The Terrycloth Bathrobe

by

06/13/2021

Neighborhood: East Village, NoHo

The late afternoon, graying quickly, was sweet with surprising warmth. Days such as this wouldn’t come again for at least a month. A reward, it seemed, for surviving another dank and joyless February in New York City. 

My birthday was in March, and even at my age, I looked forward to the day with a childlike sense of hope, as though anything were possible. I had learned, though, to plan my own celebrations.

Benjamin and I were both skipping along as we came to our building door. I was tired, but giddy, too, eased by the velvety breeze that ruffled the air. Benjamin jumped from crack to crack in the sidewalk, so I left the front door ajar for him, and stepped inside to check the mailbox. A large package was propped on the radiator that was still steaming and hissing, despite the mild spell. The address on the brown paper wrapping was blurred a bit, having dampened and then dried, but I could see my name. “Hey, Benj, look, a package,” I called out the door. My curly-haired boy rushed inside, flushed and breathless. “Is it for me?” he asked, barely pausing his headlong rush up the stairs when I said, “No, honey, it’s for me.”

What a funny kid. It just didn’t matter to him—he didn’t have that need, that want, I had, that I’d always had. I didn’t even know what it was I wanted, but I knew I didn’t have it. He never wanted anything, the silly boy.

We got upstairs and I set the package aside, and moved through the motions of coming home, settling in for the evening, sipping from my now cold morning cup of coffee, and planning for dinner. Benjamin was chattering away in his room as he unpacked his backpack, sharing his day with Teddy and Ike and the other stuffed animals.

Soon, I had a pot of soup simmering away and bread warming in the oven. I picked up the brown-papered box and ran my fingernail against the clear plastic tape tucked around the side. I loosened the other side and pulled the wrapping off. The large white box had the name of a store scrawled in gold lettering across the lid, followed by the words, Beverly Hills, California. Wow, I thought, as I opened it. Who do I know in California?

Folds of crisp white tissue hid the contents of the box, but I did not hesitate long before lifting the thin paper to see what lay beneath. The terrycloth was like none I’d touched before, thick and soft, the palest pink. I pulled the robe out of the box and held it against myself. It was full and long, going all the way down to my ankles, but also graceful and feminine, not shapeless and bulky like other terrycloth bathrobes I’d seen. A square ivory envelope fluttered to the floor; the letter B was embossed in old-fashioned script just above the sealed flap.

The pale creamy card inside said: “Susie, I wish I could be with you on this special day! Love, Mama.”

I had gone through a phase when I was gangly and tongue-tied, when I wanted to be a graceful Sue not a Susan, and for a time people had called me that. In small-town Massachusetts, they like to shorten girls’ names; everyone was Deb, or Pat, or Sue, or Jen. There was another girl in junior high glee club whose name was Susan, but she was called Su-su, and people said she did things with boys. I was thrilled with the knowledge, but could not imagine myself as Su-su. And no one, ever, had called me Susie. What a fun, carefree name, for someone not at all like me.

I don’t know what I called my mother. All the words I might have used stick together in my throat. How could they spill out now? I probably called her Mom, or Mother. Something like that. But not Mama. That was a name for a mother who held you in her arms, who smelled of yeast and sugar and whose soft hands dried your tears, whose kind face stood between you and the world.

Benjamin asked me about the package, “Is that a present from Grandma?” “I guess so,” I said, “Isn’t it beautiful?” He asked, “Is it your birthday, Mummy?” No, I said, not for three more weeks, a long time away still. But he was hungry, and the soup was steaming in his bowl, and his eyes were full of cheese and bread and his thoughts did not linger on my surprising good fortune.

After supper, I put our dishes in the sink and picked up the paper wrapping from the package. I looked at it more carefully now and saw what I had quickly overlooked before. The name was like mine, but the last two letters were different. It read: Susan Landau. The address was very close. She lived at 7 Bleecker Street. I lived at 1 Bleecker.

As though the answer were being spelled out for me by a spiritualist with a Ouija board, the pieces slid together. The swirling B on the delicate envelope was from her mother, Barbara Bain. She had played the elegant Cinnamon on the TV show “Mission: Impossible,” opposite Martin Landau, Susie’s father. I remembered reading the gossipy note in the New York Post: Their daughter had come to the Big Apple to study film at NYU.

I hung the pink robe in the bathroom. Each morning, I slipped into it after I took my bath. How could a fabric feel so fine, like a caress, like a whisper of spring? The man from UPS came to our apartment door one night while we were having supper, and asked me if I had seen a package that he’d left in the stairwell of my building. I assured him I’d seen no packages, and he and I shook our heads in rueful agreement when he said what a bad neighborhood this was, so many junkies now on every corner.

I kept the bathrobe for years and years, wrapping myself in Mama’s love, until the terrycloth wore thin as gauze. I thought Benjamin had forgotten all about the gift, but one evening when he was much older, he teased me “Hey Mums, isn’t that the bathrobe you stole?”

***

Susan T. Landry is a writer and an editor. For life-blood money, she is a medical manuscript editor, editing articles for medical journals; and for pleasure and less money, she is also an editor of other writers’ stories. She founded and managed an online literary journal about memoir, called “Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie,” which is no longer publishing; Susan previously edited the print journal, “Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir.” She lived in NYC for many years, and on the Bowery from 1978 to 1991. Susan now lives in Maine.

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§ 2 Responses to “The Terrycloth Bathrobe”

  • Joseph Samuels says:

    I love the way you describe the characters of New York, including yourself. Like adding the colors to a blank canvas you build your portrait. So talented!!
    I want to thank you for your comments on my story, Yorkville A Neighborhood In Transition. It was my first ever submission and to have someone as talented as you appreciate it was quite an ego boost.
    Thank you!!

  • thanks so much for your kind words! i look forward to your next story.

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