Saturday, November 26, 2011

A super girl becomes a Supreme for a day

A fictionalized  version of a wonderful true story.

    (11/24/2014) Candi was a sort of magical girl at William Penn Elementary School. She smelled of April Violets by Yardley, and she chewed grape-flavored gum. This seemed like such an inspired "calling card" that it left us feeling we couldn't possibly compete for male attention. We just gave up from the git go. She was obliviously beautiful, with her wild, curly black hair, full lips and cafe-au-lait skin. She managed to be smart and very creative (Crayola masterpieces) without evoking jealousy -- not an easy feat in our youthful hotbed of gossip and pecking orders. I think most of us had at least a little crush on her -- boys and girls alike. Candi had fabulously white teeth, which I noticed and envied even way back then, before "whitening" was an issue, and she had the longest eyelashes I'd ever seen. Her ballerina posture and unflappable nonchalance added to her "above it all" air, although we realized she wasn't arrogant -- she was a loner. She was a mystery. We watched her, quietly musing about what made her tick, and adored her from afar.    
    Her twin sister Carla was her greatest fan. She was a sensitive, tenderhearted  girl, but she had a broad, plain face, and she lumbered around the schoolyard while Candi glided, apparently immersed in a world of her own. Carla had bought the April Violets as a gift for Candi. She herself smelled like bacon.  I loved the smell of bacon before I "went vegan," but Carla  got nicknamed "Porky" because of her unmistakable aroma. I was truly relieved when I was nicknamed "Saliva," which I hoped would make Carla feel better.  
  As is so often the case in the unfolding of lives, there would be unexpected and startling reversals of fortune as the twins grew up.

Twins forever and always.
     I met the two girls whom everyone referred to as "the twins" when I was in fifth grade. They weren't really twins, or even blood relatives: They had been adopted as infants on the same day by an earnest, modest young couple, who'd just emigrated from Barcelona, Spain. The pair only asked for one baby, but both of these were olive-skinned, and it would be hard to find homes for them in "white and delitesome" 1950s Salt Lake City. The Castillos were enchanted by the thought of having two daughters who could grow up as best friends. They embarked on a mission to become thoroughly Americanized, which is pretty sad, in my opinion. I'm glad that people today retain a pride in their heritage and continue to observe some of their rituals. Candi and Carla were forbidden to speak Spanish, although they managed to acquire a smattering of useful phrases such as estamos unitos para siempre (we are united forever).
     The fact that they were regarded as twins made the contrast in their attractiveness and scholastic achievement all the more noticeable.     
I can still smell it, 55 years later.
Such an inspired combination. And color-coordinated too!
    Carla worked harder on her lessons than the winsome Candi did, but she just didn't have much focus. She didn't grasp ideas, and she didn't retain the tiresome facts that we were expected to memorize (state capitals, early world explorers, types of dinosaurs) (how vital these bits of knowledge have been to our lives! Vasco da Gama! What crap!). 
    Carla couldn't even seem to hold a pencil correctly with her small, blunt hands, much less perfect her penmanship (more crap) or sketch a tree. Darling Candi would often go over to her sister's desk and try to help her. Carla's humiliation seemed to dissolve under the affectionate gaze of her twin. When I tried to help her, she looked right through me, too proud or ashamed to accept my compassion. That would soon change, and she became a dear friend.
Candi's toothbrusing created a reverie of billowing mintiness.
    Carla always went into a reverie of love and longing when she talked to me about her sister. "When she brushes her teeth, our whole house, and even the yard, smell like spearmint. How does she do that? Crying babies start cooing if she picks them up. Neighborhood kitties who run away from everyone else come running to her. When she walks into a noisy room, silence happens. People stare with their mouths open. She is the best sister anyone could want. She always sticks up for me, and when she gets invited somewhere, she doesn't say 'Can Carla come?' She says, 'I'm bringing Carla.' I'm such a nothing person.  But she says to me 'You are perfect, mi querida hermana," and some day everyone will know it'." 

   Candi could leap into her closet moments before the school bus arrived, and emerge looking like a model for American Girl magazine, so cute and accessorized. Carla had agonized the night before, laying one outfit after another on her bed, and never managed to put anything together that didn't look oafish. Oafish is a word she often used to describe herself (she had overheard the school principal describing her that way. What a terrible ass he was), but instead of being resentful of her sister's offhand panache, she loved her to pieces and followed her around like a homeless puppy. Candi loved her "oafish" sister equally. Even though hugging wasn't big back then, she often threw her arms around her short, squat sister during recess and kissed her squarely on the mouth. "I just love you, sis!" she would declare.

