Melanie was the only divorced kid in our neighborhood. Mine was the last generation to group divorcing parents in the same category as shark attacks – scary, but too rare to qualify as a front-burner concern. The impossibility of imagining the same fate for ourselves allowed us to comfortably ponder Melanie’s s domestic situation and discuss the weird hand fate had dealt her. What was it like, we’d wonder. How did she and her mom jury-rig any kind of normal family life without a man in the house? Who fixed her bike when the chain fell off? Who hogged the TV every Sunday during football season? Who sat at the dinner table with the Daily News, chewing with their mouth open and not talking to anyone? Who yelled at her mother and made her throw things and call her sister and cry?
“That must be one friggin quiet house,” Manny or Mick or one of the other kids in the neighborhood would inevitably opine. “Yeah, like a tomb,” we’d all concur. And it would have been, if not for Melanie. She was a high-decibel gal in a situation that demanded discretion, at least in our little Catholic corner of Brooklyn. But, branded at an early age with the red mark of scandal, Melanie had decided to flaunt it. Her look–halter tops that barely covered her generous-if-unformed physique, brunette sausage curls that obscured her face and a visible cloud of Halston perfume that arrived before she did– screamed Scarlet Woman, or maybe Scarlet Woman in training, since she adopted this uniform in the sixth grade. And she developed a unique, Brooklyn by way of Easthampton speaking voice. She sounded as if some daring director had cast Fanny Bryce in a Noel Coward comedy, then advised her to play to the back of the house. At twelve years of age, Melanie operated on the theory that she might never gain the neighborhood kids’ approval, but she’d certainly grab their attention.
I was her exact opposite: a shy, skinny fifth-grader with an ill-fitting Catholic school uniform and a desperate need to fit in. I would never in a million years have chosen Melanie as a friend. But I didn’t get to choose. In the late days of June in my fifth year at Our Lady of the Little Flower Elementary School, Melanie started showing up at my house on a regular basis.
My mother interrupted my umpteenth re-reading of The Hobbit one afternoon to announce that, “my little friend with the hair,” was waiting for me in our kitchen. “Hair” was Melanie but where did the “friend” part pop up, I wondered. I went downstairs. Melanie was, indeed, sitting at my kitchen table with a pair of scuffed ruby slippers on her feet and a can of Tab my mother had thoughtfully provided for her. I did not remember inviting Melanie over. I did not feel the least bit inclined to ask her to stay. But stay she did, for that and many other hot summer afternoons that summer. She demanded my time and attention with such force that, before I knew it, I had traded my admittedly peripheral position in the neighborhood gang for afternoons spent hunched over Melanie’s Ouija board on her crumbling front stoop. My departure barely rippled the smooth surface of after school social activity on the block. I disappeared and no one came looking for me.
For a while, I stopped worrying about being Melanie’s friend long enough to realize that we had a good time together. We scared each other senseless with the Ouija board, lip-synced to both Partridge Family albums and spent many happy hours cutting all the hair off our Barbie dolls and making them kiss each other. When we felt the urge for an even wilder time, we spied on her big sister, Naomi, who had a real tattoo on her ankle and a boyfriend their mother didn’t know about, a boyfriend whose idea of a date consisted of heavy necking in Naomi and Melanie’s basement. Melanie and I loved to throw things down the basement steps – shoes, oranges, whatever was at hand – then run like hell through the house while her sister chased us with murder in her eyes.
A few years later, Melanie’s sister became a regular performer at the local cinema’s midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, thus ascending to heights of coolness that we would have needed jet-propelled oranges to reach.
And by then, it didn’t matter; by the time I started high school, Melanie and I were ex-friends. She was different, and any affinity I had for different evaporated with the onset of puberty. Teen rebellion took certain highly regimented forms in my world – we smoked cigarettes and stole liquor and fought and stayed out late and occasionally wrecked the family car. These were the unofficially sanctioned rites of passage that most parents recognized and condoned, secure in the knowledge that their young were following the same well-worn path to adulthood they, themselves had trod years before.
And Melanie? The last time I remember seeing her she had died her hair pink and painted her nails black. She knew her way around the East Village, she read Carlos Castaneda, she spoke a little French. She was, “way out there,” according to the alpha teens that ran my world at the time.
I was never a wildly popular girl but I fit in. I got drunk, I crashed my mother’s Datsun, I underachieved in the most conventional ways. And all the rebellions that I’ve mustered the energy to stage since then, right up to my current mid-life moping, have suffered mightily from the same lack of originality. I’m often bad but I’m boring; I’ve let whatever talent for inspired mayhem I might have had wither on the vine by looking down whenever the Melanies of the world have beckoned. Who would I be now if during the formative years of my life I chose a friend that required breaking out rather than fitting in? I’ll never know, I guess. I do know that I settled for tagging along for a string of yawn-inducing keggers when I could have been riding a Halston-scented cloud to infamy. I can’t imagine the same fate for my old childhood friend. I tell myself that she must be singing in a hotel lounge in Havana or painting sets off-off-off Broadway or telling fortunes in Fiji.
Wherever she is, I hope Melanie is still out there and outrageous and aiming oranges at anyone who would ignore the Scarlet Woman in their otherwise beige and blameless and boring world.