One summer, my stepfather, Roy, went someplace to dry out. No one gave me any details. He just disappeared, and then he was back, a ghastly figure wasted by cirrhosis, wavering in the kitchen as I hurried out of the house, plane ticket in hand, off to visit my aunt in Rhode Island.
“It’s just for a week or two, Lillian,” my mother whispered, shoving ten dollars at me for the cab to the airport. As I followed the front walk across our overgrown lawn, St. Augustine grass muscling up through the cracks in the concrete, I wondered what my mother was planning to do with Roy. He had seemed like such a nice guy when she married him, with his big, square head and crinkly eyes. I still wore the topaz earrings he’d given me then.
After ten days of making crab-apple jelly with my Aunt Cleo, I returned home to Florida and found Roy gone, along with my mother’s bedroom furniture. My mother and I never mentioned his name again, referring to him only as Mistake Number Two.
“You’ve got a way with men,” I’d tell her.
“Yeah, a bad way,” she’d answer with a smile as bright and brittle as a Christmas ornament.
We sold the big brick house on Evergreen Avenue and moved to a brand-new second-story apartment with a vaulted ceiling, a view of the swimming pool, and a nearby canal where other residents tethered their yachts and motorboats. My mother kept a bright yellow canoe on the lawn by the water. Every day, when she got home from her job in the school superintendent’s office, my mother would drag the canoe to the launching ramp, nose it into the water, and push off with her foot. Then, with swift, strong strokes, she’d paddle away. Sometimes I’d watch her from my bedroom window. As she got to the wider river, she’d shrug her shoulders and toss her head as if squirming out of a tight dress. Then she’d disappear around the bend.
We had moved out of my old high-school district, but since my mother had connections, I was able to keep going to the same school. She’d drive me in the mornings, and my boyfriend, Bo, would bring me home each afternoon in his ten-year-old Cadillac. He and I would spend the several hours before my mother’s return sliding around naked on my gold satin sheets. We called it our “afternoon snack.” “Going home to grab a snack,” we’d tell our friends when they asked why we didn’t stay and hang out with them in the Burger King parking lot.
Bo made fantastic pen-and-ink drawings: of creatures that were part human, part shoe; of flying ears with stars swirling out of them; of the canal floating in space; of Shakespeare sonnets written on long tongues. One wall of my bedroom was a private gallery of his works. All the pictures were inscribed: “To Lillian.”
The following spring, Bo’s senior prom was held at the women’s club, where my mom and Roy had been married in the garden a lifetime ago. I wore a blue dress from K-Mart with slits up to my thighs, and knee-high baby blue suede boots that had cost about five times as much as the dress. Bo wore a tuxedo jacket and jeans. We didn’t dance, just drank punch to relieve our cotton mouth and laughed at the corsaged girls and their hopeless-looking dates: an awkward parody of people having fun. With our matching long brown hair and our antireligious poems published side-by-side in the high-school literary magazine, Bo and I seemed destined to be together always.
After the prom, about ten of us got a room at the Holiday Inn, where we drank beer and smoked fat joints. Around 3 A.M. we snuck down to the pool, shed our clothes, and slowly entered the glowing turquoise water. Bo checked to see if any guys were glancing my way, but they were all laughing and spitting water at each other — all except Frankie Jacks, who looked at me and said, “Smile, Godiva.” Bo told Frankie to back off, and someone told Bo to lighten up.
Bo didn’t trust me — he knew he wasn’t the first — and although he said he loved me, I wasn’t sure he really liked me much. It was hard to tell sometimes. I sank down and let the water close over me, then pushed off against the side and soared underwater the whole length of the pool, imagining this must be how it felt to float in space. I thought a lot about space — all that starlight spattered across the infinite black like a shotgun blast, the endless nothingness.
We all got out, wrapped ourselves in thin white hotel towels, and packed back into the room. Most of us got at least partially dressed, but Dave and Linda stretched out pale and naked on one of the double beds. Soon all the guys were nudging each other, and I turned and saw Dave’s back arched like a bow and Linda’s bony legs protruding on either side of him like the legs of a grasshopper. Finally, Dave collapsed, and Linda trailed her fingers in the sweat on his back. Linda was one of my best friends. I felt creepy, as if I had defiled our friendship in some way by watching. Bo laughed, but he had a strange, uncertain look in his eyes, and we left about fifteen minutes later.
In the parking lot of my apartment complex, Bo turned off the engine in the Caddy. The dark clouds in the sky reflected the yellow light of the city. Plaintive frog mating calls rose up from the canal. Bo stared ahead at nothing. I felt disappointed. This was our prom night, and we weren’t even going to watch the sunrise together.
“You want to come in?” I asked.
Bo shook his head.
