With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Our tires crunch on frozen slush. My dad edges slowly up the driveway, high beams on, driving in the ruts made yesterday in the daylight. I see pine trees, house, garage. The back end of the mighty station wagon sways, tires spinning. My dad has supreme confidence in snow tires, even on ice. The lights of the dashboard illuminate his hands, one at the ten o’clock position, the other at the two — the proper way to drive, he says. When I drive, my hands fall on twelve and six. This irritates him. My stepmother is in the passenger seat. I am in the back. It’s eerily silent in the car, and I know why.
My dad woke me not more than thirty minutes ago, shook my shoulder until my eyes opened. “Mr. Clark called,” he said. “We’re going over there right now. Put your clothes on and meet us downstairs.”
I’d been having a dream, the same dream I’ve had since I was three: I am falling, falling, falling into a dark, turbulent void. No connections, no people: permanent exile. I usually wake up shaking.
My room was dark except for the glow from the streetlight. I was holding my stomach, as if there were a hole there. I’d known this day was coming. I looked at the clock: 2 A.M. I felt like crying, I was so afraid. But my dad had said to get up. I slid out of my pajamas and put on my school clothes: plaid button-down shirt, chinos, dirty bucks. I brushed my teeth and looked out the bathroom window: hazy light, no cars on the street. OK, I thought. You have to go downstairs. Do it.
The darkness inside our brand-new 1960 Mercury Colony Park station wagon is broken by the Clarks’ porch light. The defroster is finally melting away the fog on the windows. It’s only a five-minute drive, and my dad didn’t wait for the car to warm up, just drove to our middle-of-the-night rendezvous. He puts the car in park. I look at my stepmother, trying to figure out what she is thinking. I never know. Mostly she spends her time trying not to displease my dad. She is a failure at this, and they argue from their separate beds almost every night. I have given up trying to figure out why he married her. He tells me it is because I needed a mother.
I am sixteen. I love to drive cars, any car; I am not particular. My dad taught me to drive when I was fourteen, on the dirt roads around Higgins Lake. He let me drive to the dump and back, about twelve miles round-trip. But when summer ended, that was it. We moved back home to Marshall, Michigan. A town of five thousand, it has lots of dirt roads — but my dad is known here. He wouldn’t take a chance on being caught with his fourteen-year-old son at the wheel.
I love bikes too. My buddy Jon Rivers and I ride our bikes everywhere. Jon taught me how to put my ear on the railroad tracks to determine when the train is coming from Chicago or Detroit. Ear to cold steel, he’ll yell, “A train’s coming!” Sometimes he’ll say, “Freight.” Then I’ll put my ear on the track and hear nothing. But soon, very soon, I will hear the vibrations, and then feel them too.
At home, my ear has been on the track for more than three months now, listening anxiously for the phone to ring. I’d come home from school and wonder, Is it today? Is it now? Somehow I figured it would be at night — when defenses are low, when tired resistance gives way to truth.
Now the train has come, and all three of us are here to witness it. I am both frightened and strangely relieved. No more waiting, hiding, keeping silent.
The three of us get out of the car. My stepmother has on black rubbers over her shoes. She slips and grabs my dad’s arm. They walk up the steps. He knocks on the door. In this small town, people knock once and then open the door and yell, “Anybody home?” To knock and wait means you are not good friends. We wait. Mr. Clark opens the door and greets my dad. We walk into the brightly lit kitchen — black-and-white tile, black-and-white countertop. My eyes hurt from the glare. I feel exposed.
Mr. Clark has on a camel’s-hair sport coat, blue button-down shirt, a rep tie, and black tasseled loafers. (He was the first man in town to wear loafers with tassels.) My dad has on his tan Marshall Field’s sport coat, white shirt, no tie, and his chukka boots. My stepmother has on her black fake-fur coat that comes to her waist. She takes off her rubbers. I glance beyond the kitchen, looking in vain for my beloved, Kelly Clark.
Mr. Clark greets me, his round cherub face hiding his true feelings. “Good to see you.”
I give him a firm handshake, and he leads me toward the living room, my favorite room of their house — a mansion, really. This is the informal living room. They also have a formal living room as big as the whole downstairs of my house, done all in white except for a black grand piano that no one plays. Theirs is one of two mansions that sit across Kalamazoo Avenue from each other, built by two brothers who manufactured corsets and back braces. When the owner died long ago, this house just sat there. No one had the money to buy it and fix it up. Enter Mr. Clark, who bought an ailing division of a large paper company with a factory in town. He moved his family here from a downtown Chicago high-rise. They restored this old mansion, complete with a new swimming pool, an elevator (the only one in town), and a ballroom on the third floor. Mr. Clark flies his own twin-engine plane out at Marshall Field and owns a Mercedes and a Citroën with hand controls for his wife, Maggie, who’s in a wheelchair. It’s as if the Clarks were thumbing their noses at Detroit.
