The Widest Heart by Malka Drucker
Alyson Publications, 1994, ISBN 1-55583-275-X
Maybe it’s not right to talk about other people, but what happened between Marcia and me was so long ago. Besides, I keep thinking of things I never told her. So forgive me, Marcia, wherever you are, and I hope you read this.
We met in Spanish One the first day of school at Granada Hills High on a typical San Fernando Valley oven-hot, smoggy September morning. The school had just opened and everything was in wild confusion–nobody, not even the teachers knew where their classrooms were or even a piece of chalk was. It didn’t break my heart that the crew-cutted, nervous man at the front of the room stood little chance of getting our attention.
“Buenos dias, clase,” Mr. Applegate screamed. No one seemed to understand him; our boisterous English grew louder.
I pulled at my straight skirt that was riding up my thighs. As I feared, I’d gained weight over the summer. But it didn’t matter, because I didn’t see any of my junior high pals in the room. They were too gutless to take a foreign language.
I searched for an interesting face. A fat girl with a bulbous nose and full lips caught my eye and smiled. I flattened my lips into what could be mistaken for a smile and looked away. She was not someone I wanted to be friends with.
Applegate started to pass out copies of El Frijolito Salton, a skinny red book with a leering jumping bean on the cover. The class filled with sniggers until a tall blonde girl sailed into the room as though she owned it. She spoke privately to the teacher and then he asked the class, “Who is Marcia Moore?” The girl who had smiled at me earlier half-raised her hand. “Marcia Moore,” he said, “Meet Marsha Moore. She has your registration packet.” So the blonde and the fat girl had the same name. The class looked from Marsha to Marcia. A few people giggled. Even though I didn’t know her, I felt sorry for Marcia Moore. Marsha could have been a model, while Marcia could have been a poster girl for Overeaters Anonymous.
But Marcia was a good sport about the mix-up. “Oh, so that’s why I got this weird invitation to a party from people I don’t know. I thought they’d spelled my name wrong, but it was for you.”
The blonde nodded, unsmiling. “Right,” she said. “Now, do you have my reg. packet?” Marcia fumbled through her backpack, spilling pens and paper. Finally she found the envelope marked “Marsha Moore.” The girl grabbed it from her quickly, as though she wanted to get away from someone so ugly who had her same name. Marcia smiled at her as she walked out.
I found Marcia in my next class, English. In fact, we were in all the same classes. At the end of the day, I grabbed my backpack and ran to the bus. With luck, I would get a seat to myself. But Marcia got on the bus, spotted me, and asked if the seat was saved. I shook my head and squeezed over to the window to make room for her. Oh well, I thought, at least it will be just two of us. A third person would never fit.
“Nice scarf,” Marcia said, pointing to the soft blue silk scarf I’d tied into a cravat. It was my grandmother’s and she had just given it to me. I adored it.
“Thanks,” I muttered, squeezing closer to the window. She continued to stare at my scarf. To end her fixation, I offered her a corner to touch. She gently massaged the creamy fabric between her fingers.
“I’ve never felt anything so wonderful,” she said. Somehow I knew she wasn’t exaggerating yet I wondered how that was possible.
“Boy, that was really embarrassing in Spanish,” Marcia laughed. “At least the other Marsha Moore is only beautiful–if she’d been nice, I’d really hate her.” Despite my resolve not to be friends with this girl, I laughed. She had a twisty sense of humor.
We were an unlikely pair, I, cynical and proud of my perpetual gloom,Marcia, seemingly sunny and easy-going. But we immediately discovered how alike we were. We both loved reading, we hated cheerleaders, and thought a native speaker should teach Spanish. “I don’t want to speak Spanish with Applegate’s Iowa accent,” Marcia wailed. We also wanted to leave boring, ugly Los Angeles and go east to college, where we were sure the focus was on the mind, not the body.
