From Gatsby's Child (a memoir)
I was thirteen when I discovered the thrill of sneaking out. I must have gotten the idea from my friends Chip and Richie, who had begun telling stories about the fun they were having running around Sands Point at all hours of the night.
I shrieked at the one they told about tricking Sunday drivers with a “corpse” they made by stuffing a man’s shirt and pants with straw and splashing red paint on it. They laid the “corpse” by the side of the road and climbed up a tree to throw rocks at passing cars, which, they swore, really did slow down to gawk. None of us liked the nosy out-of-towners who came to ogle Sands Point’s Gold Coast estates, cruising slowly by in crowded cars, staring at us as though we were specimens in a zoo.
Everyone in our crowd at the Sands Point Bath Club thought skinny, red-haired, freckle-face Richie and his short, dark, good-looking sidekick, Chip, were hysterically funny, and we cheered them on. We were a howling audience for their rainy-day food fights in the Ping-Pong room as they hurled hamburger scraps, pieces of stale buns and cold French fries grabbed on the run from plates we had left lying around. And at the Sunday evening tea dances, during breaks between our shy and self-conscious attempts to fox-trot to Cole Porter tunes, we snickered at the “hobo sodas” they made from mashed potatoes, ketchup, black pepper, melted chocolate ice cream and whatever else they could find to stuff into nasty water goblets.
Yet, even though I was a member of the boys' admiring audience, I was often disturbed by what they did. Their hobo sodas looked like feces, and they could have hurt someone with the rocks. Although Richie laughed when he told about "accidentally" setting a neighbor’s chicken coop on fire, I saw anxiety in his eyes. For the first time, he seemed aware of having gone too far.
But when the two boys began bragging about their night-time skinny-dipping, I had to join in. I didn’t stop to think about what people would say about a young girl out at night swimming naked with two boys. I wanted to do what the boys were free to do.
I got Chip and Richie aside and said, “Could I go with you sometime?”
“How about tonight?” Richie responded.
“I’ll meet you at eleven o’clock at the end of my road,” I said.
That night, in my little bedroom off the kitchen of the converted farmhouse, I pretended to go to sleep, waiting until the house was quiet. After what seemed like forever, I crept to the bottom of the stairs to hear if my mother had fallen asleep. She would be lying in bed alone until my father came home in the wee hours of the morning.
Reassured by her snoring, I sneaked back to my room and put on my jeans and a navy turtleneck sweater. Congratulating myself for my cleverness in wearing dark colors that would make me invisible, I tiptoed to the kitchen window, opened it slowly and quietly, and dropped to the ground below.
The first free breaths I took were precious. I felt a rush of excitement, a sense of danger, and the thrill of being alone in the velvety darkness. I hastened across the spongy lawn, taking the longer route to avoid the loud gravel driveway under my mother's window. The air smelled sweet, the cicadas were singing, the darkness enveloped me, and the warm summer night lay ahead.
An easy climb over the sagging wire fence that bordered our property, a few short steps down the neighbor's drive, and I was out on Hicks Lane. I felt like Nancy Drew as I figured out that the trunks of big trees beside the road made safe hiding places from the occasional car that came by. In some places, I hid by pressing my body into tall, dense privet hedges. As soon as the car passed ̶ close enough to hit with a rock ̶ I was on my way.
I heard the soft squeaks of my sneakers on the hard macadam road, the chirps of crickets and an occasional bark of a dog in the distance. Most of the houses I passed were dark, their inhabitants sound asleep. There was no light to guide me, but even without a moon I could see.
I didn’t stop to think about what people would say about a young girl out at night swimming naked with two boys. I wanted to do what the boys were free to do.
I found Chip and Richie waiting at the appointed place.
“Hi, Dodo,” Richie greeted me with the nickname he knew annoyed me. “Let’s go find a pool.”
I followed the boys to an estate on a hill overlooking Long Island Sound. We pushed through a thick wall of evergreen shrubs to where a dark, mossy, Italianate pool was sunken into the ground, its tranquil surface edged with mown grass. The water looked so forbidding that we quickly set off to find another one.
Chip went up a driveway to reconnoiter but reappeared almost at once.
“The lights are on. We can’t go there.”
The boys led the way to a third pool that was turquoise and inviting, located next to a darkened house. The two boys ran to the far end, stripped to their underpants and jumped in the water, laughing and splashing. While I was hesitating at the edge, tempted but fearful, trying to decide what to take off, the frantic barking of several dogs erupted from inside the house. They sounded like a pack on the trail of a fox. In a flash, the house lit up as though a gala party had sprung full blown from the gloom.
