Her mother named her Dinah, after Dinah Shore
"What do you want for your birthday, Sugar?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know? What birthday girl don't know what she wants on her day of days?" Lilly said, head lazy to the side, a sip of breakfast.
"A cake," said Dinah, in a voice younger than her own. She pushed the glasses up, lifted the peach backpack over both shoulders with a hop. Lilly's head spun to her daughter, lips cracked, thinned.
"You'll get a cake, tubby. Of course your stomach answers first. I mean for a present, all birthday girls get a present."
"I don't know, Mama. You can surprise me."
"I don't got time for surprises, little girl. I need narrowin' down, this is my day off."
Dinah bent and tied her black shoes. Lilly stared at her, eyelids half closed, annoyed.
"You put the bag on your back before you tie your shoes, Dinah. You got the brains…"
"I need a new leotard."
"You asked me what I wanted, Mama." Dinah yanked the T-shirt bottom and lifted a sole copper key resting in a filled ashtray.
"Look at you, Honey, your zipper's half undone. Get goddamn dressed before goin' out there. You want dirty old men staring at your panties?"
Dinah tugged at the bunched zipper on her denim miniskirt and walked toward the door. She stepped over Lilly's pink knees, the vertical on the TV flipped with each step. A knot of tin foil weighted down each antenna ear, an ad for ceiling fans, volume down.
"What's wrong with the leotard you got? I just bought the shoes."
"The elastic is broken around the legs. The shoes are fine."
Lilly picked her Camels off the floor, flicked the package and pulled with her teeth. She lit it and shook her head.
"Leotard, ree-o-tard. I smell eggs in this apartment building. I think Mr. Henry's making omelets, Dinah." Lilly's head rolled on her neck, a shut-eyed grin. "I love that smell. He got cheese in there too."
"I'm leaving," said Dinah, with an unseen wave.
"You got bus fare?"
"What's for dinner, birthday girl?"
"You decide, Mama."
"I smell eggs, honey, I love that smell."
"I don't want eggs for dinner."
Lilly snapped her robe over her knees, her ears all red.
"Can't afford steak, birthday queen."
"Eggs is breakfast food, Mama."
"You got a job, Dinah Shore
"You decide, Mama."
"I decided. There's cash in my pants in the bedroom, get some cheese on your way back."
Dinah went into the bedroom, she lifted red jeans from the floor.
"Mama, there's a ten and a five."
"Take the five. Get the yellow slices and some bread."
Dinah rested the jeans on the corner of the mattress.
"Bye bye, birthday girl."
In the summer it got real hot and the elevator smell got worse, like a toilet. Dinah and Lilly lived on the eighth floor and the stairs were no better. Dinah hopped over bunched toilet paper balls, wrappers and wet spots coming and going. She held her breath, could hold it for all eight floors too. In August she stopped using the elevator. She rode down with a man she never saw before who said his name was Ho Ho and showed her his penis. It was swollen and red and he stroked it and stuck out his tongue. Dinah didn't hold her breath that day but the man pressed his penis against her backpack and she saw the stain in school during a film strip on solar energy. Since then she took the stairs and took them fast. The metal steps, cement block walls and cold squares of the tiled floor turned whispers into screams so as Dinah raced down swinging herself around each staircase, people yelled out their dented metal doors," Slow down," then slammed them shut. Dinah kind of liked it.
The 206 stop was on Yorkshire
"Morning, Dinah," said Teddy. He bent to lift the graffitied doors.
"Going to ballet?"
"Yes," she said, pushing up her glasses.
"Yellow's a good color with your eyes, Dinah. Like them kittens too."
She smiled and blocked the sun with her hand.
"No rain today," Teddy said, eyeing the sky. "Probably not for the rest of the week, neither."
Dinah gave a half look and touched her zipper without knowing. "Nope."
Teddy finished his chore and stood next to her on the curb. Two other commuters stood near them, they both smoked. Teddy peered down the street for her bus, his neck was sweaty, his breaths labored. She stared at her hands, then picked at chipped nail polish.
