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Authors: Angelina Mirabella

The Sweetheart

BOOK: The Sweetheart
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For the Zeds

PROLOGUE

T
he Turnip and I have a history.

Many decades ago, when he was a little boy and his folks were newly split, my sister left him with our parents and came to Memphis to live with me for a short while. It was only two months and just the medicine she needed, quite frankly, but he has held it against me ever since. It seems Sis and I prodded at this still-sore spot three years ago, when we sold our respective homes, pooled our resources, and purchased this new place, with its senior-friendly amenities—No steps to enter! Grab bars everywhere!—and traditional Queen Anne architecture. I thought the Turnip would be glad I moved up North to be with her rather than the other way around, but instead he is as resentful as ever.

Sis and I are still in our pajamas when the Turnip arrives with lunch. We've been up for hours, but it is a fog of a morning—our bodies still making the slow cruise-ship U-turn back to Eastern time, our machine-brewed coffee both comfortingly familiar and suddenly pedestrian. We have only just returned from Bologna, where we visited her granddaughter, Riley, who is spending a semester abroad studying illustration against the wishes of her father, the Turnip. No doubt he is here not only to make sure the old ladies made it back in one piece but also to learn a few secondhand details about Riley's plans for the future. I say if he really wanted to know, he should have gone with us and gotten it from the horse's mouth.

“Your mail came,” says the Turnip. He hands me the stack, and I start going through it with much more interest than I really have. This is how I usually handle his visits—I occupy myself with some mundane task to keep our interactions to a minimum.

While the Turnip pummels Sis with questions—Was Riley seeing anyone? What did she say about her summer plans? Is she still talking (God forbid!) graduate school?—I sort the mail into piles, one for bills, another for more interesting stuff. The circulars go directly into the recycling bin. As you might expect, the bills stack up quickly while the interesting stuff remains thin. Nobody mails interesting stuff anymore. Only toward the end of the pile do I find something worth opening. It is plain white and high-quality stock—clearly a card or invitation of some sort. A wedding, maybe? No, the return address says PWHF, which has to be a business of some sort. Only one way to find out.

I slip the letter opener in just as Sis throws up her hands. “If you really wanted to know so much, why didn't you just go with us?”

“That,” he says, “would have been a tacit endorsement of this cockamamie dream of hers.”

That kind of statement is exactly why I can't attempt interactions with the Turnip. Is Riley likely to find fame and fortune as an illustrator? Probably not. But what is the point of youth other than to dream big and go for broke? Goodness knows I did. Life is long. There is plenty of time for pragmatism.

Sis and the Turnip agree to disagree and start setting up lunch—cheesesteaks, the last thing I need—while I get my first good look at this invitation:

Y
OU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO THE 12TH ANNUAL

P
ROFESSIONAL
W
RESTLING
H
ALL OF
F
AME INDUCTION BANQUET

H
ONORING
S
ANDOR
S
ZABO,
D
ICK
S
HIKAT,
B
ILL
W
ATTS,
B
ARON
V
ON
R
ASCHKE,
T
HE
A
SSASSINS
(J
ODY
H
AMILTON AND
T
OM
R
ENESTO
)
,
T
ITO
S
ANTANA,
D
ICK
M
URDOCH,
J. J. D
ILLON,
J
OYCE
G
RABLE,
M
IMI
H
OLLANDER, AND
E
L
S
ANTO

S
ATURDAY,
M
AY 18, 2013 AT

H
OLIDAY
I
NN

308
C
OMRIE
A
VENUE

J
OHNSTOWN,
NY
12095

7:00 PM TO 10:00 PM


Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction banquet
?” says the Turnip, close to my ear. I had no idea he was looking over my shoulder. “Why would anybody send that to you?”

“They probably thought I was somebody else,” I say in a way I hope sounds tossed off.

