Joyland

New York |

Wiggle and Shake

by Amelia Kahaney

edited by Emily Schultz

Dear Miss Sarah,


I have been a devotee of Boogie Doodle Junction long enough to remember when those redheaded twin girls destroyed the balloon arch on opening day with the sharp feet of their Barbie legs. I marveled at your patience even then, and I felt elated knowing that my Gulliver, who was only an infant at the time, would one day be old enough to enroll. The moment Gully was six months old, we signed up for Mama and Baby Yoga, followed by Baby Tumblers, Toddlers Explore and Exhale, and on and on. Boogie Doodle Junction and Gully will each turn five this year, and I could not be prouder of them both.

I say all this not to make you feel guilty, but in the hope you’ll take our long history together into account in reversing your decision regarding Gully’s unilateral suspension from his Saturday morning Wiggle and Shake class. You called it taking a break last time we spoke, but in the interest of truth-telling, which is a value I know you try to instill in the children, I think it’s time we drop the coded language in favor of the honest terminology—you unilaterally suspended a four-year-old child due to no fault of his own, Miss Sarah. And even though we both know why and by whom you were coerced into doing it, I’m certain that once you learn all the facts pertaining to the incident, you will reconsider.

As you are already aware, I am no longer permitted to go within 200 feet of Toby’s mother, Klaartcha McNeil, and so obviously I must—and plan to!—respect your request that I not enter Boogie Doodle Junction for the foreseeable future. But nowhere on the restraining order does it mention the names Gulliver Swift Rubenstein-Williamson or William Rubenstein, aka my husband, Bill. Believe it or not, Miss Sarah, I have a husband! I know, you’re as surprised as I am, ha ha. He exists, I assure you. We are still married after seven long years, though I wouldn’t expect anyone in the neighborhood has seen much of him. I hardly see him myself, as Bill works late, works weekends, works holidays, etc. and when he isn’t working, he can’t exactly manage Gully the way I can. They seldom venture out of the apartment alone together, what with Gully’s propensity to run into the street, bang on store windows, or use that shriek of his to assert his desires. Bill gets frustrated with Gully and things escalate. I know it’s a problem, Miss Sarah, one that is bad for Gully’s development and for all three of us, and I’m working on addressing it, as I know you’d implore me to do if we were close friends and not just dance instructor and parent.

I should be thanking you, as a matter of fact. It’s precisely because of the Wiggle and Shake suspension that Bill and I have begun to address our current family dynamic, and Bill has officially promised me he will start taking Gully to class on Saturday mornings instead of sleeping in or heading back to the office. What an opportunity for Bill to learn some parenting skills, and for Gully to show his father his dancing, right? Win-win!

It all hinges on your good sense, Miss Sarah. No pressure, but a family hangs in the balance.

I am sure Klaartcha McNeil represents a lucrative income stream for you, what with little Toby attending various classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, but I believe in fairness, Miss Sarah, and I know you do too. I’ve seen the way you sing the “Clean up, clean up” song, the way you scan the room making sure everybody does his share, everybody, everywhere. I suspect you believe in your strong Midwestern bones—as I do, in my own older, more brittle bones—that life should be fair, even here in Brooklyn, where anything resembling actual fairness has of course long been abandoned in favor of real estate worship.

Wiggle and Shake has been the light of Gully’s Saturday mornings (and mine, in case you had any doubt—mine even more than his!) for the past year and a half. Even if he often spends the class tangled in the curtains or wedged underneath the pile of gymnastics mats, I assure you he gets so much out of watching the other children perform creative movement and out of his own limited participation, too. He is learning, albeit a bit more slowly than some of the other children, that he can be whatever he likes, if he only imagines it. I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say imagination is everything, especially for children like Gully whom other children don’t easily relate to. He needs Wiggle and Shake even more than the neurotypical ones, is what I’m saying. Of course, Klaartcha’s son Toby is one of the children Gully is most drawn to. Toby’s an unusual child too, I can hear you saying. And you would be correct. Which is yet another reason I tried so hard to befriend Klaartcha McNeil. But we all know where that got me.

So, the incident.

I assume you have taken the time, during your busy days at Boogie Doodle Junction, to try and get to know Klaartcha McNeil. But have you ever really gazed into her luminous face, full of aloof hauteur and underneath that, a wry irony, and under that, an ineffable sadness that puts one in the mind of Proust?

