I couldn’t stop running my tongue over the braces on my top row of teeth. Except for the gap between my two front teeth, they were all straight, but that’s what needed fixing. The year was 1979. I had just made friends with a girl named Cher. I loved the way she said the word cool, like the second ‘o’ had an umlaut above it. Her hair was so blonde it glowed under the florescent lights powered by the generators. We both weren’t old enough to drive, so we bought walk-in tickets at the Sunland drive-in theater. I had just enough money to pay for my ticket with a few cents left over. We sat on a bench in the front where kids who also went to Mt. Gleason usually sat. The projector was playing commercials while I turned my neck around to see all the high school kids in their cars. One couple was making out, and another car was filled with girls, half, no doubt, were stuffed into the trunk to get in free.
“You’re gonna love it.” Cher said. She was from the East Coast, and all her words sung to each other.
“Oh, yeah?” I leaned in to hear her. There was a constant sound of cars rolling on gravel competing with the anthropomorphic popcorn that sang, “Let’s all go to the lobby.”
“Yeah, they play the movie, and this whole line of real life actors come out and do the same thing the screen is doing.”
“Why do they do it?”
“It’s fun. You’ll see.” She said. “It just makes sense.”
“Hey, you want something? Like popcorn?”
“No, thanks.” I didn’t have any money for popcorn.
The title, “Rocky Horror Picture Show” sprawled across the screen and a line of actors came out and bowed. They were wearing burlesque clothes and high heels, all of them, even the boys, I gasped. A pair of red lips as big as Mick Jagger’s floated onscreen. The high schoolers whistled from their cars. I leaned on my elbow and was glad I was wearing my jacket. It was freezing. A wedding scene replaced the live actors in front of the screen, and everything seemed an innocent yellow that just got better and better.
My eyes jumped between the live actors and the screen. I leaned between the space of me and Cher while vapor pushed out and got caught in the light coming from the projector. I asked her what the movie was called again. I was transfixed. Susan Sarandon could get her voice so high, and I knew I could do the same. I had never been to a performance like that before. I’d never even been to a play that wasn’t put on by the church of the nativity or resurrection. This was something different altogether. I thought of Garrett, the boy much older than me down the street. I turned away from the screen to see almost all the high schoolers making out with someone. I was painfully aware that I was there with a friend. Something inside me was looking for Garrett, but I knew he wouldn’t be there.
I turned back afraid a high schooler would catch me watching them. A thin fog had descended, and the light from the projector caught it and sprayed that golden color that shimmers off movies at the drive-in. I had forgotten how cold I was as the performance started to end. I was so warm inside, and all I wanted in the world was to finally be one of those high schoolers in a car with a boy, with Garrett.
“Did you like it?” Cher asked me.
“I loved it.” I said and we sang, “Touch-a touch-a touch-a touch me” together as we went to leave arm in arm, slipping on the gravel. At the front of the drive-in, a merchandise booth was set up. Huge mouths with bright red lipstick sprawled across the booth, and she begged me to get matching shirts with her.
“I don’t have any more money.” I said, “I can’t.”
“I’ll pay! My mom gave me extra.”
“No, I can’t,” my mom hated it when I borrowed money. “I won’t be able to pay you back.”
“We can wear them to high school next year.” She stood in line.
“I’m serious I can’t pay for one.”
“Nonsense. My treat.” She swayed and smiled.
We both got black long sleeves with white lightning bolts going down the sleeves and the entire cast stacked on the front. I held mine in my lap while we sat in the backseat of her mom’s car. I thanked her mom a thousand times as she dropped me off. My mom was always too tired from working overtime to pick me and my friends up.
My whole life changed every day the year before high school. One decade was ending, and mine was beginning. I didn’t get to see Cher much during that summer before high school, so I never wore that long sleeve shirt except under another t-shirt because I liked the lightning bolts on the sleeves. My older brother, Fred, got a new skateboard for his birthday so he gave me his, and I could finally practice as often as I wanted.
Susan lived down the street from us, and I still had that crush on her older brother, Garrett, who was so good at skateboarding. That summer, my two older brothers finished building the half pipe in the front yard. Garrett had wandered up the street to talk to them and try the ramp out. I stood off to the side in the drive way practicing my kick flip. He never looked at me. What else was new? I’d always be walking down to see Susan, and he’d never notice me, or he’d shut his door as soon as I’d walk with her to her room. Their house was the same layout as ours. Her room was in the back of the house across from her parents, and his was in the front, across from their library. Both of our houses had a dining room right when you walked in, and a hallway on the right that had the bedrooms on either side like a capital “I” if the bars on the top and bottom represented the rooms along the hallway. The master bed had its own bathroom, but the other bathroom was shared by both Garrett and Susan, and it was in between the rooms on the right side of the hallway. Susan was lucky, she just had to share with Garrett. I had had to share with all three of my brothers before my dad moved out. Now I shared with my mom. I shared everything with my mom, now.