“I don't think so. Look,” he says, snatching it from me and turning it over. “Dear Leigh—”

“Give me that,” I say, snatching it back and scanning down to the end of the handwritten note for the signature: Mimi. I put the invitation in the pocket of my bathrobe. I'll read the rest later, when the Turnip is gone.

“You don't know everything about your aunt Leigh,” says Sis. She is forever pestering me to make peace with the Turnip, so it is a nice surprise to find her on my side for once.

He takes a seat and claims a sandwich. “Maybe one day she will do me the great honor of enlightening me.” He takes a big bite and chews in silence. I am almost moved to explain myself to him. But then I hear his voice in my head saying “cockamamie dream” and decide it is better to keep my cards close.

Soon enough, Sis and the Turnip return to their conversation, which lets me slip out of the kitchen and into the bedroom, where I can read the rest of the note in privacy:

Dear Leigh,

Don't you think our old pal Gwen Davies ought to make an appearance on my big night? She is one of the few among us who can still put on a suit and look respectable. I say it's time to let all that old shit go and have some fun. Because it all worked out, didn't it? I'm happy, you're happy, everybody's happy. Let's not let too much more time pass before we get together. We're not getting any younger.

Yours in sports,

Mimi

Gwen Davies—now that is a name I haven't heard in a while. Life is funny that way. One day, someone means the world to you, and then, before you know it, you've been out of touch for years. Truth be told, I don't know if
our old pal
is around anymore. And even if she can be found, I'm not sure I have it in me to find her. Talk about history. My issues with the Turnip pale in comparison. But Mimi is as old and dear a friend as I have in this world, and this is her big day. If she wants Gwen to be there, I should probably suck it up and see what I can do.

I get dressed in my walking clothes and fill a water bottle in the kitchen sink while the Turnip tells his mother that this afternoon, he has an appointment to tour a place for sale in the old neighborhood. There's been some new construction in the area, and with it all the usual hopes and fears of gentrification. Too soon to place bets, if you ask me, but the Turnip, who has been ridiculously nostalgic about this pocket of the city ever since we sold the family home, seems ready to double down. I head toward the door.

“Look at you,” says Sis. She sits at the kitchen table, her fingers laced around what might well be her fourth cup of coffee. “We haven't been home for a day yet, and already you're back in action.”

“You know me,” I say. “I always do my best thinking when I walk.”

“What do you need to think about?”

I shouldn't have said that. Sis doesn't know as much about my past as she lets on, but she knows enough. If I don't say something to ease her mind, she will fret the whole time I am gone. It would be easier if the Turnip wasn't here, but he is, and he doesn't seem to be going anywhere soon.

“Mimi wants Gwen Davies to come to her induction ceremony.”

“And what do you think of that idea?”

“I think I'm going to look for her. That's what.”

“Is that so?” she asks, propping her feet on a nearby seat. “Just how do you plan to do that?”

“I don't know. Same way you look for anything that's lost, I guess. Retrace your steps.”

“Sure you don't want to stay for dessert?” says the Turnip, holding out a box of MoonPies. In our family, there has been a long-standing debate over which snack cake is superior: the Turnip's choice, Butterscotch Krimpets, or mine, chocolate MoonPies. I more or less won this argument a few years ago when the Tastykake factory closed its doors for good, but this is the closest I have come to receiving a concession. He's making an effort. This is not lost on me.

“Leave me one,” I say. “I'll eat it when I get back.”

“Suit yourself.” He drops the box on the table and gathers the empty plates.

That's my cue. I give a little wave, head out the door, and take off down the sidewalk. I have no idea where I am going, but at least I know where to start.

Okay, Gwen. Let's see if I can dig you up.

