There was always a question in my mind about the little girl Harmony. I met her and her mother at the Anne Tarlich School of Dance. A scrawny little thing, that Harmony. Totally out of place. I’m not the kind of person who easily makes value judgments or who will place the people she meets in categories of class or prettiness or intelligence. But Harmony definitely was out of her element. And she knew it too, you could tell. The more the other girls bloomed as they were able to transform the awkwardness of their movements, the more Harmony snivelled and stumbled and bent her little head closer and closer to the ground as she was trying to figure out the simple patterns of a dance.
I never did ask Anne why she let Harmony stay. The other mothers went on and on about it. They were wives of doctors, lawyers, and other successful people and they were mothers of a future Margot Fonteyn or a Karen Kain. A girl like Harmony could really damage the reputation of the school. You only had to look at the mother and you knew. No one actually ever said that but you knew it was implied. I know how the minds of these women work, just look at the way they treated me because I dared to bring my little Tadas. You would think they have never realized that a Nureyev or a Baryshnikov had started somewhere.
But I do agree with them to this extent: Harmony had no talent. Now there is nothing wrong with that, more kids come in without talent. It’s more often than not the mother’s dream that brings them, rather than their own. What made it so peculiar to me was that no one made the decision to remove this little girl from a situation that was obviously painful to her.
The mom was a real scrapper, you could tell, and she clearly loved that little girl. Oh, she did. It was plain to see. And she always came with her friend, Arlene, and Arlene’s daughter, Amanda.
Now, Amanda was alright. At least, she could dance.
I wonder what goes on in the minds of women like that. By the way they dressed, by the feel of them, they were lower middle class. Maybe they were welfare mothers. But no, they wouldn’t be able to afford the school.
There you go, I really don’t like to speak of class but, honestly, I don’t see how you could avoid at times. There they were, their kids with names like Harmony and Amanda, or Corey and Krystel. Now that Krystel, Harmony’s little sister, she was already going to modelling agencies. And so was Corey, Amanda’s little brother.
Clearly these women were determined to get their kids on television.
There were only a few areas in the city where even social workers lock their cars securely when they had to go in. One of these neighbourhoods consisted of a government housing complex that teemed with children. The reason why outsiders feared this neighbourhood was not so much due to the reality of crime, as to its possibility. If a crime were to be committed in this city, it would probably happen here.
Jo and Loraine had moved in together quite a few years ago when Nicole was still a child. Three generations of women under the same roof, until Nicole had left to marry Glen. She did quite well for herself that Nicole. Glen owned a gas station at the other end of the city. And after two kids and five years of marriage they were still together.
Loraine and her mother preferred to spend their lives wegded in the green speckled couch before their television set. From there they would pronounce judgment on everything that passed before their eyes.
“She definitely is a skinny girl. No bone structure. And that little drippy nose. Pfaw!” said Loraine.
“She’s been going to that dance school for a whole year now, Loraine. And all that money. It should have started to make a difference.”
“Oh, mother. You know Nicole. When she has something in mind she just won’t let go of it. She and Arlene. They’ve always been that way. Now Nicole got it in her mind to make a ballerina of the kid. A dancer. She feeds her stories. Takes her to them classes. She’s already doing it with Krystel, too.”
Loraine leaned over to her mother in a conspiratorial bend. The two women pushed their chins down into their bosoms. Fat arms leaning on fat bodies. Loraine had not even been ten when her body had already started to accumulate the fat that seemed to come with the genes. Ah well, what could they say? They’d always been bad girls. Both of them had been at the altar before they were properly sixteen. Loraine with a big belly; Jo after one missed period. They were a whole lot stricter in Jo’s time.
A little laugh gurgled from deep within Jo’s throat. “Eh, eh, do we have some more diet pop in the fridge? And change the channel while you’re up, will you. It’s time.”
When Loraine got to the fridge she was still laughing. It always broke them up when they thought about it. The men had left long ago but who needed men around anyway?
“Nicole does,” her mother shouted back and they started to laugh again. Nicole. Even when she was eight and started to show the first signs of fat, she had started on a diet. Skinny. God, was she skinny. Anorexic was more the word for it. The rich girl’s disease. Nothing too good for their Nicole. Just skin over bones. And Glen too.
“It must rattle in that bed of theirs,” Jo gasped.
The tears were rolling down their cheeks and they were holding their hands to their sides. Waterlogged arms sunk into the folds of their stomachs. Laughter, however, soon turned to sobs for Loraine. Mother could laugh easily. But Nicole was her daughter. And she had to live with that.
“Oh, come on, Loraine! How long will you let her hurt you like that? She’s a vindictive little bitch. She’s always looked down on us. She was never nice to me, even when she was only this high.” The hand made a vague gesture; the arm never left the stomach. “And I’m her grandmother.”