When I’d go over to Susan’s house, Garrett would be arguing with his parents in the kitchen in Japanese. I’d ask Susan what they were arguing over, and she’d say one of his girlfriends. He had so many girlfriends. I’d say oh and lean my chin on my knees. He always went for blondes. When I’d get into high school, things would be different. I could feel my teeth getting closer to each other. I wouldn’t be Bugs Bunny anymore. I’d be a total babe.
Skateboarding became a place to put my frustration. Frustrated over my teeth, over my limp hair, and my brown eyes that were all nothing like Garrett’s girlfriends. I practiced at the bottom of the street because it was flatter there, and I’d see several Farrah Fawcett’s dropping him off, people that looked like my friend, Cher. He always had long goodbyes. Then, he’d ignore me as he jogged up the street to his house in his pull-over and impossibly short shorts. He had a bowl cut that fell around his face, perfectly. Wasn’t a guy supposed to drop the girl off? It felt personal for this reason, but I still got it: Susan and his parents were strict.
My mom was always so strict about boys too which was another reason why we got along, Susan and I. We’d talk boys in our class for hours. She was always in love with the funny guy or the drummer. I was in love with her brother, and she was cool with it. In fact, she was rooting for me to win, but she also always said he didn’t deserve me. I didn’t care about deserve or not deserve. I wanted him to give me those long goodbyes. When he’d glance my way, I felt an entire hot sea wash over me. His eyes were so dark, so piercing. He would pull his bottom lip in and guide his tongue along it in such a way. Everything he did had an effortless look to it, even the way he floated up the street and away from me, or the way he’d slam his door when I came into his house.
I don’t know where my obsession with Garrett ended and my obsession with skateboarding started, but sometimes I’d be out there dropping in on the half pipe Frank and Fred built. Everyone around me, the house, my dad, the street, all of them would melt away. At the top of that half pipe, my breathing would slow, and I’d be standing on the tail of my board, putting my front foot down, leaning forward and dropping in. Skateboarding just made sense. Practicing new moves was always hard, and took time, but when I was on that half pipe it all just came to me. My body wanted to move with the board, and it brought its own surprises, the suddenness of landing a kick flip or rolling down the half pipe after a failed drop in.
There was also the simple fact that I could do anything my brothers could do no matter how often they wished I couldn’t, no matter how much my dad wished I couldn’t. I could beat all the boys in P.E. and my dad’s endeavors to make me feel less-than were never met with a reason. I could do anything Frank or even Fred could do, and I know that irked him the most. This became a satisfaction I couldn’t stop. It would be another thing if I was just proving my dad wrong, but that I could love skateboarding too. It even made me forget about Garrett, if only for a moment.
I didn’t know it then, but skateboarding chipped away my obsession with Garrett, and Susan and I became even closer because of this. I wasn’t always talking about Garrett, when I saw her. She didn’t like skateboarding as much as me, but I’d still ask her to come up the street and watch me while all our brothers were away. She’d sit on her old skateboard rocking it side to side and read a book underneath the Angel Trumpet tree that was set against the garage, and I’d use my brother-less time with the half pipe as much as possible. When Fred and Frank would get home, they’d peel me off of it. Joey would stick with them, since he didn’t have a friend to run off to. I felt bad for Joey, that he wasn’t a girl.
There was one summer night, though when it was just Susan and I out there. The sun was setting, I was sweating through the back of my shirt, and my kneepads and elbow pads were soaked, and I had finally landed a near perfect kick flip. The world felt so open. Susan was busy skating up and down the street, but she saw me land it and cheered as she raced down the street. She stopped just before the hill got steep, and turned around, kicking back up to my house. The street we lived on was called Lemoncrest. I wasn’t sure which one came first, the name or all those lemon trees. Having a lemon tree in front of your house was like a right of passage. Susan’s family had a lemon tree, an orange tree, and an avocado tree in their front yard. Mine just had one lemon tree, not unlike everyone else up and down the street. In the winter, the trees on the street would plump with yellow and then shed them all into the ground. Opossums and raccoons would come down from the mountains behind our houses and feast on the fallen fruits. Susan’s mom hated them always targeting her avocados. She’d wrap her avocado tree in a mesh or put spikes around the trunk of the tree. Nothing seemed to work.
