One of our friends snapped this photo. Probably Andy, or whatever girlfriend he had along that day. We’re standing in a parking lot. Don’t know why. He’s got an arm around me. I’m wearing his corduroy blazer. He liked for me to wear that. Said the color went with my hair.
Gosh, we look so happy. Young, and dumb—but happy.
We were happy. Not because of anything in particular we were doing! In those days the guys just circled tirelessly in their cool cars, blasting music with their 8-tracks. Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf—stuff you never hear anymore, even on the golden oldies station. To save my soul, I can’t recall what we talked about.
I think what made him and me happy was just that we’d gotten so close that year, like family.
Maybe better than family. In my experience family wasn’t always so great. Especially Bernie, who used to rub up against my boobs and say creepy things when Momma wasn’t around. Back when I was a kid, Momma used to be beautiful. Here’s an old picture of her. Will you look at that! That’s when we were close. But by this time, Momma just looked tired and frazzled. She seemed to want me out of the house.
Still, I knew what family ought to mean. It ought to be your source of comfort and support. In a family that’s working right, those are the people you can show your real self to. And everybody loves one another, you know, just for being who they are.
Even if you’re just somebody who rides around town listening to music.
The oldie I associate with those days is “Cherish.”
And I do. I cherish the memory of that time. And that guy.
He said I’d made his life sweeter. Guess I do remember things we talked about. He wanted to see my life get better, too. So, we figured greater things were coming. Meanwhile, we chased all over creation in his pitiful little six-cylinder Mustang—the car I said was pulled by six white mice. He didn’t mind the kidding. He’d put racing stripes and fake hood pins on the thing, but next to Andy’s rumbling GTO or Julian’s Camaro or Gene’s sexy Jaguar—it was a toy. An imitation muscle car was all his dad would let him have. That was okay. What happened inside it was real.
I remember how we laughed about the goofy sound track to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that filled the theatre while Clint Eastwood went cantering across the lonesome desert, that brassy horse laugh—wah-WAH-wah—and the chanting from an invisible chorus. “Where are those guys?” He whispered in my ear. “Who’s that singing out in the middle of nowhere?” We clamped our noses and slid down in our seats, giggling like kids.
We didn’t always laugh at the same things, but we never fought. Not once.
We did the opposite of fighting.
And that was what messed things up. If we hadn’t done that, we could’ve kept on.
But his parents and my mom both got in the act, when they found out. They barged between us the way referees get between opponents on the wrestling programs. And after that happened, no crazy stunts on my part or his really made much difference.
Older girls had told me, unanimously, from their greater experience, that guys were bad news—fickle, dishonest, lazy, undisciplined, disloyal, unreliable, selfish, intolerant, disrespectful, petty, manipulative, nasty, perverted, short-tempered, sometimes even violent. All men had glaring faults. “Not mine,” I argued. They’d just smiled, sadly. “You’ll learn,” they said. “Everybody has to learn the hard way.”
His failing was just the way he deferred to his parents. I could not comprehend that. I would have cheerfully defied everybody, if he’d been willing to do the same. It would have been tough, on our own, but I thought we could do it. But if we did, his parents said, there’d be no college. They wouldn’t pay for it, anyway. They figured no support from them would be enough to discourage me. See, they pegged me as a gold-digger. I didn’t care about their stupid money. But he chose college. At the end of that summer, he left. And then his family moved away, too. Which meant he wouldn’t be coming back.
I looked for reasons to despise him. I have this hazy memory of opening the door one night, after I had an apartment, to find him staggering all disheveled into my arms, giggling foolishly, completely drunk. Or more likely he wasn’t drunk but only pretending, as part of some juvenile game, which repelled me. Or maybe he didn’t do that, and I only dreamed it. I don’t remember how that visit ended, so maybe it never even happened.
Well, anyway, he was too dependent on his parents, afraid to think for himself or take a stand. Immature. Lacking in confidence. Good to know before he’d had a chance to let me down in other ways. But that brought little comfort. Even if it was true, thinking it spoiled my memories of his laugh and his corny sweet talk. And the magic. If, by some miracle, he did come back, I would still be his.
Instead, I had Craig, the manager of the office where I worked after high school. Craig was twenty-five! But for a while he sort of filled the void.
Craig worried me, though, the way he’d lie in that sweaty bed raving about how I was so much better even than the wife who’d dumped him. And his talk of setting up house with me, right then and there, just scared me.
Craig was my boss! Things became awkward.
So I quit that job and got away from Craig. I know when that guy showed up at the door, late at night, I didn’t open it.