This is the first time I have been in this house with my parents. We stand around and wait to be invited to sit. I edge forward to see Kelly, who’s sitting on the couch. There are three long sofas arranged around the fireplace, and a wood-and-slate coffee table stacked with magazines about flying and the Sunday Chicago Tribune. Kelly’s mother, Maggie, is seated next to her in her wheelchair. Mr. Clark (whose nickname is Teddy) says to my parents, “Jack and Leah, why don’t you sit here?” and he points to the couch facing the fireplace. We say hello to Mrs. Clark, and she takes my hand and smiles, but says nothing. I want to walk around her wheelchair and sit next to Kelly. I want to grab Kelly’s arm and run out to the car and drive away and escape, but I don’t know where to go. I have eighteen dollars in my billfold. I at least want to sit next to Kelly and embrace her and kiss away her tears, tell her everything will be OK, which is what I have been doing these last few months. But I know now that it’s not true. I have failed.
I walk over to the couch opposite Kelly and sit and look at her, this weary teenager with a blue quilted housecoat on, her face splotchy, her eyelids swollen from crying. There’s a pitiful look to her, shamed to silence. I think: She is my love, isn’t she? Kelly, wake up! It’s me. It’s us! My eyes find only the blank look of a sixteen-year-old positioned between her mother and her father. She is not mine. I have lost her.
“What do you want to drink?” Mr. Clark asks my parents.
“Scotch and water for us,” says my dad.
“Want some white wine?” Mr. Clark asks his wife, and she nods. “What about you kids? Do you want anything?”
We shake our heads, separating ourselves from this meeting that will draw us down, down, down. Tonight I am not a strong, athletic, impassioned teenager. I feel like a hurt, fearful puppy. I cannot even protect Kelly.
Ice clinks into glasses. Mr. Clark returns and passes the drinks around, keeping a martini for himself. He sits down beside Kelly. I fight this feeling I have of falling into the void. This couch is too big, too long. It’s just me here, all alone. If I could only scream, or pace about, or hug Kelly, or take some action. I put my hands in my lap. I wait.
I look up at Kelly, her legs crossed and pale now, not tanned like last summer. Strong legs, tennis-playing legs, biking legs. Her hands are curled together. No fingernail polish, ever. I like that. My stepmother wears fingernail polish, has the woman at the beauty parlor do her nails. Kelly has recently begun to bite her fingernails. Her hands are sunk into that blue quilted robe. Maggie has on a soft brown wool suit, her hair in a bun. Her legs fall straight down into the footrests of the wheelchair. She seems off in a world of her own, maybe that time in her life before polio, when she could walk and run.
I want to go back in time too, but where? This awful loneliness I feel seems to have been with me forever. I try to envision bike rides, ski trails, the logging road that my dog and I would walk along. This couch I am sitting on is the scene of the crime. I wonder if everybody knows.
One April several years ago, at our cottage on Higgins Lake in northern Michigan, I woke up in the middle of the night to a strange groaning, a creaking, like a slow earthquake. I looked out the window and saw nothing but darkness and dirty white snow. This groaning in the earth continued as I got up and put my clothes on and walked outside. I felt something shudder in me, or was it around me? I went to the shore of the lake, and then I understood: the ice was breaking up. When the ice melts, it expands and tries to come ashore, great wide plates of it crawling over other plates, like a spring migration.
Now I’ve been awakened in the middle of the night once more, and I have the same feeling of something breaking up, groaning, crawling toward shore. Nothing can stop this flow. I’m in the way. It will cover me up.
I look over at Kelly. Such a flat, dull look on her face. She seems so small, the washed-out blue of her robe overwhelmed by the dark red sofa where she and I would kiss, embrace, and then lie down, sinking into each other’s bodies. We kept the TV turned down low, so we could listen for voices or footsteps. If we heard anything, we would quickly sit up and zip up. It was a drill we performed mostly in response to false alarms: one of Kelly’s younger brothers searching for food in the kitchen, or their live-in housekeeper making a telephone call. We would listen for a moment and then sink back down into the cushions.