ONE

Y
ou want to be somebody else. You don't know who this person might be; all you know is that she should be confident, beautiful,
beloved.
This isn't what makes your story special—every lonely, awkward teenage girl in the history of American adolescence has wanted to be someone else. But unlike those girls, you, Leonie Putzkammer, will have the marvelous opportunity to wholly reinvent yourself: a new name, a new persona, a new life. Right now, you don't aspire to anything better than the likes of ultrapopular Cynthia Riley, your next-door neighbor and once-upon-a-time best friend, but your life is about to take an amazing turn, one that will transform you (albeit fleetingly) into Gorgeous Gwen Davies—aka The Sweetheart. None of the peaks and valleys that follow this extraordinary year in your life (and believe me, there will be plenty) will come close to the height and depth you are about to reach. And it all starts now, one Saturday afternoon in April 1953, as you are quietly living your unassuming life in the sooty, evenly plotted city of Philadelphia, when you open the front door to the row house you share with your father and find high school teen queen Cynthia standing there, a lock of hair twisted around a finger.

Your response—startled brow, parted mouth—betrays your amazement. It's been a long time. During your early girlhoods, you were the best of friends: brushing and braiding each other's hair, wearing matching jumpers, sharing a crush on Frankie Laine. When your father, Franz, had to work a late shift rubbing powdered color into hats at the Stetson factory, you trucked over to Cynthia's in your pajamas for an evening of Truth or Dare?, séances (your long-dead mother was frequently summoned, but, to your heartbreak, never appeared), and all-night giggling. One afternoon a week, at the insistence of your father, a former Turner himself, you went to tumbling classes at Turner Hall to build
a sound mind in a sound body,
and when you returned home, Cynthia would run from her own row house, take you into her arms, and cry, “Darling, I thought you'd
never
come home!” as if you were a homecoming soldier and she your long-suffering war bride. Once, the two of you even conspired to unite Franz with Cynthia's divorced mother. You cared little for the facts: your father strongly disapproved of Ms. Riley's many admirers, and Ms. Riley considered herself much too full of life to entertain the thought of a sad old widower like Franz Putzkammer. You could only see the rightness of this vision, so you felt assured your
Lisa and Lottie–
inspired adventure would bring you all together into nuclear perfection and officially solidify your sisterhood.

Anyone looking at the two of you standing on the stoop would have a hard time imagining you as sisters. Now in her senior year, Cynthia is petite, with approachable girl-next-door beauty: dark, snappy curls and a tiny, squeezable wazoo. Beneath her fuzzy sweaters bounce pert apple-sized breasts. It's an enviable body, easy to drive and poised for privilege. With it, she manages a flock of friends and two boyfriends—dreamy Freddy, who is high school royalty in his own right, the kind of boy you might cast as the romantic lead in the perfect version of your life, and the older, more enigmatic Wally, whom you sometimes see parked down the block, his dog tags hanging from the rearview mirror, his tattooed forearms resting on the steering wheel as he rolls cigarettes, biding his time until Cynthia can make her escape.

Compared to Cynthia, you are a Viking. Your Nordic blond hair swings behind you in a waist-length ponytail. You are obnoxiously tall: five foot eleven, to be exact, and nearly all of it leg. Your breasts are frightfully ample. When they arrived four years ago, your father insisted you take the only bedroom of your row house and stopped making eye contact with you, which made the distance between you that much more difficult to bridge. You are alarmed by what you see in the mirror, an image as lurid as the Peter Driben illustration taped up in the locker next to yours at school, your body parts best described by sound effects:
va-va-voom!
gams
, a-woo-gah!
breasts, and a total effect of
homina homina!
This body is incongruent. You are a pensive girl who listens to Georgia Gibbs, reads dime-store detective stories, and likes Ike. Your speed is slow; you shouldn't look fast. You don't know how to handle the catty gossip and taunts your body provokes other than to shrink away. In the hallways at school, you walk hunched over, eyes downcast, a large stack of books ever present in your arms. You are a mouse inside of a tiger.

