Birthdays

by Kristina Lucenko <KLucenko@gc.cuny.edu>

Tomato Dress

For my birthday a few years ago, my mother bought us tickets to a ballet performance at Lincoln Center. I wore a tomato print dress. The scoop neckline and flared knee-length hem reminded me of 1940s movie stars, or my stylish grandmother in black and white photos. Wearing it, I felt like a New Jersey beauty queen, the repeated red images a tribute to my home state's famous fruit. When I asked for my reserved ticket at the box office, the man told me my mother was already inside. "She told me about that dress," he said. "Look out." I blushed, though not as deeply red as the beefsteak pattern. How did the tomato dress come up in their conversation? What else had my mother revealed to this stranger?

I remember intermission: we listened to a free blues concert (Walter "Wolfman" Washington) on the cement outdoor patio. Later, minus mom, I dropped by a roof party, where tiki torches brightened the faces of tipsy partygoers, and I smooched a new boyfriend.

That night I was a hit. The dress urged a series of private questions: Were others as in love with it as I was? What signals--kinetic, farm fresh and edible, squeeze me, stop, look-but-don't-touch, muy bueno--was I emitting by wearing it? What could I claim as my accessories--the tiki spears, the stylish guests, the skyline?

Past the shimmering buildings I searched for New Jersey, where the growing season was just getting started, where someone's backyard garden was on the brink of plenty. Out there in West Orange, Paramus, Asbury Park, Deal, Avon-by-the-Sea, maybe there were others like me, wearing corn pants, watermelon shirts, onion suits, and cherry ties.

Soccer Camp Surprise

In 1980 I was serenaded by 300 soccer campers in a cafeteria in Waco, Texas. That summer I spent three weeks at Baylor University, at a boys camp run by my father. While he coached, I toured the campus by myself, graffitied empty stairwells, and read on grassy fields. I was bored. My body loped along in slow motion, the result of bad dining-hall food and thick, moist heat that often climbed into the hundreds. 

Soccer was my father's--and our family's--subtext. The sport influenced our dress: old photos show us in matching sweat suits my father ordered from Adidas wholesale catalogues. For family excursions we drove to Giants Stadium to watch Pele and the other Cosmos play teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tulsa Roughnecks. Fatherly pep talks included the inspirational superlatives common among athletes: "tremendous opportunity," "dominate the competition," "personal best." Whereas my father was blessed with natural ability--in his 50s he could weave a soccer ball around  defenders at Sunday league games--running made me irritable and sweating gave me zits.

I lived in the boys' dorm with my father, peeing in our little sink when he wasn't around to guard the shared, single-sex bathroom down the hall. For three weeks I watched field practice from the bleachers, pretending not to notice cute boys dribbling nearby.

One day at lunch, campers cupped their hands to my father's ear, leaned on his shoulder, and whispered to him while they looked at me. I kept hearing my name. At the end of the meal, kitchen ladies in hairnets wheeled over to our table a fluffy sheet cake with pink frosting roses. Imagine a nerdy fourth grader with blue-framed glasses forcing a smile through a twangy rendition of happy birthday. Think fidgeting, distress, terror, and ambush.

If I could go back and alter that afternoon, I would savor, instead of shrink from, the attention of hundreds of smooth-faced, sweaty boys. In my dreams I transform into a tough buckaroo wearing a fringed suede jacket and leather chaps. My face is sun-flushed, my eyebrows raised, my mouth a wide O of pleased awe. Instead of a horde of soccer boys, there are good 'ol boys who wear Stetson hats and embroidered rose shirts from Western gear catalogues shooting off guns in the air, the bullets leaving fine trails. A long wooden table is covered with colorfully wrapped presents. Instead of a giant sheet cake with pink frosting flowers, there is a pot of bubbling franks and beans, and sugary blueberry cobbler. The wide Texas sky--so wide and deep it takes ages to touch its farthest reaches--is a-blaze with violent reds and golds. Unafraid, I sing a sweet bluegrass ballad, the crack of my lasso grazing the gifts' edges, forever just out of my reach.


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