Anatomy Of An Auntie. By A.K.A. Darla
Aunts can be the coolest mentors and the best of friends. Here’s one PrimeCrush writer’s story of hers.
Aunties are special. They are a perfect blend of a nurturing mother and a drunken bestie. They’re someone who will keep the secrets you can’t tell your mom, and keep you on track with some sound advice.
Being the first child born to my family, I am the oldest cousin. I am also an only child. Though my birth order had its advantages, it left me without an older contemporary to model and so, my mother‘s youngest sister, my aunt Palma, became my unlikely mentor. Oh, how the six-year-old me loved tagging along to a diner with Palma for iced tea and an English muffin when she was meeting her cousin, Janie, for an afternoon of girl talk. Unlike my mother, Palma would let me pour sugar into my tea and allowed me to stir it myself! And there, in that very diner, she taught me to properly squeeze a lemon wedge by taking it into my tiny right hand and cupping my tiny left hand over it before carefully squeezing the juice into my glass. Time would fly by as I sipped the forbidden sweetened tea and listened to the cousins recount their latest dating adventures. Every so often they would spell out a word and, though I could not decipher it, I knew they were discussing something naughty.
When I ran away from home (for one night) after my high school principal discovered I was in a group of freshman girls who’d been playing hooky once a week, Palma let me sleep in her apartment so I didn’t have to be home when my parents received the dreaded call from my school. Though she denies it, to this day I’m convinced she tipped-off my parents to my whereabouts.
Two years later, I decided it was time for birth control. When the clinic required my home address, Palma allowed me to use hers as my own so as not to create a paper trail that would find its way to my mother. When I stopped by her apartment after the clinic, she shared one of her Kool brand cigarettes with me, warning that they were too strong for a sixteen-year-old girl and, if I was going to smoke regularly, I should probably switch to Newports.
When my grandmother sold the family luncheonette, Palma took a job as a “barmaid” at a haunt in our Greenwich Village neighborhood. A statuesque woman with pale skin, green eyes, and flaming red hair, Palma looked like no one else in our southern Italian-American family, but her appearance and personality made her perfectly suited for her job. Her ten-hour shift began at 6:00 p.m., but getting dressed was an art form that began two hours prior. After arranging a stack of Lesley Gore albums on the living room turntable, Palma would enter the bathroom as I followed behind. Closing the lid on the toilet, she created a front-row seat from which I watched her perform a ritual that would transform her from an ordinary aunt to a 1960s icon. Each and every time, I was riveted.
Palma slid open the left side of her mirrored medicine cabinet to reveal her cache of beauty products: a cylinder of Max Factor Pan Stick foundation, brown Maybelline eyebrow pencil, a black liquid eyeliner, a pair of false eyelashes, a white tube of eyelash glue, two tubes of Coty lipstick (one in “Quiet Flame,” one in “Hanky Panky”), a rattail comb, a three-inch by four-inch cardboard with bobby pins hugging two sides, and a can of White Rain hairspray. As soon as Palma lit a Kool, took a drag, released some smoke through her nostrils, and laid the cigarette across the porcelain toothbrush holder that was built into the tile above the bathroom sink, it was officially show time.
Gazing into the closed side of the mirrored cabinet, Palma would turn her head from left to right, before reaching for the cylinder of the pan-stick foundation. After removing the cover, she’d twist up the product and swipe it across her forehead, down her nose, under her eyes, across her cheeks, chin, and eyelids, and finally over her lips. Then, with her fingers, she’d massage it all in, producing a flawless alabaster finish. Between the application of each cosmetic product, Palma would take another drag of her cigarette, return it to its perch on the toothbrush holder, then sing along with Lesley Gore. When eyebrows, eyeliner, and false eyelashes were complete, she would take a final drag on the cigarette, turn on the faucet, and douse the butt in the water stream before tossing it in the tiny trash can under the sink. After taking another left to right turn of the head with eyes on the mirror, Palma lit her second cigarette and began act two: the beehive hairdo. This intricate arrangement of hair sat twelve inches above her hairline, and was achieved with nothing but a rat tail comb and a dozen bobby pins that I had the honor of holding in my lap to hand over, one by one, as needed.
