I can see my husband Benny’s stubble covered face through the streaky window of the backdoor. He is waving me out, the skin crinkled between his thick brows, and his chocolate bloodshot eyes serious. His ruffled loose blonde hair and bronze tone skin leave him resembling a California beach bum gone bad. “I have a situation to settle,” he tells me.
I am in our upstairs flat leaning my tired body into the doorframe between the kitchen and back porch. Hesitantly, I toss my worn leather purse over my shoulder, the weight throwing me off balance. It is full of everything I could possibly need but probably won’t: pads of paper bearing old orders from customers, twelve or so dried out pens, a wallet thick with photos and thin on cash, the ever important make-up bag (I can’t go anywhere without it), a half pack of Parliaments, wrinkled Band Aids, tissues (new and used), and a couple of mummified tampons snapped into their plastic case. I grasp the rail leading me down the metal staircase a few feet behind him. It is 10 am and a muggy 90 degrees. I manage my way into the passenger side of the ’72 Satellite my mother had given me, my belly swollen, and roll down the window. I can’t believe he’s asking me to go anywhere and I am cursing him under my breath. The driver’s side door slams. He slips on his sun glasses. I have no clue where we are going.
We travel east on Route 31. It is Labor Day weekend and traffic is confining. He’s in a hurry and tailgating; swaying over the center line trying to pass. I grit my teeth and hold the door handle. “Can you please slow down?” I say, trapping the tone of the truth to the roof of my mouth. I am learning not to start trouble. He would never hit me, I’m pretty sure; my greatest fear is he could leave me.
We go by lawns strewn with colorful items for rummage and vehicles parked haphazardly loading their new found stash; we go by Flo’s Diner (home of the 10 cent coffee); by lines of leather vested bikers on Harleys whipping by us in the opposite direction; by the rusted green exit sign for Sylvan Beach leading packs of families to hot dogs and swings-sets and water. We speed past their turn.
At our destination, a man about his age stands waiting, arms crossed in his yard, and saunters closer to our car. I can smell the fish in the lake and feel the gravel crackle under the tires as we coast down his driveway. The crickets are singing soprano. There is a small group of people in shorts,tie-dyes and flip-flops already here, milling around. They turn to look our way.
I was fifteen when I met Benny and dating one of his friends. He and Tony lived on the same block of McKinley Road near the Pepsi plant and graduated from the same high school, four years ahead of me. A bunch of us met nightly in another friend’s driveway usually around dusk, while the two of them and some others guys from the street, took apart car engines and drank Old Vienna splits inside the garage. Extension cords bandaged in black electrical tape trailed from the house to a sticky AM/FM radio positioned at the edge of the cluttered work bench, tuned into the classic rock station. The other girls and I, sat on folding lawn chairs slapping mosquitos from our ankles, singing along to Leonard Skynard, sipping our OVs and blowing smoke rings into the dark. I stole glances of Benny’s body bent under the hood, his hands mixed into the engine with others loosening and tightening parts, until he caught me looking his way.
Tony was my first “technical” boyfriend, but he loved me too easily. I suffered from a lack of confidence. Taller than my cohorts, I hated my frizzy unmanageable hair, pale skin, slew of freckles, and oversized ears. My father had been missing since I was seven, and I was used to being left not pursued. Anyone who liked me as much as Tony did must have something wrong with them, I rationalized. His love was like a medal for a race I didn’t run; a sham.
I worked hard for the attention of the couldn’t-possibly-care-about-me type. Wanting to trust in their feigned interest, I repeatedly allowed their bodies into mine, waking the next day hung over and shamed. I felt like the items left lying in lint at the bottom of my purse, used up and disgarded.
Benny was different. No matter where he saw me he would turn to me and smile, “Hey Kate.” He was the only one to ever call me Kate and when he said my name I swear I left the planet, heat flushing every inch of my skin. His interest seemed genuine and he never tried to seduce me sexually. I was enraptured, but he had a girlfriend and they had a daughter, and of course there was Tony, so I held onto my crush secretly, like a winning lottery ticket—hoping to someday cash in.