You don't know if there's a connection between the changes in your bodies and your relationship to Cynthia; you only know that after your mutual dream of sisterhood faded, so did your actual sisterly union. In these last four years, the two of you have gradually disentangled from each other's lives. You were too old to need supervision while your father worked late and not young enough to avoid more household duties, while Cynthia's hormonally driven extracurricular activities frequently led her away from the neighborhood—and from you. In other relationships, you will do the leaving, but this time, you are the one who has been left behind. You are now at a stage of being only acquaintances, your communications reduced to passing waves and quick hellos. She usually grants you this much, but you always wait to be acknowledged by Cynthia first; you do not want to take the chance that your salutation will hang in the air, unrequited.

But now, here is Cynthia on your doorstep for what might be the first time in years. You hope that your initial expression (here it is again: brow up, mouth open) is still there, revealing only your curiosity and surprise. You pray the torrent of excitement that courses through you remains invisible.

“Say, Leonie,” says Cynthia, “I was wondering. You still know how to do a back handspring?”

Do you know how to do a back handspring? True, you haven't been to Turner Hall in years—tumbling was a lot easier when you were shorter and less curvy—but every once in a while in your physical education class, you horse around on the mats enough to knock the rust off. Tumbling is the one activity that allows you to harness your body's potential and power, the one physical arena where you are confident and in command. Without tumbling, you might not have the coordination, let alone the courage, for all that is to come.

“You know it.” You barely recognize your own voice; you sound uncharacteristically self-assured.

“Great!” Cynthia barrels into the house, as if she held as much dominion over it—and you—as she did four years ago. “You
have
to teach me.”

You should be taken aback by her audacity, but instead you feel bloated with joy. Might this be a reigniting of your friendship? You know better than to be optimistic, but it's too late: you're already imagining a rekindling or, better yet, a fresh start.

You close the door, point to the coffee table, and say, “Help me move this out of the way.”

•    •    •

After two hours in the cramped space of your living room going through the same motions—Cynthia holding her arms over her head, you by her side with one hand on her navel, the other on her spine, coaxing the anxious girl back, back, back—Cynthia is no better than she was when she first knocked on your door. Even after hundreds of attempts, several near injuries and lots of giggling, she still can't land it. For her last effort, she jumps but then panics, her arms backstroking through the air as she tries to right herself. You lunge forward, but you are a beat late: she falls through your arms and lands with a thud on her back. Cynthia may lead most of your high school around by the nose, but she is no match for gravity. You're secretly glad you still have this one advantage over her. Besides, anything that brings her back down to earth puts her that much closer to you.

“Forget it. It's no use,” she says, remaining flat on the ground.

“Come on.” You reach down so Cynthia can take your hand, but she is right. Still, you're enjoying yourself; you're not ready for this to be over. “Don't give up yet,” you beg, hoping you sound encouraging but not desperate.

“I can't do it. Not unless you loan me your body.”

“Are you kidding?” you say, taking a seat on the floor and stretching your atrociously long legs out in front of you. “I would trade bodies with you in a heartbeat.”

“Really?” Cynthia lifts herself up onto her elbows, incredulous, and pushes a finger right into your breast. “You'd take my bird chest in exchange for those gazongas?”

“You can have them,” you say, although you shy away from the interrogating finger. You are terribly unpracticed in sorority. “Don't forget, you'd be stuck with these stork legs, too.” You fold over at the torso, running your arms down the length of the offending body parts to emphasize their monstrosity. “You'd hover over Freddy on the dance floor.”

This, Leonie, you know all too well. At the sock hops you dared attend, you sat alone and swayed, the boys too frightened of having to rest their heads on your shoulder (or worse, your chest) to ask you to dance. Cynthia never sits at a sock hop. On top of her likable, got-the-world-on-a-string vibe, the girl can cut a mean rug, which has earned her a card-carrying membership on
Bob Horn's Bandstand
and a minor degree of celebrity. She and Freddy's last period of the day is study hall, so they can leave early and catch the subway to WFIL's studio B on Market Street. Freddy is not only her dance partner but also, and more importantly, the other half of
Cynthia and Freddy
. It is a favorite romance of
Bandstand
viewers, a bug-in-a-rug courtship born of the show and played out on the airwaves. This, you learned shortly after Cynthia usurped your afternoon, is what this handspring lesson is all about: Freddy wants her to learn the move so they can make a splash during the next
Bandstand
dance competition.