Bending at the waist, Palma would tease every single strand of her hair. When she stood up with the ends of her hair pointing to the heavens, she’d take another drag on her cigarette, set it down once again, then begin forming small sections of the beehive with the tail of the comb before smoothing it into place with the teeth of the comb. Once a section was held in place, she’d open her hand for me to pass her a bobby pin. I never missed a beat. Palma would bring the bobby pin to her lips and separate the tiny tines with her teeth before securing it somewhere deep inside the do. When the last pin was in place, Palma would take another drag on her cigarette, this time leaving it to dangle between her lips. Next, she’d remove the cap from the can of White Rain and spray the hive like she was killing wasps. It was a masterpiece. It was indestructible. Had she fallen head first from atop the Empire State Building and broken every bone in her body, her skull would have remained intact.
Palma removed the cigarette from her mouth and doused it in the same way she did the first one. Then, depending on her mood, she’d apply either the “Hanky Panky” or the “Quiet Flame” lipstick. Whichever shade she chose, she’d dab a hint of the “Quiet Flame” onto her cheeks to create a blush. For her final act, Palma would ask me to tear off one square of toilet paper. She’d take the square, place it between her lips, blot gently, then toss the square into the trash atop the two soggy cigarette butts. For me, this signaled that Palma would soon be dressed and off into the night, laughing and serving cocktails to grownups in a magical place where children were not permitted. I would have given anything to go with her.
Years passed. Palma moved to Florida and always looked forward to her visits back to New York. One visit she did not look forward to was to attend the wake of my mother, her big sister, the woman she had looked up to.
Standing before my mother’s coffin, I felt someone sidle up to me. It was Palma. Overcome with grief, she could no longer stand and fell against me. The colorful, larger-than-life woman I had leaned on for so long was now leaning on me and somehow, filled with my own sorrow, I had to find the strength to hold her up. It was the least I could do.
SHIMRIT. By A.K.A Darla
In this month’s installment—“SHIMRIT: A May-December Friendship”—our series’ author shares a personal story of her own.
Every so often, I encounter a woman with whom I immediately connect. The conversation is easy yet electric, the laughs are frequent, and before going our separate ways, phone numbers are exchanged. These encounters, few and far between, always surprise and delight me, but one particular meeting held an element of magic.
Just before turning fifty, I decided to explore a new occupation in the field of music therapy. I enrolled in one of the few educational institutions that offered the program and showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for my first class in decades: Introduction to Music Therapy.
Our instructor asked each class member to choose one of the many instruments available for us to play. The point of the exercise was for a classroom full of strangers to exchange musical ideas and play in concert. Minutes into this exercise, we were indeed making music as a unit. Just when we were in full swing, a young woman entered the classroom. She approached the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and repeatedly drew massive, concentric circles. The rise and fall of the chalk swooshing against the blackboard sounded like a combination of a snare drum and a rain stick playing in time to our instruments. I was intrigued by this woman’s brave and creative musical choice and was curious to know more about her.
The following week I stopped at a coffee house before our next class. I looked up from my cup to see the young woman walking toward my table. She pulled out a chair, sat next to me, and said, “So what do you think of our instructor?”
“I like him,” I answered.
“Me too. No boo-sheet.”
I could not identify the accent that caused her to pronounce the word “bullshit” in this way. In the years to follow, she would use the word often and her mispronunciation tickled me every time. I came to learn that the accent was Israeli and my new friend was Shimrit Shoshan, an up-and-coming pianist in her third year of the university’s Jazz program.
Shimrit invited me to one of her gigs. Her style was exciting, impressive, moving, intelligent, and inventive. When the bottom half of her keyboard stopped working just minutes into her performance, it did not inhibit her from playing three sets of marvelous music. At some point in the show, she introduced me to the audience as her “U.S. mother.” Until that moment, I hadn't given any real thought to our age chasm. I began wondering just what we two had in common. It was more than the music. Though Shimrit was half my age, we deeply connected somehow, and I was certain I had known this very old soul before.
