Being Fifteen Only Lasts a Year

I hated being fifteen; it was when I discovered that there wasn’t a single ‘grown-up’ (what a stupid term) in the world who wasn’t a damned hypocrite, and I hated every adult I could think of…what liars they all were.  And I knew I was under their control for the duration.

We’d had to write a paper on Miscegenation for social studies class one day; it must have been the topic du jour.  Mine got sent home for my parents to sign; sign…like I’d done something wrong, and my parents needed to be aware of what I’d written, and punish me for it.  All I’d said was that of course people of different colors should be allowed to marry, and I made what I thought was a pretty good case for it.

  After dinner I was summoned to stand in front of my parents who were sitting like judges in their stupid easy chairs by the window, their backs to the lake and the country club pool just past the edge of our yard, interrogating me about my racial beliefs.

Hoom-hoom from my father, “Miss Kinneman wanted us to read this paper; she was concerned, and wanted us to talk to you about it.  Is this what you really believe?”  He read an excerpt or two out loud, and looked at me; I really didn’t want to meet his eyes.

“Uh…yes.  Haven’t you and mom taught me about equality for years; and mom’s always making a big deal about how her client Betty was so impressed mom didn’t wipe the glass before she had a sip of Betty’s lemonade and all?  And that we’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord?”

He sought more clarification, and then mom weighed in.  “You know that mixed couples suffer from terrible prejudice, don’t you?  Both whites and blacks are uncomfortable about it.”

Yes, mom, I nodded; okay mom.  And then the clincher came from my pop:

“I understand what you’re saying, but you wouldn’t ever marry a black man, right?”

I stood there in front of them, watching them reverse-telescope away, becoming smaller and smaller, until they were the size of quarters, as my mind fought for an answer that would get me the hell out of there, and wouldn’t show them there was another reason for them to worry about me; another thing I could feel wrong about, different about.  The list had been growing lately, and it felt like the scales were dangerously close to tipping the wrong way.  Eight short words it took him to rip the masks off his and my mom’s faces, and reveal the bigots lurking behind them.  All that equality was fine, unless it concerned their sweet little Wasp daughter, oh yeah.

Could they see how I’d miniaturized them in my mind?  Jeez; he was talking again, he must have repeated the question.  Panic time.

“No.”  Zzzt!  Every time I blinked my eyes, they got bigger again, almost life-sized now, and were staring at me, some queer form of relief on their faces.  I must have given the right answer, which was, of course, the one they wanted to hear.

Hoom-hoom again; “Well, alright then; good.  You’re excused.”  (Well, you sure as hell aren’t.)

I’d fled downstairs to my tiny cave of a room.  It was underground save for one small sliding window.  I’d painted it grey-green, and had taped up pictures of rock bands all over one wall; it was a sanctuary, and the music from my little clock radio was the source of both my religion and my hymns.  And books, too.  I read a lot, and shared my reading list with no one, probably stemming from the days when some idiot started a rumor at school that the Weaver girls read their encyclopedia from A to Z.  Potential boyfriends just love hearing stuff like that.

I was fuming, and just a little bit scared.  The hypocrisy of that conversation set me back on my pins; they just let me know that all that we’re all equals stuff was just skin deep and phony as hell.  I wondered what else was bullshit?  And screw Miss Kinneman, by the way; she could have just told us the assignment was a trap, and ya better watch what you write.

The world is drowning in phonies; just like Mrs. Parsons-good-Catholic next door; Marcella, for pity’s sake.  People like her let you know as soon as you met them that they were Catholic, letting you know that she and her family had some edge on Righteousness or something.  Yeah, real holy, all right.

The other day Mrs. Parsons was honking on about our cleaning lady, Mrs. Reynolds, who came once a week to help my mom.  She was old before her time, and lived down the road on East Twin Lake, in a tiny red-shingled cottage that was about as big as a caddy shack.  She was kind, and liked to talk about her daughter who lived far away.  She’d stand up from whatever thing she was polishing, look out the window, and stare far away when she talked about her.

“She’s gonna make something of herself,” she’d say; “you see if she doesn’t.  And she might get here for Christmas this year.”

Marcella had hired her recently, but there was a problem: she insisted she wear an apron and white maids’ cap.  Mrs. Reynolds didn’t want to do it; good for her for showing some spunk.

“We don’t want anyone coming to the house and thinking she’s…she’s…a friend or anything.”  Grrr; wouldn’t Christ be proud of her?  In the end, Mrs. Reynolds must have decided she really needed the work, because she agreed to wear the stupid little uniforms.  I’ll bet they chafed every minute.

