Sunday, June 6, 2010

P.B. deLarios: The Last Betrayal

The summer I was twelve was a Swiss-cheese-liverwurst-and-mustard sandwich summer, lunch eaten perched in the high branches of an old pecan tree. I’d spend hours up there with my best friend Pam, or I’d sit alone, not wanting to be found. I’d tuck my legs up. You learn.

Those dog-panting, hot summer days in Oklahoma, the tree leaves were as still as my breath. Some days I’d spend in the watery shade of cottonwood branches draping into Medicine Creek angling for slick, fat catfish, armed with only my fishing pole, a Tupperware container of grape Kool-Aid and a cut-up chicken neck for bait, the only sounds the hypnotic buzzing of cicada or box turtles occasionally plopping into the silty, red water off their sunning rocks. Only hunger, thirst or dusk would drive me home.

Home. Oklahoma is as much home, to me, as any Army brat can claim. I’ve lived there more years than anyplace I lived as a child.

This morning, I carefully pack the new outfit I bought for my fortieth high school reunion, the sleek black pants that fit like a second skin, the fluttery, low-cut silk top, the gold necklace and matching earrings that glow against my tanned skin. I’m only staying one night, missing the pre-party the night before, opting for the dinner and dance instead. I have no idea who’ll be there out of the six-hundred or so who graduated with me. I haven’t seen any of them since my tenth reunion thirty years ago, a real disappointment.

Sharon was the kind of girl who wouldn’t warn you if you were about to sit on an electric fence. She and her pod would cough curse words at me as I passed in the hall: “Fu-cough-ck you.”  If I talked about a boy I liked to another girl in the ladies’ room while Sharon was hiding in a stall eavesdropping, she’d spread it throughout the entire school. If I hadn’t done anything stupid, she’d make something up.  School was hell back then. So was home.

I was required to eat breakfast with my family every morning—a sit-down affair with all the yes-ma’ams and no-sirs of a military academy. After my Major General father left for work, my stifled mother would criticize my hair, my dress, my friends and finally satisfied with me in tears, send me out the door to catch the bus to school where Sharon and her friends would howl with laughter at my puffy eyes and blotchy red face.

As I was filling out my name tag at the ten-year reunion, Sharon, with her lip curled in a sneer, looked me up and down. “You can’t come in because you didn’t pay in advance,” she said.

Cheeks burning, I threw a twenty dollar bill I had crumpled in my sweaty fist on the table, and walked inside to join my friend Pam. I was sixteen all over again, and in that moment swore I’d never go to another reunion. I didn’t. Until now.

I think this pull I feel to go back is a masochistic urge or some warped sense of nostalgia. I can’t put a finger on it. All I know is, I can’t keep myself from it.

With my parents in an alcohol-fueled argument, usually about us kids, but sometimes about my father’s attentions to other women, Pam and I, with my brother in tow, would duck out after dinner. We used a car to boost ourselves up on a garage roof, asphalt tiles still releasing the heat of the day into our hips and shoulder blades. I’d gaze into the frigid blue vacuum of night, tethered to Earth at my feet, the only thing keeping me from flying into outer space. God’s up there, I thought. Sometimes we’d doze-off, lulled by the warm roof on our backs.
Our parents ruled the days. But the night was ours.

When I first got news of this reunion, I tossed the invitation, keeping my promise to myself. But the note tugged at me from the recycle bin. Two days later I dug it out.

Now, I apply my mascara, taking my time. Even though it’s almost a four-hour drive, I put on my make-up now because I don’t know how the light will be in the motel bathroom. I want to look good. I want to look so much better than Sharon.

I wear shorts for the drive, plug-in my iPod. My car sparkles like new from its waxing yesterday. I crank up the stereo, and merge onto the highway.

Time flies at 75 miles per hour on a flat Texas highway heading for Oklahoma. My mind wanders and I think of my friends the summer I was twelve. Friends who, like me, dreamed of escape, friends who, by now, have mostly disappeared.

We didn’t sip the night daintily like refined young ladies and gentlemen. We greedy children sucked and gulped the brown velvet night until it suffused and transformed us. We became predators, prowling along hedges like young wolves, cutting across lawns off-limits during daylight, calling greetings to owls blinking in black-lace trees. We turned elemental after midnight while our parents and siblings dreamed in their warm beds. Peeling off civilized skins down to bare wildness, we donned shorts and canvas Keds and climbed out our windows to join our pack.

We ran through the night, ran from our parents, from adulthood, from confusion, from a world stripped of magic where choices were simply about survival. Nothing frightened us then. We coursed like rivers down hills and around rocks, jumping and whooping with the pure joy of unfettered childhood. We were too fast for death. Our legs, streaked with dew and blades of grass, flashed through fields and over tarmac, carrying us beneath stars so thick and low, they tangled in our hair. We could jump to one if we wanted. We possessed the night like a hurricane, commanded it like sorcerers.  We’d rouse the sun with our shouts.

Panting and nodding to each other with exhilaration for once again slipping our parent’s grasp, we split up and returned to our domestic dens, crawling back over rough windowsills. I’d kick off my wet sneakers and swipe my legs on my chenille bedspread before slipping between cool sheets. In the morning I’d be bound by adult expectations.  In the sweetness of the night, though, I felt my face relax in a smile, my heartbeat slowing down, hiding my wildness again until the next nightfall.

I’ve traveled back in time and feel that otherness now, the old wildness, as I cross Medicine Creek just before one o’clock. I attempt checking in early at the motel but they tell me to come back later, so I head out to the cemetery where my parents are buried.