“When I get old enough, I’m getting a moped.”
“A what?” I asked her.
“You know. It’s like a motorcycle. Europeans use them.”
I laughed and kicked my board up. “Why? Why not a car?”
“Easier. I was thinking a blue one.”
“Or a white one.” I suggested.
“Like a creamy blue.”
“Creamy white. No, silver could be nice.”
“Silver? Like a nice grey, yeah.” Susan said.
“You could take me to school!” I yelled as I dropped the board and started noodling.
“I could take us anywhere,” she said. I could see all the pieces falling together, perfectly.
I felt my mom’s absence most during that summer. I missed her so much more. She’d come home worn out, you could see it in her shoulders. Even with shoulder pads that lifted her brilliant blue and deep navy suits, her shoulders looked sunken in. I made dinner for her and Joey every day she worked that summer. My older brothers always did their own thing. It was nighttime when she would get home. On the weekends, she took us to the beach. She just loved it there, and she said it recharged her for the week. Fred and Frank slept in on Saturdays, but she’d take me and Joey.
We always went to Santa Monica where the sand spread out for a mile. The pier would be on the left side of us, and sometimes we’d stay till evening when the ferris wheel lit up. Everything was so brilliant next to the darkness of the ocean at night. The stars shined brighter, and the ferris wheel looked mesmerizing like a fireworks display. My mom’s curls would be perfectly wrapped in a scarf the whole time at the beach, only waiting till we got home to unwrap it. It was the same silk scarf every time. She preferred quality to quantity when it came to clothes. Her silk scarf had a deep blue edge with a pretty little floral pattern at the center. When we would be laying out, seeing all the cars park or drive by on the PCH, she’d talk about her baby blue Chevrolet.
“You could roll the top down. Perfect for days like this. It was a stick shift too. Great for going through the hills. I’d come here with my girlfriends, mostly my boyfriends.”
“Mom, did you ever not have a boyfriend?”
She chuckled, “No, I don’t think so. Sometimes I had two.”
“What? The forties and fifties were a different time, you know. The men looked better, and they were all happy they didn’t die in the war.”
I pushed some sand into a pyramid and squashed it. “Was Dad in World War 2?”
“No, he was too young,” she got serious, “He was in the Korean War though, thankfully.” She paused an indescribable pause, and mumbled. “Maybe that’s where he learned it all.”
She was talking about something I wasn’t supposed to ask about, but I knew she was glad he never got drafted into Vietnam. She used to pour over the newspapers, as the drafts passed over our house. There wasn’t a strong worry because all the boys in our house were too young, and the man who’s license was registered to our house, but never came home was too old.
She’d sigh a great big sigh and come back to me rapturing about another memory from the fifties and when the salty air lifted my hair it all just felt right. I liked listening to her stories and how monotonous they were. Always about her car, and her boyfriends, and her favorite tree in Sunland. For a woman who suffered so much, she always had a good story to tell, and to tell over and over again like all her sources of joy were supple.
On one of our excursions to the beach, my mom decided to tell me a new story, one I had only guessed at. The day was particularly hot, coming into the high heat of the summer. The sun was so high in the sky. My hair was coated in salt and sand was lingering in my ear canals. I had just come back from a swim, and Joey went out like we were changing shifts. The wind blew, ever-present. She told me that my brother and I were conceived by rape. My body rocked with phantom waves.
“You’re dad was drunk.” She said. The sun hanging above us never moved.
“And he was mad. I mean real mad.” She wasn’t looking at me. “And I just couldn’t stop him. It’s just another one of those things I can’t control.”
It wasn’t that it was no big deal, but I just didn’t feel anything when she told me. I had suspected it for some time given the arguments I had heard coming from their bedroom when he was living there with us. I just never put two and two together. Didn’t know what sex meant or didn’t mean. Couldn’t figure out why my dad hated me so much. Why I hated him so much. The world continued around us, like my whole world hadn’t come crashing down. The relentless wind was the only indicator that what I was feeling was real.
“But I won because I got you,” she took my hand, a gesture she reserved, “And Joey.”
I didn’t realize I was crying, until I used my left hand to wipe my tears. I thought about my hand, about her hand. Sometimes things can be so much, so intense that it all boils down to wiping the right side of my face with my left hand, and not the look on my mom’s face, and not the way her hand felt so small holding mine, and not the absolute beauty of my mother loving me still.