“What’s wrong?” I reached over and touched the black tuxedo jacket. He looked so handsome in it. But as soon as he felt my fingers on his sleeve, he jerked his arm away. I folded my hands in my lap and waited for him to say something.
“I can’t believe Linda did that in front of everybody,” he said finally.
“Linda?” I said. “It wasn’t like she was by herself.”
Bo didn’t answer.
There it was again: the whole “free love” idea sounded so good on paper, but if a girl actually lived the philosophy, then we all knew what she was. I didn’t need a crystal ball to see where this conversation was headed. My past experience — just one guy, one time, several months before I’d even met Bo — had a way of popping up in any arguments. Maybe I should have just gotten out of the car, but I didn’t want to lose him. Something had switched inside him like a light going off. I couldn’t tell what was happening, and I knew he wouldn’t tell me. Everyone is like a book, I thought, and we’re each written in a different language. Translation is impossible.
“I’d better go home,” he said.
He leaned over and gave me a dry kiss. Realizing he wasn’t going to walk me to the door, I got out and climbed the concrete stairs up to the apartment alone. By the time I looked back, the Caddy was gone.
Bo broke up with me that June. He never said why, but I had a feeling it had something to do with a green-haired girl on the swim team. I cried so violently that I vomited blood. I skipped the last three days of school, staying home and listening to my mother’s old Billie Holiday records and sneaking shots of whiskey from the bottle she saved for special occasions. The next weekend, I outlined my red eyes with thick black eyeliner and went to a keg party by myself. Dave and Linda were there, sharing a cigarette on the couch. Dave winked at me. Linda gave me a frosty smile. I wandered out the back door.
Frankie Jacks, with his squinty green eyes, thick sandy brown hair, and thin grin, was outside on the deck.
“Smile, Godiva,” he said and lit my cigarette. We stood there looking at each other for a long time.
On our second date, Frankie and I went to see Superfly, a movie Bo would never have dreamed of taking me to. Frankie was sweet, and I was sort of hoping that things with him would last awhile. Afterward, we pulled into the parking lot of my apartment complex. Through the plastic Mardi Gras beads hanging from the rearview mirror of Frankie’s van, I saw Bo’s parked black Caddy. “Oh, God,” I said.
“Want me to walk you to the door?” Frankie asked.
“No, better not,” I said, feeling pretty pissed. What I’d wanted to do was knock the hash pipe and the spare Kawasaki parts off the console between us, crawl into Frankie’s lap, and taste the salt on his lips for an hour or so. Instead, I let myself out, stepping on a copy of High Times lying on the floorboard.
I walked into the apartment and found my mother and Bo practically nestled on the sofa. Bo’s eyes were red from crying, and my mother gave me a helpless look. I lit a cigarette, sat down across from them, and propped my feet up on the coffee table covered with my mother’s Smithsonian magazines. She quickly excused herself and went off to her room. We heard her TV come on.
“So, is there any possibility of us ever getting back together again?” Bo asked.
I noticed a tiny burn hole in my silk shirt, the result of a popping marijuana seed. I looked back up at him, blew a trail of smoke over his head, and said, “Sorry, but no. I hope we can still be friends.”
Bo’s tears soaked his scraggly brown beard as he cursed Frankie Jacks and called him a back-stabber, even though they had never been friends. Finally he left. My mother came back into the living room as soon as the front door had shut. She sat down on a bar stool by the kitchen while I fixed a grilled cheese sandwich. Her hand twitched nervously on the counter.
“He was so upset,” she said. “He was crying. He told me that you hitchhike.”
Jackass, I thought, flipping the sandwich over. “Not anymore,” I told her. “I gave that up a couple of years ago.” It was the truth, but she turned away as if it hurt her deeply that I kept secrets from her. She’d once been my closest pal. When I was little, she would swing on the swings and play in the sandbox with me. Then, when I got older, we’d spend hours together at the mall and go for a banana split afterward. Now a worried-mother look shrouded her face.
The following week, my mother and I went shopping for a car. I think she was afraid that, without Bo to chauffeur me around, I’d start thumbing again. Or maybe she just wanted to show how much she trusted me. Or maybe she was just sick of sharing her car. All I know is she dragged me out of the apartment way too early on a Saturday morning to drive around to all the dealerships. We looked at a Chevy Nova, a Ford Pinto, and a few generic Buicks and Oldsmobiles. Then, after lunch, we pulled into the Volkswagen lot and I saw it instantly: a red beetle with a black top. I didn’t have to say a word. We both knew we’d found it. Regardless, Mom had to raise the requisite objections.
“Can you drive a stick shift?”
“I’ll learn,” I said.
“It doesn’t have air conditioning.”