I think I was first drawn to her aura of expensive carelessness, which of course is only enhanced by her endless supply of slouchy sweaters, made no doubt of hand-woven yak fur produced by a microfinanced women’s collective. The skinny pants that are an understated, sublime combination of leather and denim. Her purse…well, look who I’m talking to. You already know about her purses. Nobody with eyes could miss them! Even if the rest of us could afford clothing like Klaartcha’s, not even the fashion-forwardest of us in the Boogie Doodle Junction waiting area has what it takes to pull off the Klaartcha look—the fresh-from-the-Bahamas tan, her tousled bushels of auburn hair, the abdomen so concave that the very idea of a uterus inside it, much less the baby she carried four years ago, positively contorts the mind. Those first few Wiggle and Shake classes, a silent acknowledgement passed between each of us in the waiting room: Klaartcha McNeil was the most beautiful woman ever to grace Slope Park. The rest of us were lumpy beasts in comparison.

I only tell you this only so that you might understand how a woman like myself, one of the hundreds of ordinary mommies that pass through Boogie Doodle Junction every year, might want to get close to a woman like Klaartcha McNeil. Not many of us here in Slope Park don Prada stiletto boots at nine in the morning or adorn our lips with MAC Viva Glam lipstick, a very bright shade of tomato red that has something to do with a charity but even more to do with sex. Perhaps this is normal in Manhattan.

Understand, I had attempted to befriend Klaartcha McNeil for well over a year before the alleged assault. We live on the same block, Klaartcha in a stunning four-story brownstone with landmarked windows the size and shape of Volkswagen Beetles, and me in a one and a half bedroom railroad apartment. I wanted more than anything to be there for Klaartcha during her tumultuous divorce from Chet McNeil, the hauntingly weatherbeaten bisexual literary agent whose memoir, Pretty Boy, was recently optioned by HBO. (The book is as juicy as people are saying, Miss Sarah. If you like, I can loan you my copy.) I could have lent Klaartcha my Elizabeth Bishop poetry collections, my BPA-free Tupperware, you name it. But Klaartcha resisted my every effort at neighborliness, and in fact never remembered who I was each time I waved hello to her on her stoop as she snuck a cigarette or finished a call. I’ll admit that I did my best to eavesdrop on a few of the calls she seemed constantly to be on, but Klaartcha is a low talker and the most I ever heard was an odd, perplexing phrase: “I’ve been told to eat more white flour.”

All I wanted was a hello. Is that so much to ask, Miss Sarah? I know this is the “new Brooklyn”, but come on. At most I thought I might warrant two seconds of recognition in Klaartcha McNeil’s Dutch blue eyes. This is a woman I pass daily, if not multiple times per day, on the sidewalk. But I couldn’t get it. Until, of course, the day Klaartcha miraculously enrolled little Toby at Boogie Doodle Junction for your 9 a.m. Saturday Wiggle and Shake class.

Every other week, as you may know, Klaartcha McNeil began to use Boogie Doodle Junction as a meeting point with Chet McNeil, handing the little boy over to his smoldering father for a few nights in his apartment in DUMBO. After which time, Klaartcha would leave class unencumbered, unstrollered and alone, her Thai au pair released to wherever au pairs go for their afternoons off. And Klaartcha would sail out, her sad wry aloof face bravely resisting a gloss of tears.

Eventually a week arrived when Toby was going home with his mother after dance class. It was one of Gully’s good days, where he was making eye contact and kind of participating in class. Right outside on the sidewalk, Toby, bless his heart, asked if Gully could come over to his house and play. As the boys galloped up the sidewalk together, I gazed up at Klaartcha, not quite believing it was finally going to happen. I may have been shaking, Miss Sarah. Not because I was obsessed with Klaartcha, just because I’d become so curious about her and had tried so hard to strike up a casual acquiantanceship, which for all of human history people have attempted to do with their neighbors and which, last time I checked, is not a felony.

And then it happened. At last, Klaartcha was forced to invite me over to the palatial McNeil brownstone. At last, she was forced to ask my name, and I hers, even though I already knew everything about her that was available on the internet.

