by Tamar Halpern
In this excerpt from her forthcoming novel, writer Tamar Halpern takes us back to 1982, the Valley, Los Angeles.
I am 16 and not invited to my mom’s third wedding. Apparently, it’s a “No Kids Allowed” affair, which is scandalous considering I menstruate, I have touched three penises (two with my eyes open), and tonight, I am pretty sure I will lose my virginity.
It’s almost midnight and the house is quiet other than the buzzy snores of Stepdad-To-Be down the hall. I throw the covers off, fully dressed.
My palms are on the window frame and I push. It fights me, stuck solid with the gunky layers of paint. I shimmy out, landing on top of the bush outside my window. The thorns snag my shirt and rake my skin. Who the hell thought this was a good spot to plant a thorny bush? Probably the people who owned the house before us. They had a teenage girl and her room was my room. I know this because the walls have told me everything about her.
I walk down our driveway, across the street, and up the next driveway. This house looks a lot like my house except for the color scheme and the huge RV camper hunkered in the driveway. I knock on the bedroom window that mirrors my own. It slides up with ease. “Come on in,” Scott says.
Scott’s dad and stepmom are on a water skiing trip. Scott was supposed to go but he got a ticket for doing donuts in the K-Mart parking lot with his dad’s car. I’m glad, because it means we have the house to ourselves. We can pretend we live here, just the two of us. For one night we own an RV and a cream colored Cadillac, even if his parents did lock the keys in the safe.
Scott has candles lit. The sliding glass door is open to the back yard, letting in the scent of night blooming jasmine and the roiling sound of the Jacuzzi. They have a super deluxe model with cross jets and a gazebo because Scott’s dad is an authorized Jacuzzi dealer. I have never been in it, but it looks like tonight might be the night.
Scott smiles that special smile where his tongue fills the space under his two front teeth, which are noticeably small and give him a vaguely vampire-ish look. Everyone asks and he likes to tell the story, how he was nine years old, running for the pop fly, arm outstretched, eye on the prize, the ball landing in the soft spot of his glove just as he ran into the backboard, busting out his two front teeth. He won the game but had to go straight to the dentist, who ground down what was left of the broken teeth and implanted two, fake, shiny new ones. Now his adult teeth have grown in but his two front teeth are small enough to order off the kids’ menu. When he laughs, his tongue fills the gap and he makes a hissth-hissth-hissth sound.
Sometimes wonder if he really won the game or if it just feels better to tell the story that way. Either way, it doesn’t matter if Scott is telling it the way it really happened because I am in love with him.
He takes my hand and we sit on the frame of his waterbed. We’ve been dating for six months. He leans close and I feel his blonde moustache working against my upper lip. We lay back and slowly take off our clothes. Journey serenades us and the glow of Scott’s stereo gives us just enough light to slip the rubber on.
Don’t stop believin’
Hold on to that fee-len-ee-en
Streetlight-ah people whoaahh whooooooaaaaaa…
He is on top of me and then he pushes inside. He moves and the warm waterbed rocks under my hips. It doesn’t feel wrong but it doesn’t feel right either. It hurts a little, but I don’t care because we are doing it. That’s what I keep thinking, over and over. “We are doing it. We are doing it. We are actually doing it.” He looks down at me, his hair flopping in and out of his eyes. He smiles, his tongue filling the space under his front teeth. One last push and the song is over.
Scott lights a cigarette and hands it to me. “It’s the best one,” he says. I take a drag and exhale, watching the smoke make swirling calligraphy. I blur my eyes and the stereo lights turn to soft sparkles while Steve Perry sings about the sun playing the same game with the San Francisco Bay.
I look at Scott and he feels me looking at him. Hissth-hissth-hissth, then he grabs the ashtray and smashes the cigarette out. He hunches with strained focus, using the cigarette butt to methodically and completely corral the ashes into the corner of the ashtray. Then he dumps it in the wastebasket and puts the ashtray back in the same spot on the nightstand, left of the clock radio. Just as his bed is always perfectly made and his records stay in alphabetical order, cigarette butts never languish in the ashtray. It’s just the way it is.