“As I told you on the phone, Jack,” Mr. Clark is saying, “we just found out that Kelly is pregnant. We have to act quickly. She is at least four months pregnant, maybe more.” He leans toward my dad, as if this conversation were a business meeting just between the two of them. I don’t hear any suggestion that it might include Kelly and me. I wait. I hold my stomach. The truth is out, like a bat from our attic, and I can’t catch it. It’s winging its way in and out and all around us.
Pregnant. In my town, this word is bad news. Usually you hear “She’s expecting.” Pregnant is used only when discussing Roman Catholic women or farm wives who produce large families. Or illegitimacy. Now the word resounds through my body like a ping-pong ball, bouncing off organs and muscles. Blood shoots up my neck to my head. My hair is wet with perspiration, as if the fireplace were blazing with oak logs. I crunch my hands together as if trying to break a walnut barehanded. When I pull them apart, they throb. Kelly is slipping away, her hands in her lap, hunched over, her slim body containing the word that condemns us: pregnant.
“If you kids just could have told us a month or so sooner,” Maggie says, “we could have done something about this. Now it’s too late.”
Maggie is looking right at me now, her eyes shining mad. I have never seen her eyes like this. Like a wolf’s eyes. I turn away out of fear — of what she might see in me, the one who caused this disaster. I have known for a long time that it is my fault. I am silent. She turns to her husband, as if to say, Continue.
“Maggie and I think that Kelly needs to go away, have this baby, and put it up for adoption immediately,” Mr. Clark says. “She’ll come home at the end of the school year. We’ll say that she’s had a severe asthma attack and had to go to California or Arizona or New Mexico. I’ll call you at the office tomorrow, Jack, after I have made some arrangements.”
“Well, Teddy, it’s my son who got us into this problem. I will pay for this, whatever it takes.”
“You two will go to school tomorrow as if nothing has happened,” Mrs. Clark says to Kelly and me. “But you are never to be alone together again. And you will never speak about this to anyone. No one. Ever.” Her voice is gravelly from smoking. “That part of your life is over. You can see each other, but only with other people around, group activities.”
So this is how it works: Teddy takes care of the behind-the-scenes deals; Maggie metes out the punishment. More silence. I guess we are supposed to stand up and leave. But Kelly isn’t moving. It’s as if the sofa has become her comforter and protector. Her mother is sliding the palms of her hands along the wheels of her chair. I stand up, like a gentleman, to help her. She glides by and says, “Good night, Jack and Leah,” and heads off toward the elevator. My parents file out ahead of me. I look over to the couch. Kelly is getting up. Her arms seem permanently woven around her stomach. I put my arm around her, and we walk out of the living room. Then she makes a left toward the stairs, and I follow my parents. My stepmother is putting on her black rubbers. My dad is thanking Mr. Clark for handling this. As we leave, Mr. Clark says, “We can get through this; everything will be OK.”
I believe him. He has a reputation for swinging deals. I don’t doubt that we will “get through it” somehow, but I’m the one who has to go to school tomorrow. Kelly is the one who has the soft bulge to her stomach, who wears long sweaters with her skirt unbuttoned at the top to hide the bulge, who has a doctor’s excuse to stay out of gym, and who has to turn down invitations to slumber parties. What will happen to us? I’m alive with anger, and I’m filled with resignation. We were not asked what we wanted, what we thought would be good for us. We were not treated like young adults, like human beings with feelings. No, Kelly and I are “the kids,” and we know it.
The big, lumbering station wagon squishes slowly down the driveway, past the tarp-covered swimming pool, the locked three-car garage, once a stable, now used to store old junk. Wearily, I lean against the window, seeing nothing. The defroster is on. Leah is sitting in the front seat, pressed against the door. She does not complain tonight, as she does on other nights when my father ignores her. I wonder what memories this has dragged up for her. She told me once how she’d dropped out of college and eloped with her first husband. She drove to South Dakota to be with him. They were married somewhere near the army base where he was stationed. Is she reviewing in her mind what it was like to be pregnant at twenty in a strict German family?
In our driveway, Leah and I get out, and Dad pulls the car into the garage. We meet back up in the kitchen. He says, “Son, I’ll talk with you when I get home from work tonight.” I look at the clock. It’s 4 A.M.
My head feels heavy on the pillow. I don’t have any way to explain what happened other than this: Boys get girls into trouble. Boys put pressure on girls. We make them put out. I also know that Kelly and I were together for months before we discovered the bursting joy of making love. It surprised us both. She cried. But tonight it’s all my fault. I should have known better. I should have driven to Battle Creek, found a drugstore, and bought some condoms. I didn’t. I am in deep trouble, and it’s only just beginning. I have watched what happens when a teenager gets pregnant in my school. We’re both in for it. As I fall into a troubled sleep, I even begin to doubt that I ever loved Kelly. Look at the way things are turning out. I feel as if I’m falling again, losing myself. I don’t fight it this time. It’s not worth it.