I’m sure you have better things to do than to Google Klaartcha McNeil, Miss Sarah, so it will be news to you that she is an heiress. The granddaughter of a Dutch shipping magnate. As we walked together toward her house, I couldn’t help admiring our reflection in the shop windows.

And this is where things get a little hazy for me, Miss Sarah. I remember sailing up Klaartcha McNeil’s staircase. I remember every detail of her foyer, her living room, her kitchen. I remember discussing the state of the block with her, and the weather, and our children and their schools and teachers and likes and dislikes. But I do not remember pushing her against the Sub-Zero, as she has alleged, or putting my hands inside her slouchy cardigan, or lunging at her and pressing my lips against her neck. There are vague pictures I can piece together; a smell, perhaps, of sugared pears wafting from her hair, a shocked revulsion blooming on her face.

It had been a long time, Miss Sarah. A long time since Gully’s father and I had anything but the most perfunctory kind of sex. A long time since I’d wanted to. What it was, Miss Sarah, I think, was that once I was inside the brownstone, I wanted to be Klaartcha McNeil, and also to have Klaartcha McNeil, to watch her slouch around in her financially fortified yet achingly vulnerable way and know I was now a permanent part of her inner drama.

Isn’t that what we all want, what we all deep down deserve? To be a part of things? Isn’t this what we really mean when we talk about loving the community of Slope Park? Could anyone’s heart not cartwheel upon entering a brownstone containing the entire Design Within Reach catalogue, each timeless Eames curve faintly glowing, polished daily with some sort of artisanal, hand-blended wood oil available by referral only, lovingly cleaned by the on-the-books cleaning lady who speaks perfect English—a discreet force of order and calm in Klaartcha’s turbulent seas—the art on every wall a veritable explosion of taste, shocking in its ability to inspire and entreat, the kind of photographs, paintings and mixed media pieces that, were they hanging in one’s own home, would allow you to face each of your days on earth as a creative force for beauty, for goodness, for hope? And after all this, the sprawling kitchen lined floor to ceiling with hand-hewn zebra-wood cabinetry stretching up and up until you become dizzy trying to take it all in, until finally your misted gaze lands upon a single, half-peeled Clementine sitting in a beam of winter light on the granite kitchen countertop?

Couldn’t you imagine getting a little carried away, in such a situation?

But back to you, Miss Sarah. The Lululemon logo bouncing merrily along your lower back week after week represents to me the purest expression of the reassurance you provide. Who else but you, Miss Sarah, could so placidly withstand the shrieking, tears, pee-pee accidents, the obsessive way the children yank your long yellow Midwestern braid of hair during the Hello Circle? Who else but you would even attempt to cajole 14 three-year-olds to perform dance routines with scarves? With (god help you) Hula-Hoops? The first time I heard you sing your be-quiet song, 1-2-3-4, we’re not talking anymore, I got chills.

I think if it had been you in the cavernous kitchen of Klaartcha McNeil, you might have also had the urge to put a shaking arm around her tiny waist, to push your hands through her auburn hair, to turn to her and whisper I think we were meant to be good friends. And then, when the luminous vulnerable sadness in her eyes dulled and flickered into a guarded blank screen, to lean in and take her face in yours and show her just how much she means to you. And then, if after a disgusted yelp (a sound that could have come from either of you!) you were shown hastily to the door, I believe that you too might have reached out and taken hold of the cord of a large midcentury lamp and yanked it off the table so that it shattered on the perfectly restored maple floor.

Miss Sarah, you and I are not so different from one another. Though I hail merely from New Jersey and not the great wide plains of Nebraska, and though I have no patience for children other than my own (and usually not even then, what with all of Gully’s issues)—we are both strivers. Both believers in a higher destiny. Both compassionate souls, who want little children to dance, to jump over yoga blocks with wild abandon, to melt like snow and stomp like thunder, to embrace life’s infinite possibility while they still can. Even in Brooklyn, where the real estate situation has made life next to impossible, we both want the children to hope.

And striver to striver, dancer to dancer, I know you’ll understand when Gully’s dad Bill—who is, I remind you, not legally bound by this or any other restraining order—brings him back in next Saturday for Wiggle and Shake. Gully’s been on a dairy-free diet and has become much more of a joiner. I think you’ll be proud of how far he’s come.

Yours truly,

Karen, Mom of Gulliver Swift Rubenstein-Williamson