Chip and Richie scrambled out of the pool as fast as they had jumped in, grabbed their clothes, and the three of us took off down the road, deliciously scared, trying to choke down our laughter, running from a danger that never came but thrilled by the closeness of its possibility.
Later, I found out that the swimming pool belonged to Howard Dietz, the Broadway lyricist, which I thought explained the flashiness and bright lights. I felt I had almost met a real celebrity. Whenever I hear the strains of "Dancing in the Dark" or "You and the Night and the Music," I remember my visit to his pool.
After the close call, we decided we had had enough excitement for one night and parted company, the boys to return to the homes of their mothers and stepfathers and me to where my mother, and perhaps by now my father, lay sleeping.
Returning home alone with the night sky beginning to lighten into dawn was beautiful in a special way that was different from the thrill of starting out in the earlier starry night. The shapes of the honeysuckle and privet hedges had begun to emerge, becoming softly visible in the grayness. I tasted a peaceful sensuousness in their fragrances, the feel of the humid Long Island air on my face, the closing of the night, and of completion and relaxation. I had, after all, tricked the grownups, braved the mysteries of the darkness, walked several miles, played with my friends and almost gone swimming. I had experienced freedom and the beauty of the darkness. I felt ready to go back to where I supposedly belonged.
I retraced my steps across the lawn now wet with dew, climbed through the kitchen window, closed it behind me, tiptoed into my room, dropped my damp clothes on the floor of the closet and fell into a deep and happy sleep in my warm, dry bed. My mother did not seem to think it strange that I slept until noon that day.
Night after night, I felt the same craving to escape the home where my parents quarreled and my mother drank and felt sorry for herself. “I was a rejected child,” she would say, crying in her gin.
Her silent movie-star mother, Helen Gardner, told her, when she was just a child, “I tried to abort you, but it didn’t work. You ruined my body.”
My mother was stuck in her old pain.
I experienced my absent grandmother as a heavy weight.
In a flash, the house lit up as though a gala party had sprung full blown from the gloom.
I took many more night walks that summer. I soon found I didn’t need to depend on Chip and Richie. A younger girl named Maria, who lived nearby and had a mother as oblivious as mine and a father just as negligent, would sometimes agree to go with me. I would walk to her house and toss pebbles at her bedroom window. If I couldn't rouse her, I would go on alone.
One way or another, I was headed for the water. It wasn't enough that I spent all day every day swimming in the Bath Club pool. Long after my friends’ mothers had taken them home, I was still in the water, swimming alone in the roseate light of the setting sun. My mother, filled with cocktails she had imbibed in the bar with her best friend Eleanor, had to drag me out of the pool begging for one last lap, my skin shriveled and waterlogged and my blond hair tinted a pale chlorine green.
Night after night, hooked on feeling free, I climbed out the kitchen window and made my way to one of the sandy beaches that lined the Sands Point peninsula. Often, I just sat quietly by the water and listened to the gentle lapping of the waves for a long, sweet time.
As the months passed, my adventures became stimulating in a different way as the space between the boys and me began to fill with unfamiliar yearnings. One night, early in my fourteenth summer, I met Richie alone and he and I went to Half Moon Beach. Taking off my clothes under cover of darkness and going naked into the silky water felt like an extension of the joy of the night, but this time, I felt a new edge of excitement.
As I swam, I thought about Richie, a boy I had known since we were children and who was almost like a brother, now moving quietly in the water beside me. I remembered how the little six-year-old looked the day we came back from a swim in the Bath Club pool and my nursemaid was dressing us in my family’s locker. I covered myself modestly with a towel but stared at him shivering and exposed, his red hair damp and his pale skin blue with cold. Surprisingly, his tiny little penis, that I, having no real brother, had been so curious to see, was just as blue-white as the rest of his body. Even as I stared, I felt I was taking unfair advantage.
This night with Richie, the water felt warm and soft. My only worry was the creepy things that might be crawling along the bottom. I could feel the flow of the water moving against me and relished the sense of my own nakedness, safely hidden yet shared. As I swam in concert with my laughing companion, whose newly deepened voice I was still getting used to, I could hear soft splashes as he moved near me, the secrets of his body now protected from my prying eyes by the night and the dark water. We stirred up phosphorescences, swam away from each other and back. Finally, the skin on our fingers began to pucker, and we grew tired.
As I walked out of the water, the air felt cool on my naked body. My dry clothes felt good next to my damp skin. We walked away from the beach waterlogged, sleepy and content.
