Inclusion and Exclusion in Our Daily Lives
PART IV: YOUNG ADULTHOOD
LIZZIE FARRELL GETS HERS
hunches forward on the sofa to receive the cup - an actual cup, she notes, with
a saucer - taking care to keep the foot with the bad sock buried under her
other leg. Lizzie has perfectly good socks at home, which she could have worn
if she'd had any hint that Cassandra would enforce a no-shoes rule. In Lizzie's
neighborhood it is considered rude, lower-class, to make your guests
uncomfortable for the purpose of protecting the floors or furniture. Lizzie's
mother used to poke fun at Mama Julie, who took in foster kids, for her "pretensions,"
her plastic slipcovers and the runners snaking like crabgrass through the "high
traffic areas" - "Sure, she's saving it all for the Queen's visit,"
her mom used to say. And here is Cassandra, with a brownstone in Brooklyn
Heights, making everyone expose their socks so the floor won't get scuffed.
Even Mama Julie didn't have that kind of nerve, certainly not when adults were involved.
Cassandra manages to thrust the cup-and-saucer combo at Lizzie without seeming
to touch the cup itself, and without jiggling the coffee. Lizzie tries to
imitate this sophisticated gesture, but just as she lays her hand on the saucer
Cassandra opens her mouth and a stream of unrecognizable words spews out,
cursing from the sound of it but impossible to understand. Is this happening,
or is Lizzie having a stroke? Drug flashback? She has jumped and exploded the
very real, hot coffee all over herself and the sofa before she realizes, from the
French au pair's quick dive behind them to yank Theo away from the electrical
outlet, that Cassandra was yelling to Celeste, not at Lizzie. Cassandra takes
in the spilled coffee, flares her nostrils, and disappears into the kitchen.
The coffee has scalded Lizzie's legs through her one pair of nice pants. It is
soaking through the couch fabric, too, not beading. This is real velvet. Crap.
Lizzie feels her eyes well up.
returns with a wet dishcloth and thrusts it at Lizzie without looking at her. Am
I a shade darker than you? That's what the
old Lizzie would have said, before she had Louis, who is several shades darker
than anyone in this room. Before she had to care what people like this thought
first issued the invitation, Lizzie was so excited by the idea of going to
someone's house that she didn't realize she wasn't included. She should have - these
are not the kind of women who hang out with women like Lizzie - but it wasn't
until she saw the look on Cassandra's face that she realized Cassandra had been
speaking to Barbara when she said, "We all get together for coffee Friday
mornings while the kids play. This week it's at my place - why don't you join
us?" Lizzie said, "Sounds great!" at the same time Barbara,
standing behind her, said, "Oh, I'd love to, but we're going to the
Vineyard," so Cassandra couldn't even claim that there was only room for
one more kid. Not that space is a consideration in this house.
could tell she was supposed to say, "I'm sorry, I misunderstood," and
slink away, mortified. And she - the new Lizzie, who really is trying to do
what's expected - might have complied, if she had anyplace else to go, anyone
else at all for Louis to play with. But she has reached the end of the line.
The kids in the
old neighborhood would be calling names even if she was clean as fresh wash and
Louis was the color of a pillowcase. "Crack whore" and "nigger
bastard" are just easy handles, payback from their parents for when Lizzie
was beautiful and promising and mean. All the kids make out with anybody now,
black, white, boys with boys, threesomes, and most of them look high - ecstasy,
she guesses, not crack anymore, but Lizzie was never a crack whore; she and
Anton were in it together, would still be together if Anton hadn't seized up,
stroked out, and ended up in the nursing home. Hell, she would have followed
him there, shared his hospital bed, let him drool and pee on her all the time,
if not for the little surprise package that sent her reeling into rehab and
back into her mother's unwelcoming arms.