"Brutish Oaf" by OzPlasmic


    Something happened (in addition to the usual things): Carla, emboldened by her sister's encouragement, tried out for our junior high school's girls' softball team. She was killer good! She could slam it way into outfield, run like a wildebeest and slide onto the base with no regard for modesty or injury. She became a star athlete, and the boys found this to be surprisingly sexy. She also also inadvertently discovered that she could write fiction that delighted her classmates, despite the fact that she still couldn't grasp the pencil properly. 

    The first time a teacher read one of her stories aloud, and had the class roaring with pleasure at her quirky, self-deprecating sense of humor, "It was the greatest day of my life," she told me. She had never felt accepted before -- to be valued was so exhilarating -- and it was her talent for crafting these thoughtful, witty gems that would eventually get her a scholarship in Creative Writing at the University.
     Then there was Candi. Suddenly (and quite bravely, given our Blonde and Blue-Eyed Aesthetic, and pervasive racism) she began confiding in people that she was "a Negro." She had been confused for years, she told Carla, by her feeling that she was not just a "browner shade of pale" than her adoptive parents. 

    As she became exposed to black people, who were -- every once in a while -- shown on TV, she felt a yearning, a beckoning, that these were "her people." Candi had been listening to black records for several years, and she told Carla, "that's my vibe!" It would be years before I ever heard of anyone using that word again. But Candi became obsessed with Mary Wells ("My Guy"), The Marvelettes ("Please, Mr. Postman"), The Emotions, Patty LaBelle and the Bluebells, Gladys Knight, and Aretha. The thing that clinched it was seeing The Supremes on "The Ed Sullivan Show." 
    She fell in love with Diana Ross. She was so in love that she was convinced they were related. She held a picture of Diana next to her face and looked in the mirror. They could have been sisters, she thought. They could even have been twins! But Carla would still be her twin, too, she hastily added.
"I look just like her," Candi said.
    "That is who I want to be," she said.
    It would be several years before Afros became cool, but in high school, Candi began wearing her hair "natural" -- wildly full and curly -- instead of using a brush and dryer to loosen it into soft waves.
    Once Candi decided she had black ancestry, it wasn't hard to discern it in her appearance. This was a deep, serious thing for her -- not some passing fancy. For her to "come out" as "Negro" took as much guts at that time as coming out as gay. I had never seen one black person in Salt Lake City. But Candi persuaded a friend in the 10th grade, who had just gotten her driver's permit, to take her to the west side of town to find "her people." 

West Second South was synonymous with whores and evildoers.

    The west side, we had been taught, was where all the bad people were. The poor people, criminals, gangs, greasers, the kids who would either wind up as juvenile delinquents or at "Trade Tech," which we snooty east-siders regarded as a dump for losers and low-class dopes. We were so messed up about that sort of thing -- it makes me sick that I didn't see the cruelty and the pure idiocy of these class distinctions, but I was as guilty as anyone of embracing them. It would require moving to New York City to cure me of such disgraceful attitudes.
The west side was a hotbed of bad boys.....

....not to mention a bunch of sexy, smooth-talking "Negroes."
    Candi wasn't plagued by these issues. Her problem was her parents. They were heartbroken. They were furious. They refused to permit her to seek out her birth mother, and instead took her to a clinical psychologist downtown. Like everyone else, he was very taken with Candi, and he told her parents that she had excellent  mental health. She had compassion, complexity and resiliency, he told them. She had a solid ego without a drop of narcissism.  "She may very well have at least one Negro parent," he told them. "Let the girl be who she wants to be."

    The Castillos did not regard themselves as racists.Indeed, they had indoctrinated their girls -- as my parents did -- with the conviction that every race, religion and ethnicity was to be equally respected and even treasured for its uniqueness.