But then other guys were lining up. I dated. The time with him had been Good. I thought going through the same motions with someone else might recapture that. First thing I know, Ken’s giving me a diamond ring. I accepted. He seemed so desperate that I take it.
Then our paths crossed one last time, in another parking lot. Guess he was in town visiting Andy, doing the rounds for old times’ sake. There they sat, idling in Andy’s car, saying silly stuff around the same music, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, honey. Don’t you know that I love you? And I flashed that ring at him. It was a hateful thing to do, but I was so mad because he’d waited till then to show up. “Best wishes to you,” he’d responded sincerely. His last words to me.
Ken sold insurance, but wasn’t very good at it. He wasn’t very good at anything, really, from washing dishes on up. But I meant it when I recited those vows, so this was just something to accept, like the humidity. However, Ken grew worried about the other men, the ones who’d been there before. Prior to the wedding, it didn’t seem to bother him, not being the first. Afterward, he asked again and again for details—what, exactly, I’d done with whom, and how many times. What is it about guys? I have never understood their fascination with that. I told Ken what he wanted to hear, of course, like I’d been crazy ever to look at anyone but him. But that didn’t help. “Tell me the truth,” he demanded bitterly. “You liked every bit of it, didn’t you?”
What could I do? Nobody can change the past. Was I supposed to make it up to Ken in some other way?
So Ken gradually lost interest in me, and that was fine. Fortunately, there were no kids.
Oh, where was my sweetie now? Even Momma asked about him. If he picked this time to show up, maybe things could work out between us. Now we were adults.
But I knew better than to expect another chance at that. Sometimes, however, I did imagine reliving those days in high school. It seemed we must have romped together like puppies, just as innocent as you please. Maybe innocent isn’t the right word. Still, desire had not been the thing that drove me then. It was love. Being close just felt right, even though it was a sin.
I quit worrying about the sin part. What we did never felt wrong, and I never regretted it, even when I was apologizing to Ken. But if I could go back, and do it all over? I would keep my legs together. Because that way, I could have remained his girl, with both families’ blessings, until the time was right to marry.
Before I knew it, I found myself with Jack, a guitar player who smoked weed and who imagined that conventions such as holding a steady job applied only to lesser individuals. Jack stuck around, enjoying a home base in which he could write songs and jam with his friends. His music wasn’t bad, maybe better than the stuff we listened to in the old days. I liked hearing a piece take shape, from that first riff through to the finished product. But I was never really a part of what he was into. Just an observer. Jack gave me my three children. Then, bored with babies, he took off.
Those kids became my life. Faye, the feisty one. With her, the “terrible twos” lasted till she was twenty. Sally, the party girl, so much like the way I used to be, always flinging herself into fun and good times. And Jeff, my handsome, wonderful, thoughtful son Jeff.
Michael came along—so tall, the tallest man I’d ever been with, but gentle, kind, accepting. He liked my kids and they liked him just fine. And he was a bank manager, which meant security.
“You’d better grab this one,” Momma warned. “You screwed up a lot of times, girl. Do something smart for a change.”
So I did. I married Michael and our years together rolled by. Five. Ten – the first time I’d made it to two digits with anyone. Fifteen. Twenty. Can you believe it, Momma? Two decades with the same man.
“You think you’ve accomplished something, try being married just one day to Bernie,” Momma said, drawing hard on a cigarette.
Having emerged from the Bad, I supposed I could count on smooth sailing from here on in. But I hadn’t yet encountered the Ugly. Worse than ugly—unspeakable. One night, as Jeff was locking up the Outback Steakhouse that he managed, a stranger shot him five times and left him to bleed to death on the pavement. It wasn’t a robbery. It wasn’t anybody with a grudge against him. It just happened. A pointless, random act.
That’s when I stopped talking for a while. For the longest time, Michael could get only a pitiful croak in response to anything he said to me. Let’s go to Myrtle Beach. Let’s take a drive through the mountains. Let me treat you to a makeover.
No. Not now. No. Thanks.
Faye and Sally came over every day, bringing their children: Millie, Robin, Justin, Alicia. The house became noisy, and gradually I found my way back by watching the little ones horsing around. Faye’s pregnant again. “There’s strength in numbers,” she says. “We’re gonna fill the world with your grandchildren, Ma!”
She’s certainly making good-looking children. I have to allow that. I don’t believe I have ever seen anything so beautiful. Just look at these pictures of them.
This is how I got to be where I am tonight. Which isn’t such a bad place. When I hear my husband’s heavy tread on the stairs, I realize his footsteps might very well sound the same now. It could have been him coming up to me. And here’s a thought. If it were, things probably wouldn’t be any better than they are.