She visits when
she can pull carfare, the old ladies make more of a fuss over Louis than his
own grandma, and she knows Anton perks up at the sight of him whatever the
nurses say. The nurses throw around terms like "persistent vegetative
state" and regard Lizzie with pity and even contempt (this white girl
doesn't know shit) because they don't know that the left corner of Anton's
mouth turns down when he's pleased, that his eyebrows lift when he wants to
laugh. See, they're the ones who don't know shit, she tells Louis when Anton makes his faces.
And in the
meantime, she's working on herself. The rehab place sent her into counseling, "to
deal with her anger." She's supposed to be figuring out why she was always
so mean to everybody when she was growing up, and then later, in the rehab
groups. Always putting people down, zeroing in on their weak spots, showing no
mercy. So far, they haven't uncovered any dark secrets, though the counselor is
still hoping. Lizzie's own theory is in two parts:
She could get away with it. She was beautiful back then,
before it all caved in - first losing all that weight, and hair, and then the
teeth when she was pregnant ("Poor prenatal nutrition," the hospital
people always said, with a sniff, and of course it was true, but if Lizzie had
known, maybe it would have all been different, maybe) and then her face just
sort of collapsing - and smarter than everybody else. That combination had
allowed her to hustle in Bloomingdale's for years. Back then, all she had to do
was throw on jeans and one of Anton's t-shirts and she looked like she
belonged, like a model. When she'd bump up against some rich old fool, usually
a guy but sometimes a woman, they were pleased to make contact with her. They
thought she was Somebody, and maybe she'd go home with them, and liberating
their wallets was child's play. So she never had to do it for money, never was
that desperate, whatever the kids say or their parents want to believe. And
even now that she looks a hundred and three on a good day, even with half her
brain cells blown away, she's still better looking than those losers in the
group, and she can still think, and the endless 12-step babble about higher
powers and "suit up and show up" makes her want to jump out a window
which she can't do because of Louis, so she pushes on the steppers instead.
That lardass Marlene, especially, bringing in donuts for everyone and making
them have group hugs and saying, "Thank you for sharing," after the
six zillionth repetition of which Lizzie had not been able to refrain from
pointing out that Greg hadn't "shared" as much as vomited all over
the group, and if Marlene hadn't traded in her heroin addiction for a
dependence on Krispy Kremes she might be able to tell the difference between
nourishment, which goes in, and puke and crap, which - that remark was what
landed her in the counselor's office. Despite the counselor's best efforts,
Lizzie hasn't been able to identify any childhood figure Marlene reminds her of
except the assholes she went to school with who she straightened out the same
Which brings her to the other explanation, more interesting to
both Lizzie and the counselor, though for different reasons. Despite all her
smarts, Lizzie never knew she wasn't supposed to act this way; that other
people were nice to each other at least half the time. Lizzie comes from a mean
family. The counselor's ears prick up when they start down this road, but she
hasn't yet been able to put her finger on any person, or any incident, and cry,
"Aha! Abuse!" as Lizzie knows she is longing to do. Sure, her father
beat her for sneaking out and drinking with boys, and her mother slapped her
around for being fresh, but even the counselor knows these are ordinary
punishments in her neighborhood and that most of the kids grow up okay, go to
community college, become secretaries and mechanics, or, if they're really
angry bullies, bouncers and cops. The Farrells never went overboard with the
beatings, never broke bones or knocked out teeth as some parents did. They were
just mean, her parents and her brothers and sisters (except for Timmy, who
somehow opted out, decided when he was about ten that he wasn't playing, but
everybody in the neighborhood was afraid of him anyway, on principle, because
he was a Farrell). They made fun. Don't wear your new vinyl imitation Doc
Martins in front of a Farrell; they'll see through the fake leather in a minute
and you'll be Stinkfoot to the whole school before lunchtime. They'll follow
you down the hall yelling, squish, squish, p.u., and the other kids will laugh.