Last week Marcella been here complaining about me; about being mean to one of her sons, Timmy, she called him.  He was my age, and she thought we should be a couple or something, always pushing us together; yuck; and I wasn’t even Catholic.  I was, once again, listening from my eavesdropping post at the bottom of the stairs.

“Timmy said Wendy called him a football head.  I wonder why she doesn’t like him?  It hurts his feeling so much.”

Uh-oh; guilty.  He absolutely was a football head, though out of context it did sound like a pretty mean thing to call someone.  I didn’t like him because he was a creep, and he was always hanging around me, like on the school bus.  Plus, a couple weeks before his mother had lent us a Catholic book on sex; my mother wanted us to read it.  God; now when I looked at Timmy, I realized he knew that I knew all about nocturnal emissions and doing it; God, how embarrassing it was.  The book was pretty actually pretty straight-forward, and better than the clinical description of sex mom had given us a few years ago, which she must have designed to preemptively kill any sexual desire for life (and I will spare you even the keywords, lest they permanently maim your libidos).  The Catholic tract was pretty different than the Henry Miller book I’d found upstairs and read until my sister found out, ratted me out about, and my dad chucked into the fire…he probably pretended he’d never read it, too.

After she left, my mom had called me upstairs and told me to quit making fun of Tim; I doubt she thought I really would, though.  Yeah, she was right; though I did soften it by simply calling him  just Foot after that.

On my way downstairs I realized there’d be no choir practice tonight.  Maybe sixty of us from our school had gone to the Congregational church just to sing.  Mrs. Bumphry (not kidding) was sixtyish, with white hair done up on top of her head, erect posture, and snapping blue eyes.  She could pull magic music out of us, her uplifted arms conducting us like we were singing angels, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth when we got it right.  She was brilliant.  She loved us, loved music, and enthusiastically taught us to sing; we loved her, too, and obeyed every subtle gesture her baton and fingers directed: Altos, now!  Tenors, pianissimo!

The church board had fired her the week before.  We’d all walked into the large sunlit hall where practice was held, and were told the news; it was like experiencing a death in a way.  We never heard the real reason, but rumor had it that the church board members were angry that none of us in the choir wanted to take the lessons to join the church, and they blamed her somehow.  They hired a replacement, but he was a jerk, and nearly all of us quit.  Served them right; no appeals brought Mrs. Bumphry back to us.  Too many bummers lately…

I went back to my room and closed the door.  Behind the door was the damaged wall where a full-length mirror once hung.  Shards of glass were still embedded in the drywall, and the green paint was scraped and ugly.  My haven had been violated a few weeks ago.

An alcoholic friend of my parents had gotten too drunk to drive home to Akron; my parents had given him my room for the night.  Sometime in the night he’d gotten up to go to the bathroom, and seen his reflection in the mirror.  What he’d seen must have pissed him off, because he swung at the ugly drunk in the mirror, and smashed it, and him, to smithereens.  Great.  A pleasure to have you, sir.  Would you like to send over some painters to fix my wall?  Buy me a new mirror?

Yank, this was; his wife was Reb; cute, huh?  He was an executive at B.F. Goodrich, and was haunted by the ghost of his dead boss; when he’d get drunk, he’d cry about it and drink a little more.  She periodically tried to commit suicide, though it was just a ruse, really.  She was mean as well as nuts, and tormented their kids, especially the eldest son.  During almost every meal, she’d get mad at him, and send him to eat his meal on the cellar steps just off the kitchen, and then he’d later get strapped with a leather belt.   It was too hard to eat with Tim on the steps; oh god.  The worst thing that could happen when we were there would be to be cornered by Reb, and have her confide in you about something, and then be sworn to secrecy.  She could say evil things that made you fee like dirt; it was all crazy, and wrong, and made my stomach hurt.

I had a few girlfriends, but we never talked about the stuff at home much.  People just didn’t, I guess, and we all thought the other families were normal and sane; though who knew for sure?  When I’d try to talk to my sister about any of it, she’d just act like I was crazy, and denied anything weird or bad was going on.  It was like we didn’t even live in the same house, or share the same family.  I wonder where she hid the bad things…

I sat on my bed and turned on the radio; so much music with so much to say:  Eric Burdon could talk about pain; Dylan could skewer hypocrites and society; Beach Boys could lighten my heart, and get me dreaming about good love; Rolling Stones drew vivid and dark mind-pictures…the Beatles were always there, growing and evolving; that summer, Eve of Destruction froze my heart, and reminded me of hiding under our desks and covering our eyes, and of the dangerous future that lay ahead.  I could only stop and listen, frozen; Janis Ian got it just right.

