The Reality of the World
Let me tell you about David Lee. David Lee might sound like a Chinese
American kid with a big, clean grin, but let me assure you that in Birmingham in
1959 there were only about a dozen Chinese people, whom we called
"Orientals," and David was not among them. No, the Lees were
unmistakably WASP, in the tradition of General Lee and Traveller, except gone to
David had dark brown hair that was absolutely straight, darker brown eyes,
and lips the color of a maraschino cherry that has been left to soak too long in
gin. When I first knew him he was six, I was five, and we would go into the
walk-in closet together and practice kissing so that, as he explained, we would
be prepared later when we had girlfriends. David was uncomplicated and seemed to
know what he was doing, his lips were silky, and I would have gone right on
kissing him, but he soon lost interest.
Within a few months, David had acquired a whole elaborate approach to
lovemaking which he must have learned at the elbow of his big brother, Neal, who
some years later achieved notoriety by robbing a bank. When Neal robbed the bank
they handed over the loot in a white canvas bag, just like in the cartoons. The
bag was booby-trapped: in the getaway car, it exploded, covering Neal—and the
money—with indelible pink dye. It was incredible to us when we saw his picture
in the paper, not because he had robbed the bank, but because he had been made
to look like a fool. I still can hardly believe that a young man with such an
assured romantic technique could have let himself be marked a dupe by the
David demonstrated the Neal Lee way with women to me many times, sometimes
using the navy blue easy chair and its matching ottoman to represent the lady in
question. Lying directly astride this indigo creation, his six-year-old hips
delicately but insistently in motion, David would drive his lips passionately
into an upholstery button in the center of the seat, murmuring under his breath
after an interval, "Let me kiss you, baby." Watching from a couch
nearby, I worried that it was wrong for him to delay this communication until
after he had already worked her lips into a kind of erotic chafing dish, but the
truth is that this genteel brutishness was a Lee hallmark.
The lovemaking cranked itself up one whole level of intensity as David slid
his hand manfully up the seat of the chair, asking, again only after resistance
was impossible, "Let me feel you, baby." These first two steps with
their accompanying ritual requests, ingeniously staggered in time so as to make
argument useless, were followed by two others of increasing intrusiveness and
gravity which I need not name here. Let me say only that when the course was
completed the chair lay despoiled, exhausted, and utterly silent, while David
arose somewhat worn. Unsure if it was all worthwhile, we turned quickly and with
relief to more innocent games.
The Lees were our neighbors on a new and expensive street in the exclusive
Mountain Brook section. My family was one of only two on the block who were
Jewish. The other Jewish family was named Roth, and we consistently avoided each
other—to prove to the neighborhood, I think, that our social lives could be
hermetically separated from our identity as Jews. David was my first friend on
Except in their essence, the Lees were a fine and upstanding family in the
community. Certainly, they were important. David's father had a successful
realty company and presided over the local realtors' association. He also served
as toastmaster for the prestigious Oak Brook Country Club, where Jews were never
admitted as members and where Mrs. Lee liked to join him for dinner. Mrs. Lee
was tall, freckled, and drove a red convertible with the top down even in cold
weather. You could smell her perfume and hair spray all over the back part of
the house, and she spent long stretches of time in her bedroom with the door
open, admiring herself in the mirror. She'd wander out into the hall in
extraordinarily elaborate black lingerie, looking bleak and distracted. When she
was sure that I had seen her in this costume, she would angrily complain to
David that I was spying on her, and for a few days I would not be allowed in the
house. Then, a couple of weeks later, the whole charade would be enacted all
over again. Her erotic technique in this respect was an exact complement to
Neal's; only after she was confident that her privacy had been violated would
she insist that it not be. I'll say this for her, though: she had style.
I rarely saw Mr. Lee at home, but I learned one day that he kept a loaded
rifle in the house, a weapon which seemed to belong somehow to the drama
surrounding Mrs. Lee's lingerie. My own father, I later discovered, also kept a
gun, but it was a pistol and he had the decency to hide it. Mr. Lee's rifle,
like his wife's undergarments, would not be hidden, and its ugly
existence obtruded unpleasantly into my childhood world.
In looking back, I wonder why I spent so much time with the Lees. They were
not kind to me, and despite my admiration for David's masculine forthrightness,
I had little personal liking for him. The rest of the family frightened me.