"If the 206 don't come I'll drive you."
Dinah bent slightly, looking for the bus.
"It usually comes a little late."
"But if it doesn't, I'll drive you."
"Thanks." She bent again.
Teddy put his hands on his hips and took a deep breath with his nose. He patted his hair, Dinah glanced at her violet watch.
"What grade you in now, Dinah?"
"Sixth grade?" he said, scratching the side of his nose. "You're getting to be quite a lady. I remember you catching the 206 when you were in fourth."
Someone rattled the locked front door of the grocery. Teddy and Dinah turned to the noise.
"You open or not, you fat tub-a-shit?"
"Stop fuckin' pulling on it! I'll open it when I'm ready, ya fuckin' Nig."
"Wha-joo call me, Shamu the fuckin' whale?" The man sort of skipped toward Teddy. They stood nose to nose, Teddy put his hand on the right pocket of his maroon pants. The man held his thick finger inches from Teddy's face and spoke with a tilted chin.
"Wha-joo call me?"
"I called you a Nig, black man. I'll open the store when I'm Goddamn ready.
Dinah walked where the two other commuters stood, pulled on the T-shirt and stared at her shoes. The 206 approached and stopped with a wheeze. The bus doors folded open. She dropped her coins in the slot and made eye contact with the driver who'd picked her up every Saturday for two years. He bobbed his bald head when the coins settled, saying nothing as usual. She teetered down the aisle as the bus pulled away from the curb. All the eyes of the passengers stared at Teddy and the angry guy. The two men looked like they might kiss while both mouths barked muffled words.
Dinah sat on the corner of a bus seat next to a skinny woman who blew fog circles in the window. While she X-ed her breaths with her thumb, the woman spoke softly to herself. Dinah flattened her miniskirt and picked at her nail polish, her backpack kept her perched forward on the seat but she liked it that way. The shifting gears of the bus almost drowned the woman's voice. She had a jet-black crew cut she must have done herself and smelled just a little like vomit. Dinah breathed through her mouth.
"You put the square peg in the square hole, Bobby. You put the round one in the round hole, Lenny. Willie got a toothache, Johnny got a flat, which one a ya gonna swallow the fish tongue, will it be you Donny or you the dike, ride a bike, tike."
The story halted when the bus did. The woman's eyes were stuck on Dinah, who felt the stare and turned her face up to a hot pink advertisement for a foot doctor. Dinah read the phone number to herself, willing the bus to move. Just move.
"You look like my sister," the woman said.
"Lady, you look like my sister."
"Thank you," said Dinah, eyes still on the ad above.
"She lives in the warmth."
"In the sun."
The bus leaned and pulled away from the stop into the flow of traffic.
"I eat scoops of poops when the cops killed the Hebrews…lady?"
Dinah turned to the woman.
"What's your name, lady?" said the woman.
Dinah shifted slightly, getting centered on her seat.
The woman spun to the window and blew a circle with all her breath. "Dinah in the back seat, Pinah in the front. Is your name Dinah? Is it?"
"Yes," said Dinah. She pushed her glasses up and saw dried blood in the woman's nostrils.
"Dinah," the woman said lovingly. Her head tilted and a tear dropped from her eye like a stone onto her plastic white purse. "You have sweet cheeks." The woman's boney hand lifted slowly before touching Dinah's cheek. Clammy fingers against her face, Dinah shifted, eyes flinched, awkward, she reached out for nothing, fingers spread, the woman's eyes closed, another sole tear.
"Ma'am?" said Dinah softly. Her eyes searched to see if anyone was watching, then flashed to see the driver's eyes focused on the road in the large rearview mirror. She tapped the woman on the shoulder.
"Ma'am, I have to get off soon." The woman's hand rested on Dinah's cheek, an index finger lodged under her glasses. Dinah slid on the seat, away from the woman but the hand lay flat, heavy, pressing as Dinah scooted down toward the aisle. She stood with a jolt, the woman's hand flew free and Dinah's glasses spun three rows forward landing on the floor and sliding further.