After the gig, we walked to her boyfriend’s apartment, with Shimrit cradling her broken keyboard as if it were an injured child. She trusted me with her secrets and told me of her wish to have a life together with her well-known musician boyfriend and her deep desire to have a child with him. She was working hard to become a respected musician in her own right, with no link to her boyfriend’s successful career. She ached to spend more time with him, but he was committed to his music and his life on the road.
Another of Shimrit’s gifts was her way with children. When she became my daughter’s piano teacher, I looked forward to their lesson days when they would fill the apartment with their jazz repertoire. When my daughter would complain to Shimrit that a piece was beyond her ability, Shimrit would reply, “That’s boo-sheet,” and masterfully guide her through the tune. Excited to witness my daughter’s musical growth, I asked her what she liked about studying with Shimrit. “I like that she curses,” she quipped.
One day, Shimrit phoned me from Paris to say she was stuck in traffic on a taxi ride from her hotel to her gig. In the middle of our conversation, she screamed. Shimrit had looked out the taxi window to see her face and name emblazoned on a billboard, advertising the very gig she was running late for. It was at that moment Shimrit realized she had arrived, and I realized that I was sitting as a passenger in the sidecar of her joyous journey.
On an August evening in 2012, Shimrit called again. This time from New York. She wasn’t feeling well. I told her to get to an ER and call me back. There was no word. When she didn’t show up for that weekend’s piano lesson, I worried. Without warning, my beautiful friend had left my world as suddenly and mysteriously as she entered it, leaving behind a tremendous spirit that will forever live in my heart, and in the music of every student she had ever instructed, every life she had ever touched.
And that’s no “boo-sheet.”
Sunday in the Park with Gus. By A.K.A. Darla
A friendship built on show tunes is a friendship built to last. Here our own AKA Darla revisits one of her favorites.
No girl ever forgets her first gay husband. Mine was Gus, a gifted pianist and a full-on lover of life. We met in college in an “Intro to Musical Theater” class, bonding over the deep fear we shared of Karen Swensen, the prickly instructor who would berate us for being ill-prepared, singing the wrong lyric, or anything else she considered unfit for the piece we were presenting. Whenever she critiqued our performances, she would gesture wildly with her arms, causing her signature wooden bangles to click and clack with each movement. It was not until we embarked on the real world of show business that we appreciated how Swensen had thickened our skin enough so that we could endure the slings and arrows of auditioning. Gus would often help me prepare for those auditions and, on occasion, come along as my accompanist. Over time, my encounters with Gus became as infrequent as my auditions, until the day my phone rang.
“This is Mrs. Swensen. Did you vocalize today, you lazy bitch?“
Knowing it could be no one but Gus, I roared. After catching up, Gus confessed his reason for calling. “Honey, I’m gonna cut to the chase. I booked a duo gig at a cute little queer-friendly nudist park and the chick singer I hired backed out. You’re the only singer I know with enough balls to do it.”
“Do I have to take off my clothes?”
“Only if you want to.”
“Are YOU taking off your clothes?”
“Only if you want me to.”
“Fine. So are you in?”
“I don’t know…”
“It’s just a bunch of people doing their thing. I promise you’ll get used to it.”
“Can I think about it?”
And then Gus said those magic words. “It pays a ton of money and we’ll have a barrel of laughs.”
And that Sunday I found myself driving up to the mountains with my truly outrageous college counterpart.
The mood was festive and our beach party setlist was well-received. Hiding behind sunglasses, we delighted in watching people engage in everyday activities that took on a whole new meaning in the absence of wearing a bathing suit: bouncing on a diving board, climbing the ladder to the water slide, playing ping pong, dropping your cell phone, and finally, toweling dry. Gus was right; after a while, you get used to it and I actually felt a tiny bit out of place wearing clothes.
Lunchtime. We entered the air-conditioned dining room and removed our sunglasses. Though it was freezing, no one but me, and Gus wore a stitch. We followed the naked hostess to our table. As she kindly pulled out my chair I realized that the last person to sit there was NOT wearing pants. I opened my napkin and laid it across my seat. Gus laughed. We ordered lunch and talked about what tunes to do for our next and final set as the waitress returned and handed Gus a note. “The lady at table six asked me to give this to you.” He opened the note and read it out loud. “Don’t you kids know any show tunes?” He looked around the room and noticed a woman waving at us. As Gus waved back, the woman stood up and approached our table. She was eighty if she was a day, burnt like bacon, and wore nothing but an armful of wooden bangles that clicked and clacked with each of her movements.