Don't let Chrissie Farrell catch you stuffing your bra in the locker room or
you'll have boys bumping up against you in the hallways begging to blow their
noses down your blouse. And especially, don't try to get back at any of them,
especially Lizzie, whose compositions won awards and contained coded references
to the doings of people who annoyed her, impenetrable to the adults but clearly
recognizable, and hilarious, to all the kids. It was the way the Farrells were,
and it had always worked for Lizzie. Boys wanted to date her, girls wanted to
be her chosen best friend, and so what if nobody really liked her - if it was
all about status, and challenge, and fear? That was the world, as far as Lizzie
was concerned. Nobody had ever
liked her, particularly, and she'd never liked anyone, and she didn't believe
anyone else's experience was any different whatever they claimed.
This is the other part, besides the possibility of abuse, that the counselor
can't let go of. Why is he the exception, the only one she let in? Lizzie has
lots of reasons, but the counselor doesn't seem to think that any of them are
the right one. Lizzie believes they're all true.
For one thing,
Anton was beautiful, and strong. Even wasted, he was like a panther up on the
scaffolding, painting and cleaning and doing whatever other day work he could
get to support them, so Lizzie wouldn't have to sell it. And he loved her, even
after her looks went. Why? There's a question the counselor should be looking
into, a mystery to sink her teeth into, but she never brings it up, and when
Lizzie wonders out loud about it the counselor starts ticking off her good
points, as if to join Lizzie in her puzzlement would threaten the self-esteem
all these people seem to believe is the foundation of right thinking.
Did Lizzie love
Anton? Probably not, if by love you mean what she feels for Louis, the sense
that he is the most important person in the world and she would lay down her
life for him. Lizzie has never felt this way about anyone, and this feeling is
the reason she is going through the bullshit of the twelve-step groups, staying
clean, keeping her counseling appointments, and not just because they'll take
Louis away if she falls back. She wants to do better. She wants to find out how
she's supposed to be, so that he will fit in and have friends and be happy.
It wasn't like
that with Anton. At first she didn't even like him. She liked having sex with
him, who wouldn't, but she wondered what he was trying to pull, hanging around
her all the time. She just enjoyed the sex and waited for him to try to set her
up with his friends, or to use her in some elaborate hustle. After a while, she
got that he only wanted to be around her, and she started picking on him. It
wasn't any fun, though, because he just took it. Not in a wimpy way, because he
was scared of her, but like it didn't matter. She would tell him he was getting
fat, and he'd laugh and say, "Yeah, better cut down on those burritos."
She'd point out his grammar mistakes and he'd thank her, saying how lucky he
was to hook up with a smart woman. It was like she'd been declawed.
And then, the
night she got the bad stuff and had to go to the ER, and he didn't leave her to
fend for herself the way every single person she'd ever known would have; as
she would have done to him; he stayed through the whole ordeal of insulting
admissions people (no, no insurance, no Medicaid, yes, a drug reaction, here is
what she took), and hung around even afterwards, expecting the cops to arrive,
but needing to find out how she was, if she wanted anything. After that, she
only wanted to be with him. She
missed him when he went to work. She had never missed anyone in her life, not
even her father when he kicked off. She would reach for Anton in the night, and
panic if he wasn't there - if he'd gone to the bathroom, or gotten up to put on
reaches for him. She swipes money from her mother's purse, like in high school,
only now she uses it to refill her Metrocard so she can travel out to the home
in Queens, and to buy the toothpaste and aftershave he likes.
Even so, she
would not change her whole personality for him, the way she's trying to do for
Louis. When he comes out of this, he may not be happy with the new Lizzie.
Maybe he loved her just because she was so mean and didn't care about anything.
This is a risk she is willing to take, for Louis.
But she can't
change herself at home, or at least she can't change the way they look at her.
Her mother never misses an opportunity to remind her of how badly she's screwed
up. And as far as the neighbors are concerned, she is a mean vicious crack
whore who deserves any bit of bad luck she gets. When she doesn't answer back,
they think she's high, or that her brain is fried like in the drug ads. Nobody
can take in that she's a new person, a decent, responsible mom, worthy to join
So Lizzie has
been branching out, using some of her mother's money to travel to playgrounds
all over Brooklyn, just to see who's there and how she and Louis might fit in.