As if that explained everything, Jo closed her mouth and turned her attention to the ongoing saga of their favourite soap. Skinny and pretty and rich. It was all good and well for the soaps and for the stars of those shows. But why should Nicole have it in her head that she also could catch a part of the action?
“She looks good, though,” Loraine said.
“She does,” Jo replied witout taking her eyes of the screen.
“I don’t mean her,” Loraine said. “I mean Nicole.”
And they both got caught in another spasm of merriment, their bodies rippling like mighty rivers. But, before long, Jo turned on the scowl. “Oh, come on, Loraine. She’s a bean pole!”
Damn nice beanpole if you ask me, Loraine thought. She wouldn’t mind looking that way. She never did have the guts to stand up to her mother. Not at all like Nicole, who would strike right back if you only touched her this much. Had slammed her little pink lunchbox into mother’s face one day because mother had hit her cheek for no good reason.
The scene that followed!
“I’m going to have my stomach stapled,” Loraine said. “That way I’ll lose all the weight I want without having to go hungry.
Jo did not reply. Had possible not even heard her. And even if she had she wouldn’t acknowledge it. It was alway tthat way when Loraine talked about losing weight.
Now Nicole didn’t, see. She always encouraged her.
I had to go into the governement housing complex today. God, it was weird. If I had known, I would have insisted that Mark come along. I locked my car. Then, when I got back. I made sure to check for scratches. One of the kids who lives is on the same soccer team as Martin and, for some reason or other, he had hit my son aross the face and broken his glasses. I felt I should sit down and talk about this with the parents.
I looked inside the houses as I went. Not on purpose but the windows are right there at eye level. And in one of those living rooms there were these two really fat women. They filled up the couch. I’m not kidding. And this chintzy looking furniture and Woolworth prints on the wall. And plastic plants. Yes. Plastic plants.
I turned aroud. There was just no point even trying.
Arlene was already waiting at the bus stop with Amanda and Corey. It was always busy on Saturdays, what with the girls dancing and then the little ones after that and their husbands busy. But as far as Nicole was concerned nothing was too good for the kids, so they did whatever it took.
“So you want to go tonight?” Arlene asked as soon as Nicole came. “Terry has already talked with Glen, eh. They’re going over to Muldoon’s to watch the baseball game. And we... What do you say?”
Nicole had to laugh. They were having male strippers at the Manor. Arlene had gotten a group of girls from work together. Nicole wasn’t decided yet. It was easy for Arlene. She had a mother who understood. Who had been there herself, trying to raise kids to be better than she was.
Arlene didn’t understand Nicole’s uptightness about even the smallest things. She had not had to fight so hard to break away from an environment that seemed designed to drag people down into stupor. Nicole remembered herself sitting on that couch wedged between those two bodies that were constantly being stuffed with food. And that damned TV. She watched TV as well. She really likes some of the shows, eh. But she was trying to do things with her life. And with the lives of her kids. So that they could have it better.
Krystel was no problem. They told her at the dance school that she had real talent. A regular little heartbreaker. But Harmony, she was so shy and so stiff. Nicole could cry when she saw her. You could dress Krystel up in anything, she’d be noticed, she’d stand out in a crowd. That’s just the kind of kid she was. Like Amanda. Nicole envied her friend not only her mother but also her daughter.
With Harmony she just might never succeed.
No, she shouldn’t go tonight. She didn’t want to ask her mother to come in and babysit. Mother would just keep Harmony up with her all night, watching TV, and feeding her candy. Kids should be in bed by a decent hour. And no candy or junk food.
I was watching Nicole an Harmony again today. Nicole seemed more agitated than ever. And that little girl, always with her fingers in her mouth. Apparently, there had been a fight. Amanda had decked Jillian for making fun of Harmony. I was the only one who came to the defense of those girls. Jillian can be a real little snot. She tripped my Tadas the other day. I’m telling you, I got so mad.
Well, anyway, I tried to say something to Nicole. To make her feel better, you know. But I just didn’t know how to approach her. So I turned to Arlene and told her not to worry. All Arlene said was, “Never mind.”
She could have said thank you.
Harmony is more upset than usual. She sits in the far corner of the big chair and her thumb is in her mouth. Little ripples of tenderness flow from her to her stuffed rabbit. Ruffles is her favourite. Grandma gave him to her when she was very little. No, she doesn’t remember that. When you’re a baby you don’t remember things. But she’s not a baby anymore. She has not forgotten how that rotten Jillian made fun of her today. Amanda had punched Jillian real hard and they got thrown out of class. Not Jillian. She never got in trouble.
Harmony never wants to go back there. She hadn’t done anything wrong and still she had been thrown out. And Amanda was just standing up for her. Amanda was her best friend.
