passing by on the way to class; she’s headed for French 5 or English Comp or World History and she’s going to be late—the bell’s just ringing. Shit! Mrs. Favre is giving them a quiz today. A five-minute quiz and she’s going to be late. Maybe it’s a guy she’s just turned to say hi to and she watches him disappear around a cinderblock corner, also late, his wonderful shaggy hair sticking out over his ears, his muscled legs defined by the fitted thighs of his flared pants. And she wonders about him.

She wonders. She doesn’t yet know.

Ha! Rose thought. Jenny’s niece is a romantic.

Charles made some calls. A friend of his, at that time the president of Wake Forest University, suggested a school in Bönnigheim, West Germany. Money was the main criterion considered for admission, and it seems the school served as home base for the almost unmonitored travels of its students. But it was a school. My father describes it as a bag of candy that Charles held up and insisted his daughter accept. Jenny went to Bönnigheim in September, 1971. In November, she disappeared.

My grandparents keep the letters that Jenny sent home during the two months between the day she arrived in West Germany and the day she disappeared. My father says that when he saw them he could barely stand to read them; they're so lonely and apologetic. I was surprised to hear that any letters exist, because I didn't think of Jenny as a person who did things like writing letters. To me she had always been a few pictures on the wall, two little taffeta dresses on silk hangers in the closet, an old manual typewriter (the one I was given and told to write with; it occurs to me now that Jenny was the one supposed to be the writer). I did not imagine her as someone who had said or done things, but as someone who had left things behind. For me, Jenny was forever staring at the same spot in the room, her chin delicately supported by the triangle she formed with her two forefingers; she was frozen in a photographer's pose.

Whenever I visited the house on the hill in Claraboya, I stayed in Jenny’s room. Alone there with her things, in her bed, I always imagined that Jenny stared at me from the five posed photos that hung there, that she was trapped up on the wall but could still see. If she couldn't meet my eyes directly, she could catch my gaze in the mirror on the wall opposite her. What was meant, I guess, to be a pensive expression looked sad to me. In all five pictures she seemed unhappy. I imagined she was frowning at me. I wondered what she wanted me to do, and sometimes I tried to talk to her. If she listened, she never answered, and now I wonder what her voice was like.

Terrible! This, in all the years she'd been here, was not something Rose had anticipated, feared; she'd felt guilty about deceiving her parents, but never thought that what she'd done could have affected her niece so deeply. She remembered the first time she'd seen her, Emily, when she was only a few days old, pink and just starting to put on fat from her mother's milk. She had held her and watched her purse her tiny lips and make spidery shapes with the fingers of her left hand. She had been born with a club foot and it protruded from one corner of the blanket she was wrapped in, a small, wrinkled sickle. A birth defect. At first Rose wanted to use her own fingers to straighten it; it looked easy to do, bend the small toes away from the rosy heel. But then, maybe because it was in miniature, the inwardly curved foot began to look perfect to her. "They're going to cast it next week," Jim told her. Good, she supposed; but she suddenly felt sad that anything about the baby would be forced to change in any way.


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