The slightly Twilight Zone-esque - Leave it to Beaver neighborhood where I grew up did have some admirable traits to it. There were women in our neighborhood who were like second mothers to all of the kids in general and to me in particular, and I liked that. When we were children the moms were those people who could make things better and dads were those people who could fix anything and together they were the arbiters of all that was right and wrong and good and evil, and this was how the world was supposed to be.
As we grew older the alliances we had with our own parents faded and those with other parents failed even more quickly. Those people who were supposed to guide us into adulthood were now standing in the way of all that we were ready and eager to experiment with and we began to deceive them as to who we were and what we were doing, just as they had done when they were all young and half naked.
There were a couple of moms I stayed close with, until my late teens, and then I was gone from the neighborhood where I grew up. It’s not like there was a good-bye or anything like that but rather a gradual understanding that one day I would not be there. These were women who still saw in me a lot of youth and they were right to see it, too. The single flaw and the very best in all of motherhood is the same thing and that is once a mom always a mom, and a child adrift cannot be ignored. Even if the child is old enough to be a man, but still trapped in the emotional turmoil of being a teen, it matters not.
The Summer after I graduated from High School was one of unprecedented freedom for me. Each school year since the first grade on had ended in terrible, choking, overwhelming disappointment and graduating meant it was finally over. There was no next year to worry about. There was only some job to get, some girl to get, some drugs to get, more beer to drink, and there was no future to worry about ever again.
Whatever else might be said, someone who is eighteen years old isn’t a child. I had terrible social skills, a complete inability to function around real adults, and I had an impressive drinking problem, but a child I was not. Hormones raged inside of me along with the overpowering feeling that I was an alien living among a species incapable, and unwilling, to communicate with me. Outings with people who were supposed to be friends or lovers came to abrupt halts as if there was a time limit on how long I could pretend or perhaps the mask would slowly dissolve. I was an obstacle for everyone to avoid and even I made effort to do just that. But I still sought out human contact and I didn’t care how I made it.
I had no idea when the plan was conceived or even if it was at all something that had a conception, but I knew what I was doing, in as much as I knew what I was doing would work, or maybe it was that it could work, and with aforethought of the consequences of my actions I set the plan in motion.
Having nothing means losing nothing. There is a certain freedom in being an outcast that few ever feel. No one thinks about the actions of the invisible, the despised, the forgotten shadow of society whose life seems to have ended well before it began. But I suggested to someone a beach trip might be a good thing and then I lined up some really good pot for the trip. I made sure there were so many people going there wouldn’t be enough room in the car for extra baggage, like me. It took some long range planning and thought, really, but I also had to make sure that one of the guys who was on that weekend trip planned it well enough in advance that his sister felt like she could slip under the radar that same weekend. She was secretly dating an older man, and to make things more dicey for her this was during a time where interracial dating might mean execution. It never occurred to any of us, and it wouldn’t occur to any of us, that a girl from a nice family who was secretly dating outside her own might just be living life a little larger than the rest of us. The alcohol and pills that we took for thrills were dangerous and we knew it, but each time this girl slipped out of her bedroom window at night she was taking her life in her hands. Ever else we might have known about life we never experienced this sort of danger or for that matter, that sort of love. She and her brother covered for one another so he could slip away and smoke pot and she could just slip away. He never realized he was complicit in what she was really doing and he would have freaked out had he known. Or maybe he knew too, and never let on. So many people live lives that are not their own they tend to be blind to how many others are doing the same thing.
And then there was their father. He was the stereotypical right- out- of- central- casting everything you had ever suspected or been told redneck. Men like this was how the South earned the reputation it has today. He was a heavy machinery operator, a la Flinstone, carried a steel lunchbox, hated blacks, smoked two packs a day, drank after five every day, and twice a year went down to flats to fish for two weeks.
All of these events I had known about beforehand. It was easy to connect the dots for the rest to fall into place, so incredibly easy, and suddenly I found myself sitting in my car, and everything, everything I had so carefully planned, had worked beautifully.
The only thing that I didn’t plan, couldn’t have planned, and would have if I could have planned, was the weather. The night in question the heavens opened up and the rain fell as if the clouds had been breached and nothing stood between earth and deluge but the lightning. I parked my car a half a mile away in the parking lot of a store and walked to her house.
I was going make up a story about running out of gas but as I knocked on the door the power went off so there was no need to worry about the gas pumps working. What I had planned was, of course, impossible and improbable and unthinkable, but I had a crush on a friend’s mother. There was no way I could have ever expressed it verbally and would have been too frozen in fear to act upon it, but this was my way to steal a few moments with her, and believe it or not, that was all I expected.
She was expecting a night alone with her little white rat dog, a good book, and a bottle of wine. I arrived in time for her second or third glass, and I was already chemically enhanced to the point of having my equilibrium interrupted. She let me in and told me to take my clothes off while she found something for me to wear and my mind raced far ahead of reality. Honestly, neither one of us knew it but these were the closing moments of a lot of realties as we knew it.
She was still in mom mode, still worried I would catch my death of cold, still fussing over me being out in such weather, but she was also still a little drunk. I was wearing a pair of her son’s cut offs, an oversized tee shirt and an aura of fearful excitement. She toweled my hair dry and I could feel her body brush against me. As she complained about me needing a haircut I took the towel away from her, touched her hands, and she backed away from me. I feel like I had tried to grasp a hummingbird made of smoke.
The power was off, the rain was falling like the end of the world, lightning was being slung about, the thunder was incredible, and there we sat at the kitchen table, she with a glass of wine and me with this surreal feeling that somehow something might happen or I had just ruined that chance, both feeling were lodged in me at the same time. She got up and got me a glass of Pepsi and I got up and got her husband’s bottle of Black Jack out of the cabinet and poured a drink worthy of a man about to make a leap of faith or make a fool of himself.