“People wanna hear show tunes, baby!” she bellowed.
“Ms. Swensen?” Gus whispered.
“Call me Karen.”
“We know show tunes,” I sheepishly muttered.
“You bet your ass you do. Now get out there and sell it!”
And “sell it” we did. For the next couple of hours, we were the Patti Lupone and Lin-Manuel Miranda of the nudist scene. Two Broadway Babes singing our hearts out for a clammy but wildly receptive audience. From time to time, we would spot old Swensen out there in the sea of skin, singing along, clicking and clacking, and – for the first time ever – criticism-free.
That night, Gus and I sang show tunes all the way home. Just a couple of people doing our thing.
A Friend I Lost & Found Through the Years. by A.K.A. Darla
Our very own A.K.A. Darla shares a personal story about losing a friend to precarious circumstances—and finding her 30 years later.
Watching my daughter prepare to move into her new apartment brought me back to when I first left home in the early, edgy ‘80s. Just a half-block off Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, I found a 300 square-foot studio with hallway lighting that flickered each time someone closed their door, and a lone window that faced a brick wall. I shared the five-story walk-up with Jana, an easygoing young woman I met in acting class. For two struggling actresses who went home only to sleep, shower, and dress, the price was just right.
A year into this arrangement, the novelty wore thin and I began to wonder if I would ever get to live independently in a space I could walk through in more than three strides. Then one day, the angels sang: Jana fell in love with a guy who had his own apartment on the Upper West Side! As soon as he proposed, Jana arranged an engagement party at her fiance’s place. Oddly, none of the fiance’s friends were in attendance. Not one. In an attempt to make conversation, I asked the fiance what he did for a living. He told me my question was rude. As I laughed a nervous laugh, the fiance leaned into me and dropped a bomb. “Why don’t you and I get together?” I was stunned. “I don’t think so,” I answered. And like in one of those flipbooks we made as kids, I saw Jana’s life with this creep play out before my eyes. “This conversation never happened,” the fiance said. “Understand?” I certainly did.
I left the party early and headed home, partly to wash the slime off my body, partly to enjoy having the apartment to myself. And so began my first adult moral dilemma: to tell Jana or not to tell Jana. I rehearsed just how I would break the news to her, but nothing seemed right. I was certain that telling her would break her heart, and I couldn’t even imagine breaking her heart. And if I did tell her, perhaps she would think I imagined it. Besides, the fiance made it quite clear that he would deny it. Unsure of what to do, I took the path of least resistance: I didn’t tell a soul. Three months later, on New Year’s Eve, Jana was married.
In an effort to avoid her husband, I avoided Jana. Renee, a mutual friend, told me Jana was upset with me for not returning her calls. I made excuses. And I made believe I didn’t miss Jana.
Thanksgiving came and with it came a call from Renee. Instead of phoning to wish me Happy Thanksgiving, she was phoning to say that Jana’s husband ran off that morning with his secretary. He told Jana she shouldn’t worry because he was leaving her the apartment, along with a few other things: thirty thousand dollars in credit card debt and three months of rent arrears. I sat down to dinner and pushed my stuffing and yams around my plate, thinking Jana might have been spared all that pain and anguish if I had spoken up. Still, I wondered, is it really one’s duty to blow the whistle if they are hit upon by their friend’s significant other?
Years passed and Jana moved away. Decades passed. There was to be a reunion of our acting class. I wanted to see Jana. I wanted to know that she was okay. Indeed she was, beaming and beautiful as ever. She introduced me to her husband, a personable, attentive man who loved his work. And she loved hers. She showed me photos of their children, their pets, their home, their sailboat. She was truly happy. We reminisced about the carefree days in that tiny apartment, astonished by our ability to make it through an entire year without ever losing our sense of humor. And we laughed. Then, Jana leaned into me. “I owe you an apology.”
“For not keeping in touch,” she said softly.