As I walk through the toothy rows of granite, I don’t see my familiar landmarks.  It’s grown so much, so many have died, I can’t find Mom and Dad’s headstone and cross back and forth between rows and over graves. I look a little more, and then begin to panic. I’m walking around in circles, clutching the plastic flowers I purchased until I see a name I recognize and find Mom and Dad nearby.

Flowers droop in the vases flanking their headstone. They’re mums, I think, but bleached white, the only hint of color near the stems.  Who put them there, I wonder. The fabric disintegrates when I pull them from the Styrofoam they’re anchored in and as they crumble in my hand, I feel the amount of time that has passed since anyone has visited this site.  I stare at the wire stems, tarnished arrows, cradled in my palm, then lay them on a bare grave three headstones down. I crouch down and divide the lilies and roses between the two stone vases and bend the stems so they’ll be the right height. Then step back to eye them. They look paltry. Four more would have made a nice display but they were so expensive: fifteen dollars a stem. But as I look at them, I know, if I’d had four more, I’d have wanted six more, and if I had six, then eight. Still, my stomach twists with shame for not spending a few more dollars on my parents, who allowed my childhood magic, my wildness, in the face of their own reluctant domestication. When I kneel on their graves in the blazing sun, the sere grass snaps and breaks under my bare legs. Tears and sweat run down my face. I want to tell them now, what you gave me was perfect. It was enough.

My pack split up with budding breasts and breaking voices, awkward now around brothers and boys we used to think nothing of running naked with. Gangliness and sharp angles smoothed into rounded hips, a body’s first betrayal but not the last.  No longer content sharing my dreams with only girls, Jesse replaced Pam as my best friend. Jesse, with a half-smile dimpling one cheek and caramel-colored hair wild as a mustang, didn’t walk, he swaggered. He was irresistible.

Jesse was my first love. Eyes closed and holding our breath, we bumped noses, shy but electric in our first embrace, like the shock of cold water on goose-pebbled skin. His mouth tasted of ripe peaches and sunshine, his eyes blue as Oklahoma twilight. I adored him. He gave me his ring with a stone of golden tiger’s eye that I wrapped with tape to make it fit. We vowed to spend eternity together.  We passed the days like Siamese twins, connected by clasped fingers, heartbeats pulsing in our eyes.  At night we laughed and ate dripping ice cream cones, fielding moths drawn to our radiance.

I never saw Jesse again after that summer.

I wander between the head stones back toward my car, the noise of a freight train in my head. I’m disoriented and amid the rolling acres of tombstones I can’t find my car. I finally see it by spotting and following the dusty tatter of road that winds through the cemetery. I climb in. The leather seat sizzles my bare thighs, and I blast the air conditioning. I glance at myself in the mirror. I’m a mess—white runnels down my cheeks where tears and sweat washed away makeup, raccoon eyes from smeared mascara, wet hair plastered to my neck and forehead. I cry anew, pull out my cell phone and call my brother at work. He hasn’t been back to Oklahoma since Mom and Dad died. I drive, and we talk about our time as children, then teenagers in Oklahoma, how we’ve been hurt by what our parents called love, how we disappointed them time and again, how they disappointed us. Be like us; see how happy we are, they said. Were they happy? Neither one of us really knows. We discuss how little we knew them, how we coped with this distance with crushed hearts—me by spending hours in a tree, him by shooting out street lights with his BB gun.

In this moment, we feel the peace of forgiveness.

When I hang up, I don’t care about attending the reunion. In its place burns a desire to do it all again, better this time, with the benefit of hindsight and, God willing, some wisdom. Now, all I want is for my parents to see I’ve made it, turned out okay. I want to use my classmates’ eyes to see myself better, to relive those feelings of endless possibilities. For just one night, let us reverse age, disease, loss and disappointment.

I walk upstairs and find my classmates in a ballroom. Many now are unrecognizable: bald, fat, wrinkled, ravaged by illness. They look like I feel: like prey. They look like they long for the days when the hunt still twinkled in their eyes, before they knew what lay at the end of those desperate nights of make-believe. Many missing are dead, including Pam who died of stomach cancer leaving a husband and three children. No one knows what became of Jesse. Sharon shyly stops me and asks for my phone number, says she lives near me in Texas and wants to be friends. I smile at her and sit down to talk. Time and life mark and humble us. In the end, it’s enough for us all to reconnect with classmates who lived with us for a brief time in the distant universe of our youth.

At midnight, I leave several revelers still drinking and dancing to our old high school rock-and- roll band and walk, spent, back to my room. If I had a cigarette, I’d smoke it.

Next morning, I check-out of the motel at 7:00 a.m. and drive four hours back to Dallas. Since then, there’s been internet talk of having the next reunion in five years, instead of ten.

Maybe I’ll go.  But probably not. Nothing could eclipse this trip. I know where I’ve been and where I’m going.

I have my memories. As for my past and future, I’ve made my peace.

These days, I’m more straggling antelope than wolf. Still, sometimes when I open my window at night and breathe in fresh air, a certain smell hits me and brings back those childhood nights in a flash of movie-picture brilliance, complete with scent-o-vision. My heart thumps in my ears, my legs and arms twitch, restless to be off again, running, with the cool night air skimming my body.

And my ghost chases the echoes with impunity.

Let forgetting be the last betrayal.

P.B. deLarios is a retired attorney who now spends her time writing and staring out the window at birds.  She thinks flying might be easier than writing.  This piece first appeared in Melusine's Fall 2009 issue.

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