© Miriam Romais
Kelly is not in school the next day. I’m in a daze. Friends ask me where she is. “She had a really bad asthma attack,” I say. I eat alone in the cafeteria, thinking, Everyone knows, everyone knows. I walk home, change my clothes, and go out to shoot baskets and wait for my dad to get home at 5:30. Nothing goes in the hoop, so I throw the ball back into the garage and head for the house. My stepmother is in the kitchen. I take off my red hooded sweat shirt, ignoring her. Upstairs I lie on my bed, arms behind my head, the way I have seen GIs do in the movies when they have a problem.
I hear the crunch of Dad’s tires on the icy driveway. I hear the door open and close. Then I hear his footsteps going into his bedroom. OK, I say to myself, you can gut this out. You made it through the night and through school.
“Son, will you come downstairs, please.” He has pulled a chair up to the couch in the living room. We never use this room. The Christmas tree is placed in here each year. I would read in here as a child. That’s it. I sit on the couch and sink down. He sits straight up in the chair, his graying black hair combed back. His eyes soften. Like the sails on a boat, they offer a telltale sign of which way the wind is blowing and how strong. This afternoon, in the fading light of day, they tell me he is tired.
“You will never know how painful last night was for your mother and me. I didn’t get any sleep. None. I didn’t do a very good job of running the company today. Now I am going to ask you some questions, and you will answer them.”
When he and my stepmother married, her kids remained her kids, and his kids, his. We were disciplined separately. Money was allotted separately. As in the boardroom atmosphere of last night, when he and Teddy made the big decisions, he is about to render his parental decision on me. He doesn’t even ask how I am doing, what I would like.
“Did Kelly push herself on you? Was there any blood?”
I look up, alarmed. Blood?
He sees my confusion. “Was she a virgin? If she was, there should have been blood.”
I mumble, “I don’t know,” while wishing for some way to escape. But I have to answer him, this man who doesn’t seem to know me. I have to answer his questions about what I count as the most important experience of my life.
“How many times did you have sex with her?”
“Several times,” I say, and my head droops guiltily.
“How many is several?”
“How many is a few?”
“Six,” I say, lying, grasping for some way out of this jam. If I tell him the truth — a hundred, maybe — what will he do then? Slap me around? Send me to military school, like two of my brothers? I don’t know. Few is better than many. Was Kelly asked this question too? How many did she say?
Next comes the sucker punch: “Do you think you are the father?”
The walls are moving. My hands are clenched together. I struggle to return to this living room.
“I asked you that because she comes from Chicago. Things happen faster there. Maybe Kelly was with someone from Chicago. You are sure you are the father?”
I nod my head.
Once, a couple of years ago, my father came into my bedroom with something to tell me: “When I was your age, girls wanted to touch me, and they wanted me to touch them. I resisted this. I was handsome like you, but I waited until I married your mother. I want you to wait, like I did. Don’t let a girl touch you. Don’t you touch a girl.” That was it.
“I could lose my job if word gets out that you got Kelly pregnant,” he says now. “You are not to talk about this to anyone: not your friends, not your classmates, no one.”
He is the executive vice-president of a company that makes refrigeration equipment for supermarkets. His boss lives in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb north of Chicago, and lets my dad run the business. Would Dad’s boss really fire him? I don’t think so. But, Jesus, I am going to keep silent.
“Mrs. Clark said that you and Kelly are not to be alone together. We expect you to abide by this. Mr. Clark is making the final arrangements. It looks like Kelly will fly to Arizona on Saturday. That’s all for now.”
He moves the chair back to the corner of the room; I feel as if I’m being pulled down into the couch, this ugly, uncomfortable couch from my stepmother’s first marriage. He turns around and says, “One more thing: I don’t want you moping around the house. Go out and shoot baskets. I’m glad basketball season starts this week; go work it out of your system.” Then he goes down to the basement to “putter.”
My radio is playing “It’s All in the Game,” a current hit. When Kelly and I started dating two years ago, in 1958, “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” was our favorite song. Kelly recently picked “It’s All in the Game” as our new favorite.