We also shared an unspoken desire. I didn’t want to know her troubles, and she didn’t want me to know them. Why I ran from her pain, I don’t know. Maybe I thought I couldn’t do anything about it. The truth is, I didn’t know right away that Marcia’s life was hell. Only later did I see how hard she worked to keep the knowledge from everyone, including herself.
I went to her house for the first time on Halloween. She had to take her little brothers trick-or-treating, and I was going to keep her company. A man with steel-rim glasses and white hair brushed back with a widow’s peak like Dracula’s, let me in. He nodded when I asked if Marcia were there and then abruptly left me in the hall while he went into the living room and turned on the television.
From what I could see, her house was bigger and fancier than mine, but I didn’t like it. It felt cold. “Meet my Dad,” Marcia said, coming to get me. This old man, this social retard, was her father!
“A pleasure,” Mr. Moore slowly articulated in a thick accent, barely glancing at me before he returned to the football game in front of him. I knew Marcia’s family originally came from Greece; the family name had originally been Maragoulis. Marcia was always doing youth group stuff at the Greek Orthodox church. Marcia smiled and whispered, “He’s shy.” In my family, we didn’t call it shy, we called it rude.
Her little brothers were wearing incredible alligator costumes, which was no surprise for anyone who lived in Granada Hills. Mr. Moore owned a fast food restaurant called The Gator Shack that had a pit of live alligators in the middle of the parking lot to attract customers. I never could understand why anyone wanting a burger would go out of his or her way to eat one in the presence of an alligator. More than that, I always lost my appetite when I looked in the pit and saw those poor creatures piled on top of one another with no room to move.
The two-legged alligators in the living room were restless and having a tail fight. “Let’s go, Teddy and Freddy,” Marcia said. She put on a big black coat, the kind my grandmother wore. Catching my eye, she laughed, “It’s a hand-me-down but it’s warm.” She looked as if she were wearing a tent. Even though I was a good twenty pounds too heavy, as my mother constantly reminded me, I never felt overweight around Marcia.
We were almost out the door when Mr. Moore’s voice cut like a knife: “Marcia! Don’t take your eyes off the boys, not for a minute! Am I clear?” “Yes, Dad, I know,” she answered, smiling. “Don’t worry.” We waited on the sidewalk in front of the first house where the boys stopped.
With Marcia’s eyes never leaving the children, I asked her, “Did you wear an alligator suit when you were little?” I tried to imagine her as a plump reptile.
The smile, then, “No, I never went trick-or-treating.”
When I was little, I couldn’t wait for Halloween. Candy, costumes, and roaming outside at night. I still get excited with the memory of it. “You’re kidding,” I said.
“No,” she answered slowly. “See, Mom isn’t my real mother. My mother died when I was four and Dad married Mom a couple of years later. She had just come from Greece and she didn’t know about what kids do here.”
Anger burned in me, as though I were the one who hadn’t gone trick or treating. I knew better than to press her, but I couldn’t help myself. “Marcia, didn’t they watch TV or read newspapers? They must have talked to other parents! And what about the kids that came to your house?” No smile from her, just a shrug and eyes that begged me to shut up. After that, I stayed away from talking about her parents–I thought my silence made me a good friend.
We spent much more time at her house than mine because she always had to baby-sit her brothers. That was OK with me because whenever I brought Marcia home, my mother scarcely spoke to her or even looked at her. To my mother, Marcia represented the enemy–fat. This wasn’t only an aesthetic objection, it was character. It showed she was out of control, without discipline. My mother was a size six and she intended to die that size. My being friends with Marcia represented her failure as a mother.
All my life my mother told me to make something of myself so I could choose my friends. No one had to tell me that in my mother’s eyes, Marcia, at 5’1″ and 150 pounds, was not a choice. When my mother asked, “Who is that girl?” I told her that we were working on an assignment together. My mother would never understand how Marcia was the best friend I’d ever had, because she liked me just the way I was.
