By lex, on December 27th, 2006
It’s always interesting to come home again, even if you never really can “go home” again. The neighborhood I grew up in was mature when I was young, and it hasn’t much changed in the intervening decades. Oh, the storefronts have all been gentrified down in the commercial: The old deli is replaced by a bistro now, and where Howard Johnson’s used to stand we now have an office building. The cinema that used to show second run films that everyone had already seen has been gutted and replaced by a multiplex that shows limited release foreign films that no one ever goes to see.
It’s funny what you get used to, the things you take for granted. The commercial district is down in a sort of valley hard by the main highway running up into DC in one direction, and down to Richmond in the other. The housing around it was family proud but dirt poor. Not public housing, but not so very far removed from it either. As you climbed the hill towards my old house, the quality of the living quarters improved in perceptible steps, even if the quality of the people who lived there often did not. From the hard lots cheek by jowl to the highway you went up the hill into duplexes that had pretensions to townhouse status. Further on up there were detached single family dwellings of no great charm, all lights dim at night apart from the blue glow of a TV set in the family living room. Further on up the hill were houses that young professional families looked at with the kind of envy that comes from seeing something just out of reach. Our house was on the next level up after that, we were at the top of the hill.
I came from what I was told was at the time was a “middle class” family, although my dear sainted mother, God rest her soul, often took the trouble to add “upper” to that middle class, saying it in a kind of hopeful way, as if begging not to be contradicted. Both of my folks were poor as field mice during the depression, and you got the feeling that they never felt as though they had finally and completely arrived, never knew it would be OK, never really felt safe. I guess you wouldn’t either, if you remembered what it felt like to go to bed hungry night after night.
But they both worked hard for many years, and when I was a kid we lived as well as anyone did, lacked little of consequence, didn’t know anybody personally who had it any better than we did ourselves. You might hear about Rockefellers and Kennedys, but they weren’t real people like we were. And we were at the top of the hill.
Marie lived about half way up the hill, or half way down, depending on your point of view I guess. In any event her duplex was perfectly half way between our own place and the folks down by the highway. She was 25 in the year that I was 16, and we worked together at the local Baskin-Robbins ice cream store – she was the assistant manager. The other teenagers said she only had the job because she was the girlfriend of the owner, who was a married man and something of a pig even if the rumors about him and Marie weren’t true. I was only 16 – I knew I didn’t know enough about the world to judge whether or not the things that people said about other people were true, and the weight to attach to them even if they were and so I decided that I just wouldn’t judge at all.
Sometimes I wish I was like that still.
Marie was fetching even if she wasn’t beautiful in any conventional sense. A pretty girl, she had heavily lidded eyes and an olive complexion, apple cheeks and an eternal pout. She had smoldering eyes, the kind that could look right through you, flash in anger and melt your heart all in a matter of moments. She was also rounded in all the appropriate places for such a little thing, and exuded the kind of femininity that could drive men to distraction even if they weren’t only 16. I think I mentioned that she was 25 – for those of you only now checking in, that meant that you could do the math in the summer of 1977 and conclude that she had come to full flower during the summer of love.
At age 16 I was as yet an uninitiate into the mysteries of the intimate feminine, and like most young men of my situation acutely aware of that fact at every waking moment. You couldn’t be in the workspace with Marie at night, without being aware of her. There was a kind of psychic heat that came from her, like heat waves following in her wake as she’d walk by, a shimmering that was not quite visual, nor yet a scent but that nevertheless tangibly existed, something that befuddled the senses for a moment, leaving the victim unable to concentrate for maddening moments. The effect was wholly disproportionate to her physical size, or indeed her attributes, although her femininity was undeniable. Looking back on that part of my life through the long lens of middle age I doubt now that it was anything intentional on her part, and it occurs to me now that it might not even have been her at all, or at least, not completely her – just life at age 16, desperate to break out in close proximity to another life, one perhaps aware at some pre-conscious level that it was being admired, even dreamt about, which created an unintentional synthesis – the age old and self-reinforcing dialectic of human desire. I never liked to close the store, the cleaning up was a drudgery and you had to stop by the bank on the way home to deposit the receipts, and the bank was out of my way. But somehow it wasn’t so bad to close when Marie was on shift, and more and more it seemed like we had the closing shift together as time went on.