I walk into the dining room and look out the window. It’s nearly dusk. The streetlights are on, bringing a yellowish wash to the dirty snow. I move closer to the panes. Tears fall. I reach out and hang on to the window, the way I do the sides of the canoe when the river comes crashing in. I am sobbing. I don’t care who hears. My breath fogs up the panes. My nose is blocked with snot. No longer can I be the big boy, pretending not to be hurt.
“You are just too young to know about love.”
I’m startled by my stepmother’s presence.
“You are too young to get married,” she says. “You will get over it; you will find someone else.”
I wonder how long she has been watching me. I cough and blow my nose, sounding like a goose in flight, a baby. How will I ever find where I belong? I ignore her little speech and head for the stairs. I don’t know about getting married, about being with Kelly as she gets bigger. I know nothing. I go to the only safe place I know: my bed. Face down, I sob into the pillow.
The next day I go to Kelly’s locker and find it closed. Has she been here? I wonder. My next-door neighbor Patty Zerbel stops by and asks about Kelly. I say she still has asthma; maybe tomorrow. Tomorrow is Wednesday. She leaves Saturday.
After school I’m putting my coat in the closet at home when my stepmother walks in with her hands on her hips. “Kelly called. She said she’s going to Scottsdale on Saturday morning at 10 A.M.”
I run upstairs to the phone in the hallway and call her back. Her mother answers curtly: “Well, make it short. She’s pretty busy.”
“Hi,” I say, and wait. I feel as if I’m on a dock, watching a ship take my loved one away.
“Hi.” Flat, no emotion.
“How are you doing?” I ask.
A pause. “How do you think I’m doing? It’s like hell around here. Everyone is mad at me. It’s awful, just awful.” She is resigned. Her voice is weak. I do not know this part of her. She tells me we can talk on the phone on Sundays. She will call me at 6 P.M. I am not allowed to know her telephone number. We will not see each other before she leaves. She won’t be coming to school this week. I am to tell our friends that she has had such a bad attack of asthma that the doctors have told her to go to Arizona. We say goodbye. I put the phone back gently, as if it were loaded.
When I was ten, a stray puppy followed me home. That night my dad saw the cute black-and-white puppy in the yard and asked, “Whose is that?”
I told him that he had followed me home. Could I keep him? No answer. The next day after school I came running into the backyard. No puppy. “Your father disposed of him,” my stepmother said.
Kelly is being disposed of, sent away. At school I am reading The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I am learning about shunning.
After school and basketball practice, I go to my room and put on my red hooded sweat shirt. I want to kick the door and hit the wall. Instead I go outside and shoot baskets, my hood concealing my face from any neighbors who might be looking.
Even now I can see this sixteen-year-old going up for jump shots, taking the rebound, practicing a hook shot. Light fails. He turns on the outdoor lights and keeps shooting. Even that sweet-sounding swish when the ball goes through the net doesn’t interest him. He is running and jumping, twisting and turning. This is all he knows to do to make it from one moment to the next. His hood is like a horse’s blinders.
This is the way I learned to care for myself: head down, blinders on. I learned how to take a fall.
After dinner I am doing the dishes when the phone rings. My stepmother jumps up like a kid to get it. “It’s for you,” she whispers. “I think it’s Kelly.”
I go upstairs to take it. I hear my stepmom breathing on the other end. “Hang up the phone, Mom.”
The phone is placed on the receiver. I sit on the hope chest, looking east into the darkening night. “How are you doing?”
“I miss you.”
I tear up, then push the tears away.
“Are you OK?” she asks.
I tell her I’m making it. That’s about it. No fun. And then I say, “Did they ask you how many times we made love?”
“Yeah,” she says with a chuckle. “I told them several times, not too many. That was good enough for them.”
“That’s what I said too.”
We both laugh a little, one of the few secrets we have left that’s not been poisoned by them.
She tells me her mother is flying out with her on Saturday. She will be staying at the home of a doctor until she goes into labor, and then she will go to the hospital, give birth, sign some papers, and come home. She says this matter-of-factly, like an adult who knows the score.
My heart speeds up. I have so many questions, but this isn’t the right time: Can I see the baby? Who is in the house out there? What am I going to say to our friends? Kelly is grown-up now. She’s told me what will happen, and that’s it.
“Take care of yourself,” she says.
I gulp and say, “You too. I love you.”
A moment goes by. “I love you too.”
I place the phone down quietly, not wanting to disturb this slim thread of a relationship, this fragile peace.
In McCabe Coolidge’s teenage memoir “A Night of Falling Alone” [December 2003] his stepmother tells him, “You are just too young to know about love.”
I’m still too young to know about love. It feels exactly the same at seventy as it did at seventeen.