Marcia began working after school at the Gator Shack. When she turned 16, her father got her a car right away, but she was only allowed to use it to get to school and work. I missed riding the bus with her so sometimes I’d hang out at the restaurant. I’d bring my homework and not bother her,because her father watched her every move. If he caught her talking to me,she’d get grounded on her precious free time.
But after a while I stopped going because I hated listening to the way people talked to her. There she’d be, her moon face glistening from the heat of the kitchen, her fine hair hanging like limp spaghetti, taking orders with a smile from kids who wouldn’t look at her in school.
Suddenly she became their pal. “Hi Marcia! Jeez, I forgot to bring my money. Give me a coke and fries and I’ll pay you next time?” Or, “Marcia,how about going heavy–heh heh–on the fries?” When she tried to explain that she couldn’t do that, the kids would sneer and say, “What happened? Did you eat them all?” or “You’re cheap, just like your old man.” She never lost her smile, yet sometimes I’d see her eyes fill with tears.
Marcia was working twenty, sometimes thirty hours a week. I almost asked my mother if that was legal or if it was child abuse, but I was afraid she’d get into it and Marcia would freak. Anyway, Marcia wasn’t complaining.
One Sunday before Christmas I helped her make goodies for the holiday. Marcia loved Christmas like a little kid. Maybe it triggered memories of a happier time. Whatever, we had a great time that day cooking and singing and laughing. Following a recipe from Marcia’s grandmother in the old country, we kneaded dough into little balls that we dropped into spitting, hot oil. After they fried, we rolled them in honey and nuts. It was the stickiest, sweetest food imaginable, and Marcia and I sampled tons of it.
Mrs. Moore checked on us from time to time to be sure we were keeping up our production and to tell us we were not to eat any of the sweets–they were for the family and the church. Besides, she’d say, looking us over, we didn’t need it.
I don’t know how, with work and school, Marcia found time to get ready for Christmas, but she did. Besides cooking, she went to the mall and spent all her money on gifts. I still have the blue woolen hat she gave me that perfectly matched my grandmother’s scarf. How did she remember the scarf’s exact color? If only I knew then how special she was.
I gave her a volume of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems. I adored Millay’s passionate verse and wanted to share it with Marcia. Within a week she was quoting parts of the poems to me. When I’d complain that life sucked, she’d throw her head back and recite:
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,–
No higher than the soul is high.
I’d shrug, scowling, with my narrow heart and flat soul, but she’d just look at me, patient, waiting. And pretty soon I’d lighten up and we’d both laugh.
After Christmas, if Marcia wasn’t working, she was sleeping. She even nodded off in class. She was fatter than ever, with dark circles under her eyes, and her skin seemed to absorb the grease of the restaurant. I thought of the alligators in the parking lot. Who was worse off? Still I never said anything, not even, “Are you OK?”
It wasn’t much fun for us to be together anymore. We used to talk for hours; now, with our different lives, we didn’t have much to say to one another. Marcia still listened to my latest woe or newest strategy for ensnaring some guy, but she seemed far away. She no longer had the luxury of having “problems.” If a teacher gave her a D when she thought she deserved better, she shrugged. If someone cut in front of her on the food line, she ignored it. If she didn’t have a dress to wear for a party, she laughed it off and stayed home.
One day at lunch she told me she was switching from an academic to a business curriculum. “I just can’t keep up,” she said, her eyes so sad I looked away. Of the two of us, Marcia was the better student. Furthermore, although she was too smart to say it, she loved studying. We planned to go to the same college and room together. We dreamed of opening a bookstore in New England; Marcia wanted to call it Sisters.
It wasn’t only her life that was being ruined. Marcia’s father had destroyed my dreams, too. “Why don’t you tell your father you can’t work so many hours?” I asked, my voice rising. “Why don’t you tell your father to goto hell?” Marcia’s face went white. “Sorry,” I said. But I couldn’t keep quiet. “Marcia, you’re just a kid–it’s not fair!”