She looked at the sticker price: not too high, not too low. “Where’s the damn salesman?” she wondered, her check-writing fingers wiggling.
I wore that car like a shell. Some nights, if I had nowhere to go, I’d just circle the neighborhood, shifting dreamily. When school started up again, I drove it every day to the small white house where Frankie Jacks lived with his mother. I’d take him to the junior college before heading to school myself. I usually made it to all my morning classes, but most afternoons I’d skip fifth and sixth periods to lie on Frankie’s undulating waterbed while he played licks on his electric guitar.
One night after dinner, I was sitting at home watching a Star Trek rerun without a care in the world — except maybe what Frankie Jacks was doing that night while he was “out with the boys.” Mom had made spaghetti, and the smell of tomato sauce and oregano lingered in the air. During a commercial, she sat down beside me and put her hand on my leg. Her skin was slightly splotched, and bunched up around the knuckles. She smelled like onions instead of her usual Estée Lauder. The commercial ended, and I turned back to the television.
“Lillian, isn’t it time to start thinking about college?” Mom asked.
“Well, what are you planning to do after you graduate?”
“Get a job, I guess,” I said, not wanting to pull myself away from the television set long enough to deal with her. It was the episode where Ricardo Montalban plays a superhunk from the end of the twentieth century. It must have been the forty-seventh time I’d seen that particular episode, but I wanted to watch it anyway.
“Lillian, how can you even consider not going to college?” Mom asked. “You’ve always loved books, and you’re a very bright girl —National Honor Society, for God’s sake.”
What I really wanted to do for the rest of my life was get stoned and lie around Frankie Jacks’s bedroom, or else work on movies about outer space. But these weren’t the answers my mother was looking for.
“I don’t want to get too smart, Mom,” I said. “I don’t want to end up like you.”
She sat motionless for a moment; then she stood up, walked to the front door, and opened it to leave. On the threshold, she wheeled around and seemed to come uncoiled, all her tight emotional wrapping slipping away.
“Things could have been different,” she said. “He tried to kill me. . . . Sometimes I wish he had.” Then she walked out and let the door slam behind her.
Let her go, I thought. I sat slumped on the couch, watching TV but not really seeing it. Maybe she wouldn’t come back. People had disappeared before — my father when I was six, my stepfather ten years later — just like Star Trek characters dissolving into molecular patterns in the transporter. Then my mother’s words began to sink in, and before they hit bottom I bolted up and dashed outside.
She wasn’t out front, and her Impala was still in the parking lot. I went around back to the pool. Empty lounge chairs were clustered together as if a party had ended abruptly, and a lone raft floated in the water. I clambered up on the diving board to look around, but there was no movement anywhere, except for the palm trees rustling in the autumn breeze. Then I saw her.
I raced around the pool and down along the thick cushion of grass to the canal. I could smell the brown water and decaying leaves. When I approached, my mother was dragging the canoe toward the ramp.
“Who tried to kill you?” I asked.
“Roy,” she said, kneeling by the canoe. I hunkered down next to her.
“While you were in Rhode Island,” she said, “he poured gasoline all over the bedroom and said he’d burn me alive.” The palm trees rattled their long, dry leaves. “I barely got away. I locked myself in the bathroom, then climbed out the window and went to a neighbor’s house to call the police.”
She rubbed her arms. I slid my fingers along the chrome edge of the canoe, remembering fights about life-insurance policies and about Roy having other women at our house. And I remembered how the bedroom furniture had disappeared while I was gone. He had tried to take my mother away from me, to leave me all alone. How different everything would have been without her. Suddenly it seemed as if she had always been with me, even when I was by myself, like that long cord that keeps astronauts from floating off into oblivion when they leave the spaceship.
She stood up.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Just out for a spin,” she said.
“Can I come with you?”
She handed me a paddle, and I guided the front of the boat down the ramp and into the murky water. The sky dangled a sliver of moon above us.
“You’ll wind up living in a trailer, married to some guy whose idea of a good time is to get his pickup stuck in the mud,” she said, pushing the back end of the boat.
“Oh, I won’t marry him,” I said. I stepped in and positioned myself in the front. The canoe shifted under my mother’s weight as she got in.
“At least take the damned SAT,” she said, dropping a small coil of rope into the bottom of the canoe.
“All right,” I said.
Her fingers gripped the paddle nervously, and she shoved us off. The canoe tottered for a moment before it slid across the black water and the night folded in around us.
What neither of us knew was that, before the school year was out, I would find myself on a path of self-destruction that would eventually bring my mother the atheist to her knees, begging God for strength. Frankie Jacks and I would discover heroin and needles, and nothing we had loved before would matter to us again for a long time.
But this had not happened yet. And I suppose that is why I remember this night so clearly.