"Dinah, your glasses," said the woman, as if just awoken.
Dinah's eyes appeared cross-eyed without the glasses and the two identical reddened divots high on her nose shone. She focused on the woman briefly, unable to find words, then teetered down the aisle holding onto the seat backs. She knelt where she thought they had landed and squinted near a man's feet. She thought he was an orthodox Jew or a rabbi because he had a fully gray beard and all his clothes were black, including his cap. He bent between his legs to retrieve the glasses and the bus slowed to arrive at Dinah's stop. She eyed the bus stop, then the rabbi's bent back, then the bus stop again. When he sat up he blew on them and handed them to her with a blood-rushed face and a gray bearded smile.
"First they hit me in the head and then the foot. At least they're not broken," he said, standing.
Dinah placed them on her face with both hands.
"Thank you," she said, in a sigh. His face was beautifully clear.
"You're welcome, it was easy."
The bus pulled to the side of the road and stopped. Dinah and the rabbi were the only ones to get off. The crazy woman rapped on the window with a fist, excited to recognize Dinah. She attempted to open the window with jolting lifts but the bus pulled away as she tugged, her lips flapped.
Dinah walked on Ridgefield
"You should think about contact lenses," he said, a little out of breath.
Dinah paused with her eyes on him, then smiled and walked into the street. The rabbi followed slightly behind.
"I hated the idea myself but I have a tenacious doctor who, for some reason, benefits if I do this to my eyeballs every morning."
Dinah smiled again and continued her pace.
"You should have seen my fingers in the beginning, like ten thumbs trying to put this thing on my eye, terrible. But in time, like anything, I learned, I learned."
Dinah sped up slightly, then stopped at the next crosswalk keeping her eyes straight. The rabbi's clothes came into sight soon after.
"My wife said to me, before she passed, 'Eli, you look ten years younger without glasses.' You know what I told her?"
Dinah turned to him, squinting from the sun.
"That makes me younger than you, you dirty old broad."
Dinah yanked on her T-shirt while the rabbi laughed at his own joke and pulled a hanky from his pocket to wipe his neck. The laugh faded.
"Such a serious face on you."
Dinah stepped into the street then quickened her pace, moving her black shoes faster into a slow jog. She reached the steps, her bangs moist against her forehead, out of breath. She pulled the tall wood door of the community center and the sunlight vanished with an echoed slam.
"Get changed quickly, keep all your street shoes off the floor. Jennifer, help me with the records. Stretch 'em out, ladies."
Harper was a nickname, Dinah guessed, but never asked. She wore her blond ponytail high and was some kind of queen at Ridgefield High School
"Pull that mini off, Dinah, and get those legs stretched," said Harper, leaving the room.
The nine other girls were already half dressed so Dinah ran to the corner and unzipped her backpack. She hated changing in the main room even though she had her leotard underneath. There were mirrors on all four walls and fathers dropping their daughters off. Katie Barritt's Dad came barging in once before Dinah could pull her T-shirt over her head. Every girl laughed and Katie hated Dinah from then on. She whispered things in the girl's ears whenever Dinah got changed and once hid her T-shirt behind the radiator. It didn't help that Katie was Harper's pet ballerina and was picked to lead stretches each week. Dinah thought it was because Katie would become Harper in six years and she was being trained for the royalty. She told this theory to Sarah Ellerson when she was the new girl and didn't know yet that Dinah was Dinah. Sarah told Katie the same day and instead of being honored she flared her tiny pale nostrils and coined the name " Chester
Kimberly Howe was the girl that stood in front of Dinah during stretches. The girls called her "Broom Stick" because she was twelve and weighed under eighty pounds.
"It's cause you have breasts already," she said, swinging a straightened leg back and forth.
Dinah eyed her chest in the mirror next to her then looked away. Vivaldi played on a gray, portable record player, she closed her eyes and reached unsuccessfully for her toes.