After this, my need to be out and free got mixed up with my growing desire to feel the water on my naked body and be near the boys. Several times that summer, Richie, Chip, Maria, and I went skinny-dipping in the Bath Club pool, whose water was so icy cold we could brave it only on the warmest nights. The titillation of our nakedness, known and shared, yet unseen and protected, added to our pleasure. Chip always threatened to make off with Maria’s and my clothes while we were still in the water.
I invited other girls from our crowd, most of whom lived in nearby villages, to stay overnight so I could initiate them into the fun of sneaking out, but their mothers wouldn’t let them come. Was it just a coincidence, unrelated to my escapades, or did the mothers know what I was doing? Had Chip and Richie told?
Even as I stared, I felt I was taking unfair advantage.
One day, it seemed as though I was going to get one of my girlfriends to share the fun. Betty came over to me at the Bath Club and said, “I’m going to sleep over with Susan tonight.”
Although Betty lived in another village, Susan lived near me in an imposing half-timbered Tudor house that I often passed on night walks.
“Maybe we could all sneak out together,” Betty said.
She had an independence about her ̶ a hardness even ̶ heightened by years of ballet training that had given her not only heavy calves, but the bold, almost arrogant demeanor of a dancer. But I was surprised to learn that Susan might sneak out with us. She was an aloof, handsome girl with a hard, muscular, well-shaped body, posture so erect it looked strained and thick, wavy, golden, waist-length Lady Godiva hair. She seemed to have dedicated her life to her two horses, but sometimes I had seen her guarded expression disappear when she talked with a boy in our crowd. Her eyes would sparkle, her lips open in a glowing, inviting smile and she would break out in a flirtatious and suggestive laugh. The boys, for their part, seemed to share some secret about her they would not reveal to us girls.
“Susan and I could meet you and we could go swimming someplace,” Betty said.
“Neat! Let’s meet at the end of my road at eleven o’clock,” I said.
When I arrived at the appointed time, I waited alone. Finally, I heard a car coming. The car slowed down and stopped right next to where I was hiding. My heart was in my throat.
I heard Betty’s voice saying, "I don't see her."
A female voice answered, "Let's wait a few minutes." The voice wasn't Betty’s.
I came out from behind the tree and found Betty in the car with Pat, Susan's older sister. Pat had a reputation of being “fast,” and, at a mature seventeen, she looked the part. She had thick, brown hair that curled around her shoulders, wore dark red lipstick and nail polish and sported men's shirts that revealed rather than hid her luxuriant breasts and full hips. She smoked too. Pat was a party girl, no doubt about it.
"Come on, get in," Betty said, opening the car door. "Susan didn't want to come, but Pat did."
"We're on our way to see if Wes wants to come out with us," Pat announced as I climbed into the back seat. This was going to be very different from the kind of night walk I had planned to lead.
Wes was a boy whose mother was renting a summer place near the Bath Club. From the excited talk between my mother and Eleanor, I knew that she had been a Hollywood actress and had had several husbands, including Wes' father, a movie director. Wes, with his good looks and lively wit, and despite a terrible stutter, had been welcomed into our crowd.
When Pat drove up to Wes’s house, I could see from the lights and parked cars that, unlike at Howard Dietz’, a real party was going on. Pat got out and went inside.
Soon Wes came out alone. “I c-c-c-can’t go out with you t-t-t-tonight;
m-m-m-my mother won’t l-l-l-let me,” he said.
His mother appeared in the breezeway wearing an outfit that appeared to be pink pajamas. She looked angry.
A few minutes later, Pat returned, trailed by two nondescript looking gray-haired men.
“Hi, I’m Miles,” one said as the two got into the car. The other mumbled something I didn’t catch.
“We’re going into town,” Pat announced as she started the engine.
"Town" turned out to be a cheap bar in Manorhaven, the working class village bordering Sands Point. We were led to a semi-circular banquette. Pat scrambled to sit in the middle between the two men, leaving Betty and me at each end. The waitress came, and hard liquor was ordered all around, including some for me. The waitress probably didn’t ask my age because even at fourteen I was so tall I looked eighteen. Betty, also fourteen, had that hardness in her face that made her seem older.
After the drinks were served, the others made small talk. Feeling like an outsider, I steadily sipped my drink and soon began to feel dizzy. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my thigh. That was weird enough, but even weirder was that the man sitting beside me, the mumbler, whose hand it was, was not looking at me. He was looking in Pat's direction and talking to her like he didn't have his hand on my leg. I, feeling numb, didn't know what to make of the hand and was very relieved when he finally took it away, still talking to Pat.
The boys, for their part, seemed to share some secret about her they would not reveal to us girls.