I cannot recall the precise reason why and it’s unimportant to the tale, but it came to pass that Marie needed a ride back from the city at the same time that I would be coming back from there and as well – it seemed the most natural thing in the world that I should offer her a ride home, the most natural thing in the world that she should accept. I was the proud owner of a 1967 Dodge Dart Demon, a car that had very little to commend it but that it was wholly mine and wholly paid for and, while carrying only six cylinders against very few amenities it could never be mistaken for a GTO – the pinnacle of automotive aspirations – neither would it entirely humiliate a 16-year old boy off the starting line.
Like every teenaged boy I was utterly convinced both of my superior driving skills and my personal indestructability, and I imagine that riding with me might have been something of a trial for poor Marie. I do remember her saying, as we hit the highway off-ramp heading up into her lodgings at high speed, that it seemed as though somebody was trying to impress her. My witty repartee to this observation was to blush violently. We arrived at her place shortly thereafter, and she asked me if I would like to come up?
I would, as it turned out. I did.
Her apartment was small but neatly cared for, a modest receiving area with a couch and coffee table hard by a small oak dining table. The kitchen little more than a closet, just room for the two of us to move around. Opposite the kitchen a short hallway went dimly back to what I could only presume were the sleeping quarters. Now that I was there with her in her apartment, she seemed a little nervous and for my own part, I was shaking on the inside like a bird dog on point. It was hot outside, she said, perhaps sensing my nervousness – would I care for a cocktail? A margarita perhaps?
Writing this down some 30-odd years later, it all feels so wicked somehow, so contrived and yet you’ll forgive me if I tell you that it didn’t feel that way to me, and the furthest thing from my mind was that I might be on the threshold of becoming some sort of victim.
So I stood with her in her little kitchen as she mixed our drinks, like it was the most natural thing in the world, and the way I always did it when a lady was mixing me a margarita, there to help out, like. There was some little something that she added in the mix as well, it came in a small plastic bottle and she looked at the label with amusement before showing it to me – the word “cocktail” had been printed as two words, and orphaned from one line to the next so that, read by itself it could be interpreted as an amusing bit of bawdyness.
We shared a laugh, went back to her couch and sat down. About half way through the drink I sensed that it was becoming uncomfortably close in the room, that I was being surrounded by something that was not merely heat but also like a dense, unfamiliar fug that was causing my head to spin in a way that was not entirely unpleasant – the effect of the very little tequila I suppose on one was used to nothing stronger than Budweiser beer, or Michelob when we were feeling special. I stood to remove the summer weight sportscoat I had on, and loosened my tie. She laughed again, nervously and said something like, “Slow down there, big fella,” and again not knowing what to say or do, I sat down on the couch again hoping to make no further mistakes.
I was large for my age, and she was a tiny thing, but I nevertheless had the feeling of being entirely overpowered. As we drained our glasses it seemed obvious to me that something was expected of me, some overt act or motion, that she had done all that could be decently done but I couldn’t be sure what it was I was supposed to do and trembling again with the tension of it all, I was terrified of making a mistake. The moment stretched a beat or two, then stretched again before finally snapping.
“I don’t know what to do,” I admitted at last, blushing again violently.
“I know,” she replied, not unkindly.
“I guess I’d…” I started, not knowing how to continue. “I guess I’d better get home,” I finally murmured, hoping to be contradicted, asked to stay, offered another margarita. I looked down at her coffee table, afraid to make eye contact but perfectly aware of her presence, the heat coming off of her, deeply aware of being under her gaze, and under a kind of evaluation. That moment stretched out agonizingly as well, and I finally turned my head just to keep from crying out loud to see her looking at me with an expression I could not then classify, and do not now know how to explain – there was a disappointment there to be sure, but a kind of gentleness too and something wistful, almost envious.
“I’ll walk you to the door,” she said at last, and she did and I drove up the hill – the top of the hill – back to my home with my head full of questions, knowing that an important lesson had been deferred to some future date, and perhaps some other instructor.
Our schedules seemed to match up less after that, we never closed together and in the fall I quit the job to focus on my studies.
When I was home this year, quite accidentally I found myself driving by the house she lived at in the summer of 1977, and remembering that afternoon and wondering where my youth had gone. I don’t know where she is now, or what has happened in her life but I hope she’s happy, for she was a kind woman, full of joy and laughter and deserved the better things that life has to offer.
In my mind’s eye, she’ll always be 25.