Dinah pulled her T-shirt over her head, plugged her shiny shoes into her backpack and fumbled her glasses on her face. Harper returned with a stack of records and knelt to put "The Four Seasons" on as she did each week for warm-ups.
"Let's go now. Katie, lead stretches, changing time is over."
Dinah pressed on the broken elastic in her leotard but it bunched and popped out, leaving an opening near her inner thigh. She pressed it again as she hustled into place. Spring was under way on the record player. Kimberly Howe's leg swung up on the balance bar with ease, her ribboned hair dipped, nose to knee. Dinah followed. Her heel just grasped the bar, and, with her knee hooked in an unyielding L, she dipped her head. Katie counted off in shouts and the girls switched legs. Harper strolled down the line of girls, her head bobbing to the rhythm.
"Atta girl, Tricia, that's what I was taking about last week. Listen up for Katie if you forget the order but you should know it by now. Don't give me the fake agony, Lisa; I know your act by now. That's it, Sarah, more limber than the beginning, keep it up."
Dinah's left leg was hooked on the bar, her breaths were heavy, her glasses slid. She heard Harper's voice grow toward her, nearly there.
"Come on now Kimberly, shake out the sleepy stones, bend that head."
Dinah's head was turned away but she could see Harper's white Reeboks and pink socks in the reflection of the mirror. Time stopped, Vivaldi softened, Dinah could hear her heart. Harper stood still, legs apart, no words, no words.
"Look at you, Dinah. You're lookin' real good. I have seen progress before but you are the queen today, ma lady. I like it, keep it going, Babe."
Dinah watched Harper continue down the line in the mirror. Kimberly Howe peeked back, then dipped her head even lower. Dinah pushed her glasses up on her nose. Vivaldi paused, and then began summer.
The 206 back to Ridgefield
"We have to stop meeting like this," said the rabbi. He was holding a plate wrapped in tin foil in his right hand, he fumbled with a bus schedule with the left. Dinah picked nail polish and bumped her shoes that nearly touched the ground.
The rabbi flicked the schedule as if it were stuck to his hand. It unfolded into a larger piece of paper that waved in the wind but for the corner he grasped.
"Oh jeez. Excuse me? Quiet girl? Could you hold these cookies for me, my map has a mind of its own."
The rabbi put the tin-foiled plate on Dinah's lap and suppressed the schedule with both hands. Dinah looked straight forward, then leaned her head for the 206. The smell was strong. The smell was clear. The smell was freshly made chocolate chip cookies, and she was sure.
The rabbi disappeared behind the schedule he held with both arms extended. His voice came from behind the wall.
"You need to be a rocket scientist to read this thing. Is today some kind of holiday? The bus should be here."
Dinah's knees stayed locked, balancing the plate she hadn't touched.
"It's always late," she said softly.
The schedule dropped, the rabbi's smiling face emerged.
"She has a voice!" he sang, and stamped his foot. The song continued. "It's a pretty voice. Does the pretty voice know what time the late bus is supposed to arrive?"
Dinah tried to keep a straight face but when she realized she couldn't, she turned away. "Twelve."
"Oh, what a smile, there's a smile too. Such a smile must have a cookie," the rabbi said as he sat with excitement and lifted the tin foil.
Dinah's face straightened.
"I can't…thank you, but I can't."
The rabbi looked at her, feigning sadness. He took the plate off her lap and sat back on the bench, chin lowered.
"It was my first baking class at the community center," he said in a morbid tone. "I didn't want to make cookies. I'm a brownie man. At the end of the class all the students began sampling the cookies and not one person tried mine. Not one." The rabbi took a slow nibble off the end of a cookie.
Dinah wasn't sure if he was kidding but remembered that he said his wife had died. She pushed up her glasses and moved slightly closer to him, her mouth opened once to speak, then closed.
"Today's my birthday," she said, just above a whisper.
The rabbi's head slowly lifted. He smiled widely and raised the plate to Dinah. She picked one off the top with a tiny shrug of her shoulders.
"Happy Birthday, quiet girl."