The counselor says she is impressed with Lizzie's "resourcefulness,"
but Lizzie is exhausted.
At first it was
fun, practicing her new, pleasant personality. Lizzie felt like an actress,
just like when she was pickpocketing in Bloomingdale's - the one in the know,
putting one over on the mark. She liked spying on the other mothers, memorizing
their most successful conversational gambits ("What a sweetie! How old?"
"Great T-shirt - Baby Gap?") and then trying out her lines on a new
Bloomingdale's, though, this crowd isn't eating out of her hand. Probably it's
the teeth, she thinks, plus Louis's color. In Carroll Gardens he could almost
pass for Italian, but the moms there all have hairdos and designer diaper bags
and have known each other since their own playground days. Forget Greenpoint;
they take one look at Louis's nappy hair and call their kids in for lunch. They
fit in well enough on the Lower East Side, but Lizzie doesn't want Louis making
friends with kids whose mothers look like her.
was a long shot; a desperation stop after a morning of disappointment in Park
Slope. The Slope had a reputation for diversity and openness, so she had had
hopes of connecting there. And there were other brown kids, playing with white
and Asian children, and they were okay with Louis, but all the moms looked so
healthy, with shiny hair and Birkenstocks, and everyone was polite but no one
would let her in. And at two, you can't have friends unless your mom says so.
So, after the lay of the land became clear, Lizzie packed them up and took the
2 train to Borough Hall, then walked over to Pierrepont Playground, not really
expecting anything, and look what happened. An invitation.
What did Lizzie
think would happen once she got to Cassandra's? She can hear the counselor
phrasing the open-ended, superficially nonjudgmental question that, when
decoded, would mean, "Well, what did you think would happen?"
The fact is,
even though Lizzie knows it's over - her looks, her charm (such as it was), her
ability to seduce or intimidate people into giving her what she wanted - she
doesn't believe it. Deep in her gut she still believes she can walk into a room
and take over. So, yes, she thought she could pull this off. Or rather, without
thinking, she believed she could.
This is over,
too, now. Not that it ever started. The others, Jody and Leslie, had barely
spoken to her since she'd arrived. Leslie had asked some nice-girl questions at
the beginning - do you live in the neighborhood, will Louis start preschool in
the fall - but she obviously didn't know what to make of the answers, and the
conversation died. Nobody else made an effort. They talked about people she
didn't know, who lived in the neighborhood but were moving to France for three
years, and then about a book Lizzie had never heard of. Then the coffee.
The other moms
talk around her as she swabs the sofa, ruffling up the velvet but deepening the
stain. She sees herself through Cassandra's eyes, a worse blotch than the
coffee, which is, after all, home-brewed and so, by definition, clean. For all
Cassandra knows, Lizzie is infesting her sofa with all varieties of lice,
fleas, and cooties. She feels her face crumple.
Louis pushes his head under the hand holding the rag.
okay," Lizzie says. "We're going home now."
Louis says. "Playing." He runs back to the train set he has been
chugging back and forth on the elaborate track system the au pair has set up.
halts as the mothers wait to see what will happen. Theo stops chasing Melissa
and lurches over to Louis. "Bad boy. Go home now. Bye," he says.
Melissa bursts into tears. Jody runs over to Melissa and sweeps her up, glaring
Theo repeats. He pushes Louis, who falls onto the train track. Louis shrieks.
Lizzie jumps up. She can see Louis's hand tighten on the locomotive. She races
over just as Louis swings. He clips Theo on the lip. Theo screams, waking
Charles, who starts screaming, too. Melissa redoubles her cries.
bleeding. Cassandra calls to the au pair, who runs out of the room. Lizzie
grabs her bag, picks up Louis, and throws him into the stroller. "No,
Mommy!" he yells. "No! Playing!"
she says, and Cassandra, who is cradling Theo, says, "Pretty."