“Please don’t apologize. It works both ways.”
Jana put her hand on mine. “Life gets in the way, sometimes. Can you forgive me?”
Now was my chance, thirty years later. “Jana…?”
Just then, Jana's husband appeared, handing us cocktails.
“What are you ladies whispering about?” he asked.
I raised my glass and smiled. “I’ll never tell.”
The Friendship Files: Like A Tattoo. By A.K.A. Darla
My father often told me that one would be rich in life if they had just one friend. A real friend. A person who would traverse life with you through the good, the bad, and the ugly. You may fight with them and cry with them, but you’ll laugh with them and love with them. Sometimes, you may not want to talk to them, but you know they are there. And if a long time goes by when you don’t speak to them, you will eventually pick up exactly where you left off, as if no time passed at all.
For some reason, the universe has paired you with this person. If you journaled the notable moments shared with them, you’d have volumes. This new column tells some of those stories.
I am an only child. I have never rued the absence of siblings, and I relish every childhood moment spent in the solitude of my room, writing poems, reading books, playing guitar, eavesdropping on grown-ups, and daydreaming.
The closest thing I’ve experienced to sisterhood is the friendship I share with three women I’ve known since nursery school. Between us, we’ve had four Holy Communions, five marriages, six children, and four divorces. Three of us once spent a particular New Year’s Eve trying to get the fourth out of jail. We’ve celebrated the milestones of our children, and held each other at the passing of our parents. We live in four different cities now, but make a point to get together at every possible opportunity.
One such get-together took place on a chilly Spring morning when we met for brunch at the Greenwich Village bar we’ve frequented since getting our hands on our first fake I.D. Over champagne and French toast, we discussed politics (until a fight broke out), a son’s new job, a kitchen renovation, a trip to Iceland, Eastern medicine, and my daughter’s massive tattoo.
“We should all get tattoos!” said the one who was most drunk.
“You don’t have the balls!” I snapped back, challenging her.
“We’ll do it next time I’m in town. We need time to think about a design.”
Refusing to let this moment go by, I suggested we each get four small stars of different colors, each star representing a member of our pack. As we finished our meals, we scrolled through our phones to find a tattoo parlor open on a Sunday morning. With no results, we decided to go for a walk instead.
We stopped at a liquor store for more champagne, then made our way to the large city park where we played as kids. We climbed up to the bleachers and drank the champagne from paper coffee cups, reminiscing about the hundreds of hours we had spent here. Each story played out like a home movie before our eyes, with scenes of softball, swimming, bocce, and boys.
We left the park and walked uptown through our old neighborhood when we came across a familiar storefront that had been taken over by a headshop. Through its grimy window, one could see scores of bongs and pipes, with a sprinkling of dildos thrown in for good measure. Then, like a rose in the desert, stood a hand-written index card that read, “WE DO TATTOO.”
“Look!” I screamed, pointing to the card. Emboldened by champagne, I walked through the doors of iniquity, as the posse followed for protection. The tattoo artist/bong salesman/dildo merchant spoke little English, but somehow the thrifty one in our pack convinced him to give us a rock bottom price since we were all getting the same design.
Wanting to “just get it over with”, the cautious one in our pack went first. She cried all the way through, while the compassionate one in our pack held her hand before taking her own turn. Having naturally birthed three boys in four years, she didn’t even flinch. The thrifty one in our pack went next, still trying to negotiate a better price with the owner as he dug his instrument into the top of her right buttock. I went last, as everyone watched, shaking their heads at the absurdity of it all.
When it was time to say goodbye, we made a pact to watch for signs of Hepatitis C, then went our separate ways.
Yes, I am the impetuous one in our pack and -- truth be told -- I regret our decision. Ours are the ugliest tattoos I have ever seen. But each time I happen to glance at the figure on my right hip, I am reminded how we have been blessed with a lifetime of love, and I make a silent wish upon our tiny stars that we four will forever remain as close as this ink is to our skin.
The Crush Letter
The Crush Letter is a weekly newsletter curated by Dish Stanley on everything love & connection - friendship, romance, self-love, sex. If you’d like to take a look at some of our best stories go to Read Us. Want the Dish?