A couple weeks before I’d gone to a dance with a live band.  The singer was pretty good, and did lots of James Brown and Mick Jagger moves.  The band was young, but energetic.  When they finished, he came over to talk to me, carrying the drummer’s high-hat cymbals like an umbrella.

“Tut-tut; looks like rain,” he said, and grinned.  He had me then and there; I am a major A.A. Milne fan.  He had bowl-cut dark hair, a more mocking smile than I was used to, though if it were directed toward me or himself I didn’t know.  He wasn’t good-looking, but interesting looking and he tried to impress me with his college freshman worldliness and brilliance right away.  It worked; it wouldn’t have taken much, I’m afraid.  After their van was loaded, we made plans to meet downtown the next day.

For some odd reason, my parents let me go out with him, though I had to be home early.  I could stay out later when I went with girlfriends to The Cave, a renovated hotel basement that opened with live music and dancing for teenagers; Jerry’s band played there a lot.

I guess we fell in love over the summer, but our bond may have been as much the comfort two outsiders found in each other, though it felt like love.  He clearly was not ordinary: a musician, poet, fine artist with four siblings and parents who seriously didn’t get him.  Good middle-class Catholics (Jerry was an atheist), they and their son were utterly alien to each other.

That fall I’d started classes at the college, so I had full permission to be gone from high school, and I took full advantage of it.  Tip: if you maintain a four-point grade average, you are beyond suspicion.  You won’t admire me for this, but I was rotten to the teachers I detested.  I crawled out of Mr. Fossil Davidson’s physics class on my hands and knees under the lab tables many times; threw Miss Wickes’ chalk out the window, stupid stuff like that.  It was the only way I could  express how little respect I had for them.

Anyway, Jerry and I met often, and were giddy and drunken with pleasure over each other’s company.  Sometimes we’d act out spontaneous pantomimes on campus, mostly period dance on the sidewalk parapets; we would make people laugh.  He was a born showman, and it was fun to play along.

They were absurd and heady times, and we were sponges for all the raw possibilities in the air.  Experimental film, new politics and war protest, art that was stretching old limits…plus reefer, which added some new dimensions to consciousness.

He would write poems for me, and I clutched their sentiments to my breast to warm me through the harsh times at home; he even stuck a poem in the apron pocket of a Raggedy Ann doll he gave me.

Aristophanes’ theory of love seemed comically at play; humans divided in half by jealous gods, seeking always to find our other halves, and finding each other, we wanted to absorb each other, recognize and complete each other; to not feel so alone.  The self-centered parts were easy to ignore in the blaze of it all…that someone can find us so loveable feels so good.

Maybe first love is always passionate, but over time the passion’s limitations began to erode our love; he’d already been sexual with his previous girlfriend, and couldn’t understand that I wasn’t ready.  I was sixteen, birth control pills weren’t yet available, and it made no sense to me to risk pregnancy.  That would have been a disaster, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to have sex yet. I was too young, and knew it.

I can’t reconstruct any of the conversations around the issue; the truth is, I can’t put dialogue in Jerry’s mouth at all, and I can’t say why.   I do remember that the word please came up often when we talked about sex or not, and it felt as though his needs were bigger than considerations for mine; that didn’t feel right.  I could get as moony as the next person listening to the Beach Boys Wouldn’t It Be Nice, but the yearning was more for holding each other, comforting each other the whole night through

So finally he left me for a teaching assistant from one of his classes.  He’d rather cruelly write me letters about their relationship, mostly centered on sloe gin, sex and intellectual pursuits.  He would later have a small illustrated book printed: a long poem about me; I was cast as the Ice Princess, he the Knight cutting through the cobwebs and icicles that kept me guarded from capture or discovery, like some virginal grail …good grief.  The only line I remember any more was, Whispering when I was fifteen…

  Was it sweet revenge, or was I just the accidental muse; was it even good poetry?  I don’t know; but it was humiliating to be cast as frigid, and have all that paraded before my friends, his friends.  For godssake, I wasn’t frigid; I was smart.

Some years later he and another art student formed a band called Devo; one day I saw them in a Rolling Stone, and did the proverbial double-take.  I bought a couple of their albums, and was tickled to hear Workin’ in a Coal Mine, which his band had done all those years ago in Kent.

And that elastic time-space string just boi-oinged me right back…to that time, and that place…

Wrapping this up is hard.  Fifteen was the age I started being myself, whatever that means. (yeah, I know what the shrinks call it…)  If this is a coming-of-age vignette, it’s only one of many for me; maybe it’s more about breaking apart and getting put back together and how often it happens, and how some of it just happens to us, and keeps on happening, and one day we look into the mirror and say, “Okay; this is it; this particular trial by fire’s gonna be the one that makes me feel like an adult.”  And we can see it clearly in our eyes.

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