To a man of eighteen a woman who is forty years old is somewhere between a goddess and a relic. She scolded me harshly for presuming to drink right in front of her like that, and I remember the exact words I spoke, as if they were lines from a famous movie, spoken by an actor, “Living slow is dying slow, Donna.” And I had no idea if it sounded as cool when it got to Donna as when it left my mouth but I seriously doubted it. I had never called her by her first name before. Kids always, always, always, addressed adults by the honorific “Mr or Mrs” but never by their first names. It was the first time in my life I had done that. Had I reached over and touched her breast I don’t think it would have felt more surreal.
Had she gotten upset about that, told me to leave, slapped me, threatened to call my parents, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all. I had actually counted on it. I was losing my mind just sitting across the table from her. It was so very unreal. The lights were out because of the storm and there was only a small battery operated lantern on the table. The flashes of vivid and intense lightning lit the room up just like everything was normal for microsecond and then the two of us were back in a world neither of us knew how to navigate.
I was sitting with my back to the refrigerator and I was fairly certain she had gotten up to slap me silly but she opened the refrigerator door instead and took out a bottle of wine. She sat down across from me and poured her glass half full which was optimistic as hell, in my opinion. I hadn’t slept with a girl yet that hadn’t been drinking. But then again, I was particularly inept in the art of seduction. I could have counted my lovers to that point in time on one hand and still had enough left over to hitchhike and give a peace sign. The lightning flashed hard, brightly, and the room was lit up for a second in that white leave it to Beaver way that everything on earth was white. The lantern dimmed and I wondered what would happened if it died. Donna got up and fumbled around and found a candle and a holder and had I been really aware of what was going on I would have noticed she was nervous and that could only mean she was thinking about the same thing I was thinking about. The candle light made the shadows in the room seemed like spectators crowded around the table each of them wondering where all of this was going to end.
“This isn’t your first drink, Mike,” and when she said this I knew she had already known about my drinking.
“When was your first time, Donna?” I asked and I marveled at the innuendo I had managed.
Donna, and by this time I was actually beginning to think of her as Donna, as female, wholly, and as someone with a first name, looked down at her wine glass and licked her lips. She looked up again and I saw now her hair was longer than most moms kept theirs. The candlelight made her look younger to me and more human.
“I, uh, I stole a bottle of cooking sherry one night, from my mama’s cupboard,” Donna giggled, “and my sister and I tried to drink it. It was horrible, but we got tickled with the idea of drinking.” Donna looked up and smiled at me and this was the first time I saw her as that girl. The storm crept in and lit the room up with a bluish hue that made us both jump just before the thunder shook the house.
“How old were you?” I asked.
“Twenty…” Donna began.
“Twenty!” and at this I had to laugh.
“I grew up in a very prim and proper house, Mike.” Donna seemed slightly embarrassed and I wondered if she was embarrassed that she had told me or the fact that she was so...unseasoned at that age. “Don’t laugh, I wasn’t allowed to date until I was in college.”
“You went to college?” I hadn’t known that about her.
“Women went to college to find men looking for wives, back then.” Donna took a sip of her wine and then suddenly tossed back the entire glass. “I was supposed to wait until we were married, I didn’t, and we both had to quit school when I got pregnant.” This all came rushing out of her like the rain falling outside.
I was stunned. Without knowing what else to do I drank. I took a long pull from the glass and felt the bourbon burn its way down into by body.
“What are you reading?” I blurted this out without any reasonable hope of keeping the conversation alive.
“It’s a romance novel,” Donna said, “girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl finds boy again, and they all live happily ever after.” Donna paused for a second and smiled. “It’s a bodice ripper.”
“A what?” I had no idea what she was talking about.
“It’s a girl thing.” Donna said and she rolled her eyes. We both drank at the same time but we kept eye contact. She looked away first and blushed for reasons I couldn’t have suspected.
“I wasn’t expecting company. I must look awful,” Donna said suddenly, awkwardly, and it occurred to me much later in life that this was a softball thrown slowly and right over the plate.
“I think you’re beautiful,” I said and I did mean it but I blurted this out like a piece of gum falling out of my mouth during English class.
“You are drunk,” Donna said but she laughed and shifted around in her chair. Her robe slipped open a bit and my heart began to pound in my chest. I found myself wondering if she was wearing anything at all under that robe or if she was naked and just a shoulder shrug away from being nude.
The lights flickered, went out, and then came back on again. The moment had died, I feared, and for a second the kitchen was a kitchen, the candle a candle, and the hum of the refrigerator the dead single note song of our lives being preserved at a constant temperature. Donna got up without a word and cut the lights off again. Her movement was slow, deliberate, and sinuous. She sat down, poured her wine glass half way full again and smiled.
“What are you doing here, Mike?” she asked softly and I felt as if all off the life and breath in me was being squeezed out. This was not a question a mom was asking a child but rather a woman asking a man. I wanted to retreat, to return to being a child again, to back away from this brink where I stood for even as everything that I had schemed and planned and plotted was now here before me I was suddenly terrified. But the terror of the moment was overshadowed by desire. Here was a real woman not some half-dressed teen who had never been laid in a real bed. The alcohol drowned the fear and the blood rushing through my veins felt like red hot magna from a volcano about to explode.
I willed my legs into motion and I stood up. It was no more than two, maybe three steps to the other side of the table but it seemed an eternity. An air raid siren in my mind began to wail and I knew that in those two, maybe three steps, life would change in so many ways that I could not begin to count them. Donna turned her head, looked up and me, waited, waited, and I bent down and kissed her. Her hand reached around the back of my neck and it felt like all the lightning in the storm had suddenly been released into that one moment. The sensation of that woman’s hand on my neck has never left me, to this day.