    They had nothing against African Americans. But hanging around with black boys was another matter. The thought of their daughter in the arms of a "Negro" tore them to pieces, even though their favorite couple in their bowling league was African American, and they occasionally went out to dinner or a movie with them. Even so, they forbade Candi from "consorting" with black boys, and ordered her to stay away from the west side. 
    My father was the same way. It was he, more than anyone, who had taught me to love black people. He had grown up in the 1920s South, and he had seen the hideous cruelty of racism. But when I pulled into the driveway one day in a black Volvo with a handsome young black man, he was furious. "There's nothing he can possibly see in you but sex," he said. I was shocked, although I would later learn that sex is a big part of prejudice. I told my Dad, "What you just said says more about you than it does about black men." It would be decades before he claimed to be comfortable with interracial dating, and a lot of people still aren't. White men are quite insecure as a group, it seems. They fear that "their women" are going to be swept away and "sullied" or "violated" by the animal passions of those in "out groups." Those "big black studs" threaten their manhood. A lot of "yellow peril" and anti-Semitic propaganda had this same theme, and even the early anti-Mormon tirades had a sexual focus.

The yellow peril: Lock up your women!

Icky-fingered Jews are diabolically seductive!

Mormons are a sex-obsessed cult. They're insatiable!
    For weeks, it seemed that the whole Castillo family was crying practically every day. Then there was the yelling. And then there was more crying. The parents didn't want to lose their daughter to a dangerous "subculture." And they didn't want her to plunge into a world in which she would face prejudice for the rest of her life.
     This was the first rupture of any consequence that the Castillos and their beloved twins had ever experienced. Candi was heartbroken. She had actually expected her parents to be joyful that she had found her "real" identity and was proud of it.
    Candi increasingly remained in her room, reading Ebony Magazine and listening to black music: Sam Cooke, The Drifters,  Ray Charles, The Shirelles........she loved them all. 

    Carla didn't mind. "I think maybe she really is black," she said. "I'm starting to wonder what I really am. I always felt like I was Mexican, but I don't feel it anymore, and I don't look right. I look more Mayan than Mexican. Mayan or Mestizos."
    As Candi emphasized her "blackness" -- by emphasizing her full lips, lying out in the sun to get darker skin, and wearing ethnic clothing -- she really was looking like a very beautiful young black woman. Pretty soon, she would turn 16, and she would drive to the west side whenever she wanted, and hang out with her "peeps."
    With her babysitting money, she bought an old reel-to-reel  recorder from a pawn shop and spent hours in her room taping herself singing Supremes' songs. 

    I was there one afternoon to work on a science project with Carla, and I heard her singing "Baby Love" and "Back in My Arms Again." I was stunned. She sounded good, and she sounded black, and she sounded beautiful. She sounded like Diana Ross! I burst into her room, where she was sitting on her bed holding a microphone, and embraced her.
    "You could make it big," I told her.
    "I don't want to be a singer -- I just want to be Diana Ross as a person, Syl," she said. "She's my role model for how to look and how to be. A lady! And a black lady. I still want to go into obstetrics. When I sing 'Baby Love,' I really am thinking about how much I love babies."

    The Castillo home was a changed place. The warmth and vitality were gone as this racial tension simmered. The yelling had stopped. Now, it seemed, resentment and hurt feelings dominated. As the weeks passed, though, I sensed a softening in the twins' parents. One day, Mr. Castillo asked Candi to sing for his friends, who were coming over to play some low-stakes poker in the basement.
    Candi was ecstatic at this breakthrough. This was acceptance. It was pride. She practiced for days. When the men took a "snack break," she went downstairs in her favorite dashiki and her jeans and earth shoes. She'd used a pick to fluff out her cute Afro, and she'd glossed up those yummy lips in a burnished coral color.
There was no way you'd find one of these on "the good side of town."
   The men seemed amused but indulgent as she turned the record on low and waited for the music to begin. But when she sang along to "I Hear a Symphony" and "Nothing but Heartaches," their amusement quickly transitioned into surprise. Carla and I were hiding on the stairs, peeking down to see how she was received.
    All of us were quite blown away by the quality and passion of Candi's singing. Tears streamed down Carla's cheeks as she whispered, "She is so cool. I am totally in love with my sister!" 
    Tears were streaming down her dad's cheeks, too. I was almost 16, and I had never seen a man cry before. It was possibly the greatest affirmation he could have given to his black daughter.

