Story — From the July 2013 issue

May I Touch Your Hair?

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A special family lived around the corner from us at our beach house. How were they special? There were three children when most other families had two children.

As a surprise to everyone, including the parents in the family, later on there got to be four children. That was one way they were special. But there were other ways, too.

Other families lived up the block and down the block but my mother and father were friendly with the mother and father of this family because they had higher I.Q.’s and were more intellectual. The father was a doctor, an obstetrician, and when we visited them at their winter house, the children of this family would take my older sister and me upstairs to their father’s study to show us secret medical books. There were illustrations, in color, of all the female reproductive organs, and they were thought by the doctor’s children to be something secret and wicked and hilarious.

When the obstetrician father found out about the sneaking into his library he said, “There’s nothing funny about medical facts and human anatomy.” He reprimanded his children for their immature and silly behavior.

It was at their summer house that we knew them best. We didn’t see them that much at their winter house in some hot suburb. There were two older girls — Elinor and Dorothy. Elinor was so much older that the hand-me-down clothes we received from her collection had been made right after the war. One of these hand-me-downs was a pair of thick cotton gabardine shorts with heavy zippers, different from the thinner and flimsier fabric and zippers we knew from the 1950s.

Elinor was in her own upper-teenage world of grown-up girls in college. She was studious as well as boy-crazy. She had a high, tinkling voice and was often laughing at this or that. She pursued some postgraduate doctoral studies — I can’t remember which — and she got married at a young age, then made the mistake of having a baby right away, as many in her generation did. This ended her studies and the fun of her marriage to a studious social-science kind of guy. He was tall and serious and he wore dark horn-rimmed glasses. My mother told us she’d heard that Elinor had said to her three-year-old child, “Your parents are young and want to go out, and you can’t expect us to be with you all the time. We have our own lives.”

This was thought to be a bad thing to say to a child.

The other sister, Dorothy, was taller and thinner than Elinor. She had an unusual look in the face area. Her whole face was the thing. It was like Joseph Cotten’s face. Both sisters had brown hair and brown eyes. In our family my parents and older sister had blue or green eyes. Elinor had straight, shiny hair and Dorothy had lighter brown, wavy hair. Since I had light hair I found dark hair to be fascinating. I thought that anything I had couldn’t be good.

Then there was the brother, named Richard, called Ricky, the only pleasant boy I knew. Pleasant and good-natured and kind until he lost his childhood chubbiness, his voice changed, and he suddenly became tall and handsome. Many girls fell in love with him. “All of a sudden he’s a heartthrob,” I heard mothers say.

At that time, after he had turned into the heartthrob, he said to me, “In a few years you’ll be a real knockout, and I want to be around then.” Since I wasn’t even a preteenager, I wasn’t sure what that meant. I could tell he meant it to be a good thing, but it caused a lurching feeling of anxiety.

There were two other older boys on the block, and they hung around with Ricky. One boy was bad — not bad enough to be what was known as a juvenile delinquent but bad in these ways: he shot at cats with a slingshot and thought shooting out garage windows with the slingshot was fun too. He was an only child, most likely because he was so much trouble that his parents couldn’t consider taking on another one.

But while Ricky was still an ordinary boy, we all did things together as if we were normal — we played outside and at the beach, climbed trees, played punchball on the little road.

The special family was more normal and happy than our family was. I thought that this was the case because the mother’s main occupation was family life. She seemed happy to be the mother. When she wasn’t screaming at her children she was laughing. She was happy with her husband — the kind, intelligent obstetrician — even though he wore something called a Cabana jacket, a white terry-cloth one, on weekends. He did this to cover his midsection, which was somewhat large and out of shape.

The mother was interested in her children and the fun life they all had together. My mother missed the glamorous fun life she’d had before as a witty, beautiful, artistic young woman who dressed in a most elegant way and was known for these attributes.

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is the author of Do the Windows Open?, Happy Trails to You, The Unprofessionals, and Was This Man a Genius? Talks with Andy Kaufman.

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  • Peter Mork

    Whenever I get my new Harper’s out of the mail, I always go right to the table of contents and check to see if a new Julie Hecht story is in there. This is actually a very Julie Hechtish act of faith, like her narrator (and even though it’s fiction, everyone who reads her assumes the narrator is really her) turning on the TV to see if “The Stranger” with Orson Welles and Loretta Young is on – you never know. Well, it took 14 years but today I got my faith rewarded. Thanks.

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