Young children have limited options in making friends; geographically, the world
is bounded by how far your mother's voice will carry, calling you in for dinner,
and a lack of social expertise can easily cut up your few remaining choices. Yet
I think now that I persevered with the Lees for one very compelling reason: they
were the people who counted, who called the shots. They represented the reality
of the world to me, and by surviving in their midst I thought I was outfitting
myself for Life.
To be associated with the Lees was to learn to look on at a whole series of
embarrassments and scandals. Right out of high school, David's oldest sister
became pregnant by a wig salesman; they married in the shade of her father's
gun. Another sister existed on Valium and lingered suggestively in public
places, decked with makeup. Mrs. Lee herself was said to constantly threaten
suicide; when she began having extramarital affairs this rumor subsided.
Even the Lees' domestic help was the subject of gossip. After a long and
loyal career of lying to the neighbors to cover the pranks and crimes of the
children, Ethel, the black maid, was suddenly discharged in a dispute about her
pay. She was replaced by a white live-in called Mrs. Jones. This substitution
was as offensive to the sensibilities of the neighborhood as it would have been
if the Lees had purchased a white slave. No one was surprised, therefore, when
it was determined that Mrs. Jones drank, wet the bed, and lacked humility. Ethel
was found again. She resumed her post with a grim face.
These were things that adults talked about. Probably my mother heard them
from our maid and told them in turn to my father. My father, who evaluated
everything, said that the Lees were very mediocre people. I was secretly
delighted by this assessment because it confirmed my own findings.
My superior attitude toward the Lees did not come from the scandals they
populated, but from more subtle and refined distinctions that could best be made
by a child. They had a piano in the den, not because any of the children took
music lessons, but because it contained an electrified player unit that
occasionally amused the Lees by spilling out tunes from the 1920s. That no one
actually played this instrument confirmed the Lees' essential triviality. The
furniture and decorations had been chosen for their unaesthetic qualities; there
was nothing of real beauty in the house. The beet-colored Naugahyde recliners,
like the piano, trumpeted the Lees' want—not just of character, but of taste.
My association with the family was mediated by the reinstated Ethel. She
answered the phone and the door and would proclaim David at home, or out, as she
saw fit. A small, tightly bulging woman in her late fifties whose gray uniform
could not cover her abundant personality, she stared at me with piercing eyes
that poked out from her head. I felt she almost saw into my soul; I wonder now
if she didn't suffer from hyperthyroidism. One summer Saturday, though, she said
something sharp that reached inside my skin. David and I were talking about
going to a movie, and I said I would have to see if I could get the money for a
ticket from my mother.
"Of course you can get it," Ethel said. "Jews have plenty
I ventured that I didn't think all Jews were necessarily rich.
Ethel looked at me with impatience. "Jews all got money because they
smarter than other people, just like you smarter than David."
A shiver went through me—I felt exposed. She spoke, I sensed, not in her
role as maid, but as high priestess for the Lees—what I might now call ex
cathedra. For the first time, I saw myself through the Lees' eyes. I was smarter
than David, and they knew it.
I waited for David to respond. From the beginning of Ethel's intrusion into
the conversation, he had been staring fixedly at the kitchen table, his face
placid, but his lips tightening in exasperation at the delay she was causing.
Now he looked up, glad that the interruption was finished.
"I'll go with you to ask," he said, heading to the door.
"No, I'll go."
By the time I got home, outrage had caught up with me. I found my mother.
"Mama," I said, "the Lees think I'm smarter than David because
She glanced at me appraisingly for a moment before returning to the bills she
"Honey, you're smarter than David Lee for a thousand reasons."
If Ethel meant to run me out of the house with her remark, it worked. Like a
jostled sleeper whose enjoyment of the night's heart has been disturbed, I
became restless, tossing and turning from one new playmate to the next. Before
long, I found a new friend at school—a Jewish boy with whom I shared more
interests. If David minded that I didn't see him so often, he didn't show it. My
parents never asked about him, and by the end of the year we were strangers.
Only our maid maintained a stubborn interest in the Lees. Occasionally she
would report to us about something David had done. Her last reconnaissance, when
I was fourteen, delivered the nougat that he was smoking pot all the time and
sleeping with his girlfriend right in the Lees' house. I imagined David sitting
up in his bed, shirtless and vaguely smirking, beside a pale, dark-eyed girl,
equally shirtless, on whose undecided face swam remnants of blue eye shadow.
They shared a hard-rolled cigarette, laughing once at nothing much. She flicked
ashes onto the red and black carpet. Shot through with unexpected envy, I put
David out of my mind as completely and permanently as I could.