    A few days later, the Castillos announced that they were taking the twins to Las Vegas for their sixteenth birthday, which was on June 29, 1967. They would have dinner, see a show, and spend the night at the Flamingo Hotel. 
    So here was the big deal: 

    Carla was in on this "surprise treat," and had easily distracted Candi from the marquee when the family arrived by cab from the airport. Candi was under the impression that they would be going to a generic "Vegas show," with some comedy, acrobatics, magic, sexy girls, the usual.
    So when the family settled into their front row banquette and ordered a bottle of wine, she was excited but not yet freaked out. She and Carla wore identical long taffeta sheath dresses, the kind The Supremes often wore. Candi's was rose and she wore matching lip gloss. Carla's was aqua, and she wore a tiny bit of matching eye shadow.

The Supremes at the Flamingo Hotel on June 29, 1967.
    Comedian London Lee performed his "poor little rich kid" routine, warming up the audience very well with his wry, New York attitude.
    And then the curtain rose.
    And there were The Supremes.
    The Castillos and Carla watched Candi's face as shock and awe and overwhelming joy took it over. She gasped. She covered her face and kind-of sobbed, and then she stood up briefly to embrace her parents and Carla.
     "Baby, baby: where did our love go?" The Supremes sang, gloriously vibrant in their sunflower yellow gowns. Candi mouthed the words to all of the songs: "You just Keep Me Hanging On," "Back in My Arms Again," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "Come See About Me," and "My World is Empty Without You."
    They got a standing ovation.
    "And now we have a unique treat for you," Diana Ross proclaimed in her breathy voice. "A special girl is here tonight on her 16th birthday, and we'd like her to come up and sing the lead for our next song. Candi Castillo: this is your moment!"
    Candi seemed elated, and then a moment of panic overtook her, but she quickly composed herself. After all, she'd been practicing for about four years. She knew ever lilt and vibrato, every sigh and harmonic interlude, of all the songs. She squeezed Carla's hand, and strode up to the stage.
She was ready.
    She looked like she belonged up there. She was black, and she was beautiful. Diana Ross embraced her, then Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. They whispered to her about which song she'd like to perform. She didn't hesitate: "Love is Here and Now You're Gone." Candi's voice was strong as Diana joined the backup singers in providing harmony. Candi loved this song especially because of its emotional power. She poured forth with a radiant anguish that seemed like a catharsis for the past several years of racial ambiguity and tension. She was free now, and there was ecstasy in the agony as she sang:
Love is here and
Oh, my darling, now you're gone
Love is here and
Oh, my darling, now, now you're gone

You persuaded me to love you
And I did
But instead of tenderness
I found heartache instead
Into your arms I fell
So unaware of the loneliness
That was waiting there

You close the door to your heart
And you turned the key
Locked your love away from me

Love is here and
Oh, my darling, now you're gone
You made me love you
And oh, my darling, now you're gone

You said loving you would make life beautiful
With each passing day
But as soon as love came into my heart
You turned and you walked, just walked away

You stripped me of my dreams
You gave me faith, then took my hope
Look at me now

Look at me
See what loving you has done to me
Look at my face
See how cryin' has left its trace

After you made me all your own
Then you left me all alone
You made your words sound so sweet
Knowing that your love I couldn't keep

My heart cries out for your touch
But you're not there
And the lonely cry fades in the air

Love is here and
Oh, my darling, now you're gone
Love is here and
Oh, my darling, now you're gone

You made me love you
Oh, my darling, now you're gone
You made me love you
Oh, my darling, now you're gone

     She especially loved the part where Diana cried, "You stripped me of my dreams," in a tone that conveyed both rage and devastation. She must have had a bit of that inside herself as well, and it surged out of her, as if it were cleansing her spirit.
    The Supremes had gotten a standing ovation, but Candi got a "standier" ovation. She had tears on her cheeks, and so did a lot of other people, including Diana Ross.
    Candi did go on to become an obstetrician. She married a tall, handsome young black man of Caribbean descent who taught African Studies at the University. She delivered hundreds of babies, and gave birth to two of her own.
Carla found her proud heritage.
    Carla got the blessing of her parents to find her real racial identity, and learned that she was Native American. Her father had been Navajo, her mother Ute. She became a successful short-story writer and had a long, rewarding career at a small liberal arts college, heading up its creative writing program.
    Carla and Candi are both grandmothers now. Their lives have been supreme indeed.

NOTE TO CANDI: Guess what -- I copied you without meaning to, when I moved to New York. Instead of your April Violets/grape gum "trademark aroma," I found myself using pink baby lotion and chewing Double Bubble gum. I was yummy! Not as delicious as you, but it did the job. Now I use lemon extract and pure peppermint oil.