Harmony can hear her mother upstairs putting Krystel down for a nap. She wishes her mother would come, pick her up, and carry her upstairs the way she had Krystel. But Mommy says she is too big for that now. The finger that belongs to the thumb in her mouth has started to caress her nose.
Soon Mommy will be down to tell her to take that thumb out of her mouth. Sometimes she even puts mustard on it and other yukki stuff. But then she just sucks it a little harder and soon the bad taste disappears. Grandma never tells her to take her thumb our of her mouth. And Grandma gives her candy.
Harmony loves to nestle herself in her grandmother’s warmth. Mommy doesn’t like her to do this. Mommy doesn’t like to give her hugs. Harmony’s eyes veil over as the thumb and finger afford the much needed comfort. If she were a kitten she would be purring by now.
And then Nicole comes down and the thumb is yanked from Harmony’s mouth and Harmony sets out her lungs. She cries as if her heart were breaking.
“What’s the matter, Harmony? Don’t be such a baby. Miss Anne isn’t mad at you, anymore. She understands.”
But Harmony is howling and she doesn’t hear what her mother is saying.
What a pathetic sight the kid makes. Nicole amost panicks. She’ll never get anywhere with Harmony. Her mother is going to win this one. She comes close to hitting Harmony. If there is anyting she can’t stand it is this kind of blubbering. But Nicole takes a deep breath and she gets a hold of herself. She once hit Harmony in anger and almost sent her to hespital. She had sworn never to lose control like that again. And, drawing on her extraordinary reserve of willpower, she had managed to live up to her promise.
So, instead of feeding her anger, she sinks down on her knees and gently but forcefully takes the child’s hands away from her face.
“Talk to me, Harmony. You know mommy will listen. I don’t want you to be unhappy. You know I only want the best for you.”
Harmony’s breath falters as it tries to find its natural rhythm.
“I want Grandma,” Harmony says and Nicole leans her head against her arm.
Tears, hated tears because they are a sign of weakness, are close. She can’t win this one. Not on her own. Not with Harmony fighting her all the way.
Nicole gets up and goes to the kitchen. Her face is drawn in its hard lines as she bends herself over the sink. When she looks up from her work she can see Harmony standing in the doorway. Ruffles in the arm that has the thumb, which is again in her mouth. The other arm is stretched out toward her mother. Nicole bends down and picks up Harmony and holds her very close. She had forgotten how good it was to hold this little girl. Harmony takes the thumb out of her mouth and looks at her mother.
“Are you feeling all better now, Mommy? You want to hold Ruffles?”
I haven’t seen Harmony for at least three weeks now. At first, we thought she might be sick. But then it occurred to us that Arlene hadn’t brought her kids, either. The other women were very happy with this. They said it. Just like that. I couldn’t believe my ears. I finally went to Anne and asked her if it was true that those two had been barred from the school but she told me that they weren’t. They had simply changed schools. One that had opened closer to their neighbourhood.
And Harmony? Anne didn’t think Harmony was dancing anymore.
Loraine had never really understood what drove her daughter. Like the big deal she made about going out for the night to visit with Arlene. She’d taken Krystel with her but she said Harmony had wanted to stay home so could she come and sit with her. No, her mother was definitely wrong about Nicole. She doesn’t even look at other men. Her kids are her whole life. She’d do anything to help them become someone.
Harmony was so happy today, showing her all the pictures she made in art class. That Nicole. She never gave up.
Confusion snaked its way into Loraine’s mind and it fastened itself with a zillion little tentacles. As usual, confusion drove her to a self-indulgent sulk. We’re not good enough for her, her mother would say. And maybe she was right. Nicole set herself above them. But then again, who could blame her?
“Harmony, dolly, where are you?” Loraine looked for her granddaughter with hunger. Harmony was different from her mother. She was more re-assuring, less cold. Loraine grabbed a bag of chips from the kitchen counter and broke open another soda.
Then she went looking for the child.
Down in the basement, on the carpeted floor, Harmony was playing with her dollhouse. The miniature child stood in front of the miniature mother and Harmony said in a voice that sounded very much like Nicole’s: “No, no, no. You’re an ugly fat person and you won’t get anywhere in life. You’ll die if you keep doing that to yourself.”
Loraine uttered a little shriek. “Did your mommy teach you to say things like that, Harmony?”
“No, Grandma!” Harmony looked at Loraine with clear eyes. “I just made it up.”
Harmony let the little doll fall from her hand and soon her thumb found its moist and warm spot between her lips. She got up and tucked Ruffles under her arm. She then reached for her grandmother’s hand and guided her up the stairs.
“Read me a story, Grandma,” she said as she nesteled herself in her grandmother’s lap.
Next to the basement door potato chips spilled from the bag; on the kithen counter the bubbles of soda dissipated into the air.