Tonight would be special. I would be allowed to stay up an hour past my bedtime. There would be punch and cookies with the grownups. Music and dancing would make the living room and mother’s face look happy.
The sounds of a party were beginning to drift upstairs. My older sister and I combed and fluffed in white pinafores, sat carefully on our pink-topped beds, Now don’t you get dirty! still ringing in our ears.
I followed my sister to the top of the stairs. Here we took up our positions behind the railings, a vantage point that enabled us to see a portion of the living room from above. A table, dressed in white linen, held a glass bowl with red punch and three trays of cookies. Sailors in black and white uniforms perched on the arms of the sofas, strutted over to the punch bowl, then resumed their perches, only to jump up again. Women in shirtwaists sat demurely on the couches, with forced smiles and strained attention, trying to engage the sailors in party conversation. On the wall, a banner had been hung, with the red, white, and blue letters WELCOME and USO. Someone spilled a glass of punch on the carpet. I cringed and wondered what would happen. In deference to the special privileges bestowed on grownups, it was quietly cleaned up. (I would have been called clumsy, maybe spanked, and sent upstairs.)
Mother’s voice, with company patience, sailed out, “Girls, where are you? Come on down.”
Though we couldn’t see her, the summons rose from the chaise lounge where she always reclined when downstairs, since her illness—the illness that had started when Father went away. Nurse appeared, admonishing us to “Behave like little ladies,” while she smoothed our pinafores. With one hand holding the banister, I trailed my sister downstairs.
There was a murmur of ‘Hello’s and ‘Oh, how cute’s.
I plunged through the jungle of legs toward my mother. She looked pretty and unusually rosy in her pink velvet bed-jacket which matched the blanket tucked around her legs. There was warmth in her voice.
“Come here, dear. I want you to meet some people.” She drew her only mobile arm around me.
I peered down at the floor and reached out my hand to the names I hadn’t heard. Someone in a sailor suit leaned over and grabbed my hand. I looked up. “Hi, my name’s Scotty.” There was a glimmer of a twinkle in his eyes. I wriggled my hand out of his grasp.
My mother was looking at me with pride. “Would you like some punch and cookies?”
I nodded. Scotty reached for my hand again.
“I’ll take her over.”
He led me across the room where waited ubiquitous Nurse.
“Don’t take more than three. Sit down over here.”
A small group of musicians had gathered in a corner of the living room. As they began playing, the tension in the room loosened. Couples got up to dance. Regretfully, I finished my cookies. Nurse wiped my hands and face with a stiff, wet napkin.
I moved away and sat down on the couch, where I had a better view of the musicians and their shiny instruments.
“May I have this dance?”
The sailor named Scotty was standing over me. I shook my head, but he pulled me to my feet. I tried to move unobtrusively among the looming legs. Chuckles and ‘Look! Scotty’s got the prettiest partner,’ surrounded us.
Finally the music ended, and I made my way to the edge of the room and leaned up against the wall. The woman’s skirts whirled around as the men swayed and twirled them. I wished fiercely that I were grown up. I wished I were invisible so no one could find me and send me to bed. I glanced surreptitiously at my mother, who, absorbed in conversation, seemed to have forgotten all about my approaching bedtime.
Scotty was standing over me again.
I backed closer to the wall.
Suddenly, he began to tickle me. His fingers slithered up and down my arms, over my back, neck, stomach, and legs. Stop! I couldn’t say it—spasms of laughing-sobbing were breaking over and through me. Stop! Oh, please stop! The words fell mutely into the air. His fingers raced, in frenzied motion. I tried to duck out from under, but his hands surrounded me, skidded me to the floor. Panic enveloped me. Shaking with fear and laughter, I caught a glimpse of his face. The eyes leered down at me—hard lines of amusement quivered his mouth. With animal lunges, I tried to dart away, but his hands caught my every turn. The walls, the floor, the ceiling convulsed with cachinnation at my futile attempts to escape. For one terrifying moment, I knew I would die of this bizarre torture, powerless to cry out for help. The room, the people, space, and time merged into shivering eternities of helplessness.
Nurse, in her first and only merciful act, interceded.
“Time to go to bed. Say your goodnights politely.”
She jerked me to my feet. Shivering, I clung to her side and nodded at the blurry room.
“Let’s don’t interrupt Mother,” and she led me up the stairs. (My sister, because she was older, got to stay up longer.)
Back in my bedroom, Nurse pulled the pinafore over my head.
“Are you coming down with a cold?” She put the back of her hand on my forehead. “Too much excitement, I guess,” she muttered. “Hurry up and get in bed.”
She tucked the covers around my shuddering body.
“I want my mother.” Even the sobs wouldn’t come.
“You know your mother can’t climb the stairs. Now go to sleep.” And she was gone.
Safe in my bed, the trembling subsided and a welcome numbness crept over me. I stared at the ceiling, not daring to move, and tried to let the distant hum of the party lull me to sleep.