Vertigo -- creative nonfiction by Gabrielle Beck
Donna Summer’s ethereal voice melted on the record player’s rusting needle while she rolled each body of flour and sugar, water and yeast. She twisted until the two ends touched in harmony. I sat cross-legged as she sculpted the challah with calloused palms, embedding love within every crevice of the dough.
Taste, Bubbe pleaded as the clamor of Queens, New York crescendoed. Echoes of police sirens and teenagers beatboxing around the corner and the slam of basketballs colliding with concrete writhed through the hollow apartment walls. I can't hear ya, but I know what ya saying. My Bubbe only reads lips. She refused to wear a hearing aid. She said she'd earned her right not to listen to people's shenanigans. I sat on the floor watching 21 Jump Street thinking Tom Hanson was cute, and I ate bits of challah while pulling it apart like Legos after a colossal collapse. Bubbe, grasping a handheld dustbuster, swooshed me away to clean the already spotless kitchen.
After pretending to wipe away stray crumbs and dough remnants, I pulled out her scrapbook albums from the armoire and laid them out on the floor. I admired the photographs from her youth, the ones that time managed to filter out everything but her. Cheekbones slathered in bubblegum pink rouge and lashes drenched in the tar of Maybelline, hair permed and teased to maximum height—all immortalized in the haze of pixels. I’d sit on her couch on weekends as she told her stories of young motherhood living in the boroughs at the same time as a Walkman hung on my grandma’s widening hips and Madonna graced magazine covers. I found the corresponding picture of each narrative and traced its origin. While I flipped through the pages upon pages of photographs, I longed to be embedded within them. I wanted to escape my bleak reality; I wanted to live without the constant friction of latex gloves between my hands; I wanted to forget the sound of Purell landing on my fingertips.
Bubbe made up for the confiscated challah by taking me for a pastrami on rye at Ragtime Deli, right on Cross Bay Boulevard. Beads of sweat trickled along thick gold rope chains and deft hands pressed the ends of calzones.
“I miss all a youse,” she declared to the deli men. Her thick Queens accent was ever-so comforting to my ears. I spied Bubbe reaching for a box of Lorna Doones despite kvetching about going on a diet. It wasn't the quantity in question. It was quality. Bubbe liked old things.
“Antony, get me some hamburgah meat and a poundah peppah loaf.” She stood adorned in an Iris Apfel carcanet, goggles, and a zebra print mask. This was the one day a week she could venture past the confines of her apartment. While Bubbe’s attention was leaning toward the specialty breads, I walked to the window staring at Cross Bay Boulevard that no longer vibrated with its bustling spirit: boarded up diners, barren avenues, independently-owned-turned-fast-food chains. My mind blurred the lines between past and present, hope and despair. Closing restaurants effervesced into the Silver Street Disco blaring “Stayin Alive” while girls pranced around with crimped hair in Jordache Jeans and boys sat under fluorescent light with Members Only jackets—oblivious to the perils of 2020.
We walked out of RagTime, but I remained tethered to a romanticized version of the past. I ignored the darkness that pervaded Queens’ history. As Bubbe drove past the boulevard, I saw flickering street lights illuminating this desolate strip of the city. My time capsule took me to Crossbay Lanes as “Celebration” roared from the speakers and swift feet in Reebok sneakers shifted towards bowling pins. Bubbe stood with her waist cinched by Gitanos while my grandpa grabbed his compact to check his pompadour hair. He’d bought her an Orange Julius and a box of Chuckles.
Bubble continued driving down Cross Bay Boulevard to Ozone Park to Woodhaven to Rego Park. My nostalgic daze couldn’t withstand the chronic honks that reverberated through the potholed roads. Wading in and out of 2020 and the 1980s, I entered a state of vertigo. There was a strong sense of dizziness that caught me and I was grasping for balance. Disillusioned by global warming, a devastating pandemic, and the inheritance of a fragmented nation, it was easier to surrender to a false reality.
Hiding from the side-view mirrors that forced me to see clearly, I held my eyes to the sky.
Gabrielle Beck is a junior attending Tenafly High School. When she is not writing or photographing, she can be found repurposing vintage denim. She is a finalist for New York Times “Coming of Age in 2020: A Special Multimedia Contest for Teenagers,” and recognized by the National Council of Teacher's of English.