“Puh-lease,” Cynthia says. “Freddy can bite it. I can't believe I even went for this birdbrained idea of his. Besides, I'm getting sick of
Bandstand
. It's
soooooooo
square. Those old geezers should take their heads out of the sand and pay attention to what the kids in this city are
really
listening to. I'll tell you one thing, Leonie. It ain't Eddie Fisher and Georgia Gibbs.”

“What's wrong with Georgia Gibbs?”

“What's wrong with . . . see? We
should
switch. You and Freddy can dance your hearts out to that razzmatazz.” She cocks her head; it seems a thought has come to her. She sits up, tenting her knees and wrapping her arms around them. “You really like Georgia Gibbs?”

You shrug, self-conscious. You think Georgia Gibbs is the cat's pajamas, but you are loath to admit it now. “I think she's all right.”

“She's going to be on the show Wednesday. If you want to see her, you can be my guest. My way of making up for wasting your afternoon.”

Your first impulse: disappointment. You certainly don't think of the afternoon as wasted, and you don't want Cynthia to, either. But slowly you begin to recognize the potential of what's been laid out in front of you—
Bandstand,
Freddy, an up-close encounter with Georgia Gibbs, and, best of all, another afternoon with Cynthia—and you swell with delight. Maybe your initial optimism wasn't misplaced; maybe this is a new beginning. You are young and still believe in such things. Just in case, you cover your bets and play it cool. “I don't know. I may have plans.”

“Oh, who are you kidding? The only time you ever leave this house is to go to school or buy groceries.”

“That's not true,” you say.

“Geez, Leonie, lighten up.” Cynthia stands up, smooths out her skirt. “If you can't go, you can't go. I just thought—”

“I can go,” you sputter, jumping to your feet. “I just remembered. My plans are for Thursday, not Wednesday.”

“Then, it's settled.” She has one hand on the doorknob already. “I'll come get you from your last class. Dress like a good girl, no tight skirt or nothing. And thanks for trying to help me today, even though it was a lost cause.”

You try to think of a way to entice her to stick around for a while, but you come up empty. You have nothing to bait a trap with, nothing to offer but your wide-yawning loneliness.

“It was fun,” you venture.

Cynthia laughs. “You got some weird idea of fun, Leonie, but okay,” she says, and is gone.

•    •    •

On Tuesday afternoon, the day before your visit to
Bandstand,
you rush home, climb out of your school clothes, and hide your embarrassing legs away in dungarees before you flip the dial to WFIL. The television—a Philco with a seventeen-inch picture tube and mahogany console—was an uncharacteristically imprudent purchase by your father last Christmas. It took nearly an hour of futzing with the rabbit ears to get a reasonably clear picture, which made you question the whole endeavor, but then your father patted your shoulder and said, “What do you say, Leonie? Maybe now you'll come out of your room once in a while.” You stared at the screen, seeing nothing, only marveling that your father had not only wanted you closer but had done something about it.

There is Cynthia, on the dance floor, under the lights. She is a peach: soft dark curls springing from her head, legs kicking out from her full skirt as she jitterbugs to Ray Anthony and His Orchestra. Together, she and Freddy, in his flat-front pants and preppy vest, are Cute with a capital
C.
The day will come when you will understand what Cynthia was talking about, how she could have all that she has and still feel unsatisfied, but at your tender stage, it is hard to believe. You would salivate with envy except that tomorrow, you'll be out there, too. You prepare by grabbing the handle of the refrigerator and pretending you're in front of the cameras, stepping up and sugar pushing with your own perfect complement. In this daydream version of yourself, you have an easy smile and a pair of manageable, just-right legs. Your whole life is made in the shade.

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