After a while, Pat said, “Let’s go to the ladies’ room, girls.”
As we were walking away from the table, Pat and Betty started cracking up.
“Miles keeps putting his hand on my leg,” Betty laughed.
“He’s doing the same with me,” Pat said, with a big grin.
“The other guy’s been doing the same to me,” I admitted.
“What creeps!” Betty said, still laughing.
“What a riot!” Pat exclaimed.
For the life of me, I could not see what was so funny.
We returned to the table for more boring conversation, which seemed increasingly remote as if taking place at the far end of a tunnel. Finally, to my great relief, we left the bar and climbed into the car to go home.
As Pat approached her house, which was on the way to Wes’s house and mine, we saw that every window was illuminated, just like the night at Howard Dietz's pool and at Wes’s mother’s earlier in the evening. A Sands Point Police car was parked in the driveway. Pat, knowing more about what was in store than the rest of us could have imagined, cried out, "Omigod! Oh Jesus!"
Who had called the police I wondered? And why? Had Susan, the “good daughter,” told?
Pat, rather than driving by as I half expected, pulled in the driveway and parked next to the police car. The three of us girls and the two men climbed out and silently went up the front steps.
The door was opened by Pat's mother Bubbles. Bubbles was a brassy blonde former showgirl who usually wore imitation cowgirl clothes. This time, she was in a sedate dark blue bathrobe.
“Your father wants to talk to you,” she said to Pat.
She led us to the den.
Pat's father Jack and two village policemen were waiting. Jack, a stone-faced, burly man with a square head, square shoulders and no neck, glanced at Pat and announced to me, “I just called your father. He’s on his way over.”
I couldn’t believe it. Struggling against feeling like my head was full of cotton and my body floating off somewhere on its own, I became aware of being invaded. Jack had absolutely no right to call my father. These night-time adventures of mine were my own business. My father had no place in them. He was away most of the time, working into the night somewhere in the city, coming home when I was asleep, sleeping when I was home, and then he was gone. What right did he have to suddenly intrude in my life? I was furious with Jack.
Even though Jack’s face was impassive, I could feel his excitement at being able to tell my father I had done something bad. At the same time, I was afraid. There was no telling what my father would do.
Jack turned to Pat.
“What happened?” he demanded.
“Well, we just went out with these two friends of Wes’s to get something to eat,” she said. “But they got fresh with us,” she quickly added.
“What bar was it?” Jack asked, as though he was used to her lies.
Pat named the bar.
“What exactly did the men do to you,” one of the policeman asked.
Betty, suddenly indignant, said, “They touched us. They put their hands on our legs under the table.”
She glared angrily at the two men, who looked like they wanted to fall through the floor. But they didn’t deny her accusation.
"That's right," echoed Pat, glaring at them.
I was astonished to see Pat and Betty acting shocked about the men's behavior that just a short time ago they had found so funny. Then it dawned on me that the three of us girls were caught between needing to reassure our fathers that nothing terrible had happened and needing to deflect blame onto the two men.
"That's right," I said.
I felt ashamed of our hypocritical performance.
These night-time adventures of mine were my own business.
At this point, my father arrived. He was unshaven and puffy-eyed, dazed at having been jolted out of what must have been a very short sleep by Jack's phone call telling him to come and get the daughter who, if he had thought about her at all, would have assumed was sound asleep in her own bed. He looked disreputable in his black turtleneck sweater and grey sweatpants, obviously pulled on in haste.
Jack greeted him by declaring, almost gleefully, “Don, these two goons took these young girls to a gyp joint in Manorhaven, plied them with booze and felt them up.”
My father, as if in a slow motion movie (or was it just the way I was seeing the scene), put his hands up John L. Sullivan style and staggered toward Miles with a menacing, "Why you (mutter, mutter), I ought to break your (mutter) . . ."
The policemen quickly moved to restrain him, which I was sure he had counted on. Suddenly, I wanted to giggle.
After some private discussion among the fathers and the police, during which they must have decided that nothing serious had happened and the fathers should not press charges because of damage to our "reputations," my father drove me home to where my mother was waiting. He didn't say anything to me, and I wasn't about to say anything to him.
As soon as we walked in the door, my mother started yelling.
“What happened?” she demanded.
My father told her and she started in on him.
“Why didn’t you call me? You left me sitting here all this time, worried to death. I thought something terrible had happened. How could you treat me this way? How could you be so thoughtless, so inconsiderate, so selfish?”
And their fight was on.
My mother, as usual, succeeded in getting the focus off me and onto her, and I was forgotten. At one point they remembered me and threatened to make me sleep in my sister’s tiny second-floor bedroom so I wouldn’t be able to sneak out again, but they never did.