A few years ago
Lizzie would have eaten Cassandra for breakfast. Today, even if she could think
what to say, Lizzie has lost her appetite. She pushes the stroller toward the
door, nearly colliding with the au pair, who has returned with an ice pack.
heads for the R train. She bumps the stroller down the stairs, too exhausted
even to curse all the able-bodied teenagers hanging around who don't offer to
On the platform,
Louis is quiet. He likes the trains, likes anything loud and fast. Lizzie looks
down at the tracks. It's amazing what you can see down there. Amid the soda
cans, candy wrappers, and empty chip bags Lizzie has seen a high heeled silver
evening shoe, a dead cat, and a toy metal fire engine, among other curiosities.
She notices what looks like a set of house keys as the train pulls in. She wonders whether the train crews
come out at night, when nobody is around, to excavate the treasures and bury
There is a seat
near the door, and she heaves herself into it. She pushes the stroller back and
forth in front of her feet. Louis falls into his train-trance, eyes unfocused,
a blissful half-smile on his slackening face. That's the way to be, Lizzie
thinks. Just let it go. It's not going to happen; it's over. She tries to fuzz
up her vision like Louis does, to let it all go soft and easy, but she can't
help it, she takes in everything, she always has - the businesswoman across the
aisle, who is missing an earring, Lizzie wonders if she has noticed, and the
old lady doing acrostics in Spanish, and the ads over their heads, for wart
removal, hemorrhoid relief, dental reconstruction. The Magic of a Dynamic Smile, she reads. Affordable and Flexible Financing. She
pushes her tongue through the gap in front, imagining meeting resistance, a
solid, gleaming row. "Magic," she says to Louis. In spite of herself,
she twists around to study the subway map posted behind her, noting the green
splotches, wondering, trying not to wonder, who goes there to play.
Do you feel sympathy for Lizzie Farrell? Why or why not?
What were the expectations in your family for kind or cutting behavior?
What would your responses be if you met someone like Lizzie at the playground? If you had her for tea at your house?
I have written a number of stories whose main characters grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. Lizzie Farrell is a shadow character in several of these--other characters recall being bullied by her; her younger brother takes in her son, Louis, after Lizzie relapses and returns to rehab after her mother's death, etc. She comes off as such an unsympathetic person that I felt moved to explore her backstory, to discover what would make her behave this way. In the process I came to appreciate her strength and optimism, and even to develop affection for her.
The story was never true to life; it is pure fiction. However, I did set it in Brooklyn Heights, where I live, because when my son was small and we had playdates in the neighborhood I would often encounter the type of elitist attitudes portrayed in the story. Because I don't look like Lizzie, people felt safe saying some outrageous things to me, assuming I thought as they did, and I always intended to write them into a story one day. My son is 14 now and makes his own friends, so I'm off the hook, but I hear from mothers of younger children that things haven't changed much.
I wanted to explore Lizzie's experience in both spheres--as an insider growing up, and an outsider now. I wanted to avoid the easy psychobabble explanations for her antisocial behavior, and look more closely at how a real person might have developed such a hard shell, and as I wrote her shell became increasingly permeable, because of love. Love for Louis makes her care, for the first time, about pleasing others, about being on the inside of a social network. Yet the mothers who reject her are acting from love, too; they see Lizzie and Louis as a threat to their children. In their case, love activates protective fear.
There is nothing that I would change about Lizzie.
O'DOHERTYis the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued (Seal, 2007). Her work has appeared in numerous journals and
anthologies, including Eureka Literary Magazine, Northwest Review, Apalachee Review, Mama, Ph.D, Sex for America, The New Writer’s Handbook, and About What Was Lost. Her advice column for writers, "The Doctor
Is In," is featured every Friday on the publishing blog Buzz, Balls &