Marcia sighed. “It doesn’t matter,î she said softly. “My dad won’t pay for college anyway–he says it’s more important for boys. He’s old-fashioned. He wants me to graduate from high school and work until I get married.”
If I had to work at Gator Shack I’d get married the next day to anybody who was willing. And that especially included Albert Levy, whose muscled body stopped my heart when he swam at varsity meets but who was more boring than a rock. My mother, valuing his lineage of lawyers, approved totally of him.
Between Marcia’s work schedule and my being with Albert, we rarely saw one another anymore. She didn’t even come to school regularly. When the English teacher passed out copies of Pride and Prejudice to read during spring break, I took an extra copy to bring to Marcia.
It felt strange going to her house as a guest when I used to spend nearly every day there. I hadn’t told her I was coming. I rang the doorbell half hoping she wasn’t home. My heart pounded as I heard the knob turn. She opened the door and let out a scream when she saw me. “Come in,” she said,laughing and dragging me into the living room. This was a first, Marcia and me into the living room.
“Mom and Dad are in Las Vegas for the weekend,” she said. Her eyes smiled.
“Great,” I said, feeling shy. Marcia looked so different. She’d lost weight, had a good hair cut, and was wearing eye makeup again. But the biggest change was her clothes. Instead of the old lady clothes Mrs. Moore made her wear, she was wearing narrow pants and a sweater that matched her hazel eyes. Until that moment I didn’t realize how much I missed her. I wanted to hug her, but I only said,”You look terrific.”
“Thanks.” We stood there smiling at one another and nodding, waiting for the other to speak.
At that moment in walked a spectacular-looking young woman, green-eyed and raven-haired. She thrust out her hand to me and said, “Hi, I’m Dannie Walker.” Her voice was musical.
We all sat down, no one saying much. I bounced in my seat and looked at my watch. Something about Marcia’s new friend made me want to leave.
Marcia said, “Dannie goes to UCLA and works for Mom and Dad as a nanny for the boys–I’m too busy working to watch them.” She smiled at Dannie in a way I’d never seen her smile. “She’s earning money for opera lessons.”
Dannie was looking at Marcia, too. The way I dreamed of someone looking at me one day. But I pictured a guy, not a soprano.
No. No way. I’m imagining things. They’re just good friends.
Dannie went into the kitchen and came back with three cups of peppermint tea. After handing me a cup she sat down next to Marcia and I mean next to, even though it was a big room. She handed a cup to Marcia and let her hand linger against Marcia’s for a second.
I stared at their hands and then at my own, which had begun to tremble. The tea burned my lips as I tried to gulp it down. I had to get out of there.
God, we’d shared our beds with one another! How could I not have known? How could she not have told me? But if she had, I wouldn’t have liked it. I had too much of my mother in me–fat was one thing, gay was another. If we were friends, everybody would think I was like her.
Marcia asked me, “So how’s Senor Applegate? I’m going to try to study Spanish on my own this summer–Dannie’s going to help me.”
I nodded vigorously and stood up. My voice sounded like Minnie Mouse. “Spanish is totally boring–you’re not missing a thing.” I looked at my watch and squealed, “I have to leave this minute! I totally forgot that my mother needs the car. Hey, give me a call, OK?” I said as I edged toward the door. “Oh–nice to meet you, Dannie.”
I was halfway down the steps when I remembered the purpose of the visit. “The book!” I shouted, bounding up the steps. “How can I be so dumb–I almost forgot to give it to you.” Marcia took the book from me with a question in her eyes. I looked away, without an answer. I ran to my car as fast as I could without falling. On the drive home I thought about how we used to joke about the butch gym teacher who strolled the showers.
I never called Marcia again. She called me once, but I was only polite. I didn’t understand that love comes lots of ways. And I was afraid.
Whenever I think about Marcia, I imagine her living with Dannie far from the alligators of Granada Hills, the two of them smiling at one another as they did that day long ago.
I miss you, Marcia–you and your wide heart.