As usual, I had no rules, no limitations, no expectations, no consequences. They didn’t really care what I did.
The next day, feeling thankful for my escape from punishment, I looked for Betty at the Bath Club, eager to giggle with her about those two jerks and how funny my father had looked. But when she finally arrived at her family’s cabana, which was near ours, I saw right away that there wasn’t going to be any giggling. Somber faced, her mouth pulled down at the corners, she kept silent.
"What's the matter, Betty? What's going on? Tell me."
"I can't," she said, "I just can't."
But she kept hinting that something terrible had happened. The only thing I could figure out was that her parents had gotten really mad at her. I kept pressing until she opened up.
"After you left," she began, "Jack called my parents and told them about how we had gone out and been with these two men, but we had gotten back safely and they shouldn't worry. Then I got on the phone and told them I was okay. I said maybe we did some things we shouldn't have, but we had learned our lesson. Mom and Dad were just great. They didn't seem upset. They said they would come and get me in the morning and we would talk about it then. I was so relieved."
"Pat's parents told me to go to bed,” she continued. “Pat stayed behind in the den with them. I went to Susan's room, but she was asleep and I didn't want to wake her, so I went into Pat's room and got into one of her twin beds. I was just starting to fall asleep when suddenly I heard terrifying screams. They seemed to be coming from far away, from the other end of the house. I could tell they were Pat’s. I was petrified!”
Betty’s face had lost its hardness. Her eyes were dark and haunted.
“I scrunched down under the covers and put pillows over my ears, but I could still hear her screams. They seemed to go on forever.”
I was transfixed by what Betty was telling me and deeply affected by the agony in her face.
"Sometimes I could hear Pat begging, 'Oh no, please no, please don't do that, Daddy! No! Please stop! Oh God, you're hurting me! Please stop!’”
“Finally,” Betty said, “it got quiet, and soon Pat came in. Her eyes were red; she looked miserable. She took off her clothes and I saw bloody welts all over her back and bottom. She said her father had been beating her with his belt."
She put her face in her hands, and then looked up and said, "The worst part is she said he does it to her all the time."
I was stunned. I could not believe a man would beat his own daughter. I couldn't grasp such cruelty. And yet, Betty's distress told me it was true.
After that, I could never pass the Tudor house without envisioning the scene I had conjured up as I listened to Betty’s story. In my mind’s eye, I always saw a naked Pat, leaning forward over the end of her father’s bed, her big breasts hanging heavily below her. The burly, powerful Jack, his face dark and expressionless, would be viciously bearing down on her with full force, strapping her with his belt over and over again.
Somehow, I believed that the glum Jack was beating Pat not just for leading two young girls into possible danger. I sensed he was also punishing her for her luscious breasts and her full hips and her joyous energy.
How could I, at fourteen, have imagined the wellsprings of Jack's abuse? Was it his sullen ugliness that gave him away? Or the thrill I had felt in him when he tried to draw my father's wrath down on me?
Perhaps I had learned about the pleasure a man can take in punishing a woman from my father’s hurtful treatment of my mother and my young sister. His violence was emotional, not physical like Jack’s. And my mother could lash back at him, unlike Pat.
I thought I now understood why Pat was so wild and Susan so rigid and devoted to her horses.
And why I had to escape in night walks.
About the memoir: "Gatsby’s Child is that most American of stories, a young person forced to solve the mystery of who she is and who she might become. The daughter of a dissolute blueblood mother and a social-climbing fraud of a father, Dorin Schumacher tries to figure out where she fits into high WASP society on Long Island in the 1950s. Was she rich or poor? Gentile or Jew? The one free-thinking intellectual on her cheerleading squad, or a promiscuous beauty trying to win her coldly seductive father’s love? Schumacher spares no one—parents, teachers, neighbors, girlfriends, beaus, least of all herself. Yet this beautifully rendered memoir turns Fitzgerald’s great American tragedy into an inspiring tale of self-discovery, survival, and triumph." - Eileen Pollack
Dorin Schumacher’s recent writing has appeared in Brooklyn Rail, At Large, Fjords Review and Quiet Lunch and others. Her writing on silent film star Helen Gardner appears in Women Screenwriters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), the Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (Routledge, 2010), This Film is Dangerous (FIAF, 2002) and many other anthologies and publications. Her personal writing appears in The New York Times and Stonepile Writers Anthology (University of North Georgia Press, 2014), alongside numerous other publications. Her memoir, Gatsby’s Child (Belle Books), is due out in August. Her site is www.beacontowers.media