He lifts the record off the turntable, slips it in its paper sleeve, then the cover, wedging the album between Janis Joplin and Kiss. The stereo flips to KLOS and the room is laced with the velvet murmur of a DJ. Scott hops back in bed and I glide on the waves like belly dancer.
“Can you stay the night?”
“Probably not.” I tell him.
“Let me hold you for a while,” he says. Soon his eyes droop and his breathing deepens. How can he possibly be sleepy? I’m wide awake. This is a really important moment in my life .
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Scott grabs my arm and we wait, listening. Fight or flight is not always the first option when your mom and Stepdad-To-Be are pounding on the front door. Sometimes you just freeze. Scott mouths to me, “They can’t come in without permission.” His baby teeth show as he says, “It’s illeeee-gal.”
We slither out the sliding glass door, past the bubbling Jacuzzi. We scale over the back wall and drop into the neighbor’s yard behind his house. The foxtails whip our legs as we sidle past garbage cans, lifting the latch on a side gate. It swings open with a creak, but the creak keeps creaking, louder and louder, because it’s not a creak, it’s an alarm.
“I’ll tell them I was out partying with C and N,” I say. “Tell them whatever you want,” he says. “Just don’t tell them you were with me.” He smiles, then leans down and kisses me, his moustache like a warm caterpillar.
I walk down the sidewalk, trying to figure out what to say, how to handle this like an adult. Calm, absolute, in control. No hysterics. No screaming. That kind of shit will only make my mom and Stepdad-To-Be unite. I turn and head up the driveway. My mom is standing in the dark under a tree.
“Where the hell have you been?” she says with evenly chopped words.
“None of your business,” I say. I step toward the house and she grabs my arm. “Don’t touch me!” I twist away, but she’s got me good, like wolf on rabbit. The screen door bangs against the wall as Stepdad-To-Be rushes out. My mom is shouting, he is shouting, my dog barks furiously from somewhere inside the house. Now Scott is behind me, “Let go of her!” and Stepdad-To-Be shows his total inability to grasp the laws of nature by firing a sucker punch straight into the center of Scott’s face.
Everyone freezes. Scott stands, fists clenched. I try to go to him, but my mom will not let go. Scott, my Scott, the boy I love, stares at my stepdad-to-be with everything he has. “Do it again, I will kill you.” He turns, fists still clenched, and crosses the street, disappearing in the dark.
“You Cal Tech asshole poseur!” I shout. “Who’s the adult here? With your classical music and your pipe and those fucking suede patches on your fucking jackets, you’re posing! You’re a fake! I see right through you! You’re the teenager!”
I run into my room and lock the door. Crying alone is the loneliest thing in the universe, because no one is there to put their arms around you. I cry loud enough to make my mom regret things, and then quietly because I don’t want them to know. I shove the dresser in front of my door, then I push it back. I open my door and call for my dog, but he won’t come. They won’t let him. I slam the door and cry some more.
I stay in my room the next day, spending Sunday listening to The Dark Side of The Moon over and over, using my fingernails to flake the paint off the messages from the girl who lived here before me. In bed that night, I weigh the chances of sneaking out versus the chances of being caught. Clearly Scott has weighed his chances, too. He doesn’t knock on my window. The next day, my mom watches from the kitchen window, making sure I turn left, toward school, instead of straight, toward Scott’s. I decide to go to Scott’s after school, but my mom’s car is in the driveway when I get home. She must have taken the day off.
That night, I lay in bed till everyone’s asleep. She can’t keep taking days off work. They can’t sleep with one eye open every night. I hear the buzzy snores down the hall. I throw off my covers, fully dressed. I go to my window and move the curtains my mom made out of sheets from Marshalls. Across the street, Scott’s bedroom light glows from behind the RV. I put my hands on the window frame and push. I try again, cursing the layers of paint someone sloshed over this room to erase the memory of the girl who was here before me.
I run my hands over the tangle of screws. I imagine Stepdad-To-Be with the power drill, heavy and clunky in hands that are better suited for math problems on a chalkboard. He presses down, each screw burrowing through the paint layers, deep inside the soft wood. This window is sealed forever and I can’t tell him to mind his own business or to butt out, because I imagine my mom standing behind him, shouting over the whir of the drill, “Put another one in. Put another one in.”
Title image source: Thomas Pitilli
We can end it here or continue. I think continue.