a room with a view, poolside
by Jan Richman

My room, Room Number Twelve, is poolside. As opposed to freewayside. I could, with a little engineering ingenuity, bounce from my mattress out the window and cannonball directly into the deep end. But I don't mind the closetlike proportions of the room: the air conditioning is working and its hum is actually tidal and lulling rather than mufflerless and rasping, and Magic Fingers is, incredibly, still a quarter (that and Silly Putty are probably the only two things that cost the same amount now as they did in the sixties). I pull my baby-doll nightie out of my bottle bag and put it on, tossing my Bermuda shorts and Pep Girls T-shirt on the nightstand in what I hope is a vague simulation of hanging or folding. Then I do what any self-respecting weary traveler does: I collapse on the bed with the pillows fluffed up behind me (as much as it is possible to fluff polyester fiberfill), insert a quarter into the Magic Fingers coinbox (which promises that TOTAL relaxation is just seconds away!), and grab the remote control. If the air conditioner is more hushed than I anticipated, the roar of the Magic Fingers more than makes up for any lost decibels. These fingers don't just rumble, they rhumba and quake; the experience is the aural and sensual equivalent to living in a shack next to the railroad tracks when a long train comes speeding by, moaning its horn. It is only slightly less fun and more hilarious than I remember from when I was a kid. In mere seconds I am relaxed, or at least more relaxed than I would be right now if I'd gotten a freeway-side room and had to endure a thunderous whine rattling my bone structure all night long instead of just for the next three minutes until my quarter runs out. I switch on the TV, thinking that a booming dose of Jerry Springer or House of Style might be just the thing to drown out the phonology of the Magic and thus stretch my entertainment quarter. It's hard to even tell what's going on on 20/20, since my head is bouncing and jumping around so much, making Diane Sawyer's sagacious eyes and two-dimensional lips seem fluttery and amped-up, like her features are getting ready to mutiny. The story concerns a teenaged girl in Iowa, a pretty and popular cheerleader with perfect white orthodonted teeth and Gabrielle Reese hair. They keep flashing a photograph of the cheerleading squad, an oddly still-life studio shot which actually benefits from my jogging and shaking perspective, and Diane keeps telling us what a charmed and privileged life the cheerleader led, in a low, prophetic tone that might as well have subtitles: Impending Doom! Popular Girl Headed For Crash Landing! The prospect of tracking the demise of the kind of girl who taunted me with her very presence in high school is too attractive to channel surf through, and I'm trying, futilely, to somehow lessen the quaking of the bed so I can pay closer attention, sitting up straight and holding both sides of my head with my hands. This girl is thin and tan (tan? in Iowa?) and even viewing her reverberating image I can tell she has a knowledge of the workings of sexuality and a confidence with the male gender beyond my wildest teenaged dreams. She is the kind of girl whose photograph I used to tear out of Seventeen Magazine and thumbtack to the wall next to my vanity mirror, as though through some process of voodoo osmosis I could pass through the mirror and come out the other side as a lanky fresh-faced prom queen slut. My pasty, chubby, curly-headed, virginal self would be extracted, or vaporized like alcohol on a hot day, and I'd be left pure in a brave new world where I looked good in halter tops and my eyebrows weren't voraciously overplucked. This cheerleader's mother is recounting the day when their entire lives changed, that day in mid-August when the police knocked at their suburban door at 3:00 p.m., saying they had reason to believe there was a dead baby on the premises, and a warrant to search the three-story house. The cheerleader, when questioned by the officers, seemed genuinely shocked and unknowing. When asked if she had been pregnant, or had recently given birth, she turned to her mother and made that noise that teenaged girls make, that voiceless appalled gasp that ricochets off the back of the throat and pops out of the open mouth in one percussive pant. A photograph of the cheerleader wearing a tennis outfit, wielding a racquet as if it was a machine gun, with a tennis sweater tossed casually across her shoulders, appears on the screen. The mother tells of a school fashion show a few weeks earlier, wherein baby-killing cheerleader got to model myriad sportswear, and mom remembers being in the dressing room with her daughter pre-show as she primped and plucked and practiced her runway walk. "Her body looked the same as it always does," Mom chimes, "I saw her in her bra and underwear." A biological conundrum, or a weirdly blindered mom, since it turns out that the girl was indeed almost seven months pregnant in her Nike Swoosh tennis gear — the baby was born seven weeks premature — and her body was not the same as it always was at all, but housing a third-trimester tyke who probably didn't appreciate being squeezed into a Body-by-Nancy-Ganz midriff slimmer. It turns out that one morning in mid-August, the cheerleader had experienced labor pains and emerged from her second-floor bedroom, walked past the living room where her parents were watching a riveting Olympic diving competition, and down the stairs to the basement, where she lay on a red leather exercise bench, gave birth to a tiny baby boy, cut the umbilical cord with a pair of nail scissors, bagged him and twist-tied him and shoved him deep into a cardboard box under some camping equipment. Then she cleaned up the mess with some Brawny paper towels and called her best friend to go swimsuit shopping at the local mall. For the friend, also a cheerleader who had undergone orthodontia and dermabrasion, this was the straw that broke the camel's back. Getting pregnant and telling no one (except your best friend), praying for a miscarriage, snorting coke and drinking pitchers of margaritas throughout the pregnancy, continuing to sleep around by night and wear a Body by Nancy Ganz midriff slimmer by day: these were actions that could be confided to a best friend without fear of recrimination. But excitedly hunting for boy-cut briefs two hours after passing a bright-blue seven-pound fetus through your vagina: here was an enigma too troubling for even the most seasoned bikini shopper not to confess to her mom. So the best friend's mom called the local cops, who in turn called Child Protective Services, all of whom showed up waving search warrants and wearing gentle but urgent expressions on their faces. The Magic Fingers have shot their wad, and I'm sitting up perfectly still hugging my knees. Everything happens so fast now: the trial testimony of the flustered-but-somehow-robotic best friend, the interview with the pockmarked victorious prosecuting attorney ("The innocent ingenue you see before you is effectively camouflaging a cold-blooded strategist!"), the denial-eyed mother still unbelieving, saying ridiculously untrue things like "My baby couldn't possibly have done this," and looking to her husband, nodding pleadingly at Diane Sawyer, waiting in vain for someone to agree. Then there is the cheerleader in an orange jumpsuit, doing twenty-to-life at the state penitentiary, being led by a Janet-Reno-look-alike jail-marm to the visitor's room, where Diane sits flat-lipped on the other side of a glass partition.

"Do you feel like an adult, now that you've been sentenced as one?" Diane asks, clearly excited by her own phraseology.

The girl does not smile, but her for-the-camera expression falters for a moment. "I didn't do anything wrong," she says, her mouth turning down at the corners like a freshly tucked bedsheet.

"Killing your baby wasn't wrong?" an incredulous Diane asks, as comfortable throwing around unironic moral terminology as most of us would be tossing laundry into a dryer.

"I didn't kill him. He was already dead." The ex-cheerleader/bikini-shopper seems oblivious to the testimony of several medical and forensic experts to the effect that the baby took at least several breaths after he was born, judging from the amount of air in his lungs. She stares at Diane defensively, protected by the hedge of her head's slight downward incline — a subtle bowing that does not suggest obeisance but quite its opposite. Her blonde bangs hang like damp laundry across her furrowed forehead. She is pretty, still; her features are so symmetrical they disconcert, her eyes set wide apart and blue, like Barbie's. Clearly, she is beyond the stage of teenaged untouchability where the voiceless, confounded sigh would be her only communiqué (whose caption might read: "Oh my God, I'm so sure, Diane!"), and yet there is something about her whole configuration that suggests childish defiance, a refusal to open one's mind to even the next-up subset of possibilities. The camera moves on — Diane, mom, best friend, tears, Hugh Downs, Fergie-testifying-for-Jenny-Craig commercial — but my mind instinctively freeze-frames the image of this girl's blonde-bordered face: the somnambulant eyes open but opaque, alive and yet static, unseeing — as death must be — here but not here, racked out.

I am at home in this home away from home. I let my head fall back into the sturdy marshmallow logic of polyester, whose stiff and lengthy tag curls around like a pig's tail to stick me in the place behind my ear. I barely flinch. From this position I can see the Travelodge sign lit up over the office: that teddy bear still sleepwalks dumbly, his right foot poised to step off of the cliff edge, ambulatory and unknowing. The urge to stick with your story — whether it is a not-guilty plea rife with incurable contradictions, or an imperious night dream that sends you out of the bed and into the urban wilderness — is sometimes more compelling than the certainty of death or suffering, imprisonment or plunging misstep. I've cradled my own fabrications like beloved toys, squeezed them until they squeaked endearments, accepted their acceptance as though it was freely given. The look on that face behind the perspicuous prison glass makes me want to pray: please don't let me die clinging to my version of things; please give me the strength of character to unloose my grip

Jan Richman’s collection Because The Brain Can Be Talked Into Anything won the Walt Whitman Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1995. She is currently writing a book about rollercoasters and Tourette’s Syndrome.
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