I would see Benny at parties mostly, like the one where our friend Mike, who lived in an apartment behind the local fish fry, often hosted. Fifteen to 20 kids would jam into his one room flat, music blaring and the smoke so thick, you would have to squint to see who was across the room. One night Mike was high on heroin. He tripped and his 350 pound body toppled down the hallway stairs, the music in rhythm with the thumps of his fall. Benny and I were at the bottom of the stairwell smoking our respective smokes. Grabbing both sides of my jacket near my waist, he pulled me toward him and out of the way. The curve of my back fit to his belly. Mike lay motionless. We stood in shock. Benny’s arms were still around me. Then Mike’s body began to shake. He rolled to all fours and got back up rebalancing his black rimmed glasses on the wide bridge of his nose; eyes dilated through thick lenses, and waddled back up the stairs for more.
Benny’s girlfriend eventually left him and my relationship with Tony fizzled, so I began to pursue him. I stopped by Sears Automotive where he worked as a mechanic. He greeted me at the counter in his gray greasy overalls, a lug nut and wrench in hand, his blonde hair messy and wild. As much as I wanted to touch him, I was afraid to look at him and averted his eyes. I made up reasons to be there and asked random questions like, “You okay, I didn’t see you out this weekend?” Or, “You going to that party Friday night?” Or, “You know where I could score some weed?” He met me in the parking lot time and again, where I would fidget and paw through my purse looking for nothing, grateful the desk was no longer between us.
Things progressed and I stalked him at bars. Strategically I changed the birthdate on my school ID and it worked to get me past burly bouncers for a while. With the recipe of strobe lights and rock music and White Russians, I transformed to determined seductress. I never saw myself as thin, but I was, and my long legs were likely my most alluring feature. Donning skin- tight Guess jeans and knee-high boots, I laid on my drunken charm then followed him home to his basement apartment where we met in the folds of his sheets.
A sharp pain erupts in my belly and I groan. He pops the car into park, throws the door open, vaults out and charges this guy, shoving him hard with both hands square on his shoulders. I and the others circle round them as audience on the tinged-brown terrain. This stranger and my husband, wired and rancorous, raise fists to save face in a dance of fancy foot work choreographed to avoid the next punch. The other guy is taller and lanky, red-skinned, tattooed, with thinning strawberry hair, and has to slouch as he bops to stay eye to eye with his rival. Slurs rifle back and forth between the two of them like grenades and their faces growl. There are eight or ten of us witnessing this spectacle. Benny’s allies root for him shouting, “You got him man! Give it to him! Don’t take his shit!”
It feels as if I’m drowning in a dream. I’ve been up all night with labor pains. My second-hand maternity tee shirt is glued to my skin with sweat, accentuating my protruding belly. To my left a scowling, young woman from my neighborhood is full into this fight. She gave birth to her first child a few months ago. “I didn’t cry,” she brags to me, “not even once.” Her waist-length wavy hair blows across my face and stings my eyes. Across the way, a guy with a mustache and scraggly beard leans forward as if readying to dive into the mix. One of Benny’s out-all-night companions, John, is in the circle too. He removes his faded Red Sox cap waving it like a pennant for his favorite team, and switches it from forward to backward to forward again. Every five or so minutes, what feels like a giant fist clenching my uterus causes my knees to fold. I say nothing as the onlookers egg them on. Benny and this guy yelp and swear as they duke it out, fists smacking each other’s scrawny bodies. The hollow thumps reverberate in my ears. I wait for someone to fall or to bleed, for this fight to be over.
“We’ve got something we want to tell you,” I said, picking at my cuticles and staring at the circular pattern in the rug, the button of my Levi jeans pressed into my belly. I was trembling inside of myself. Benny sat next to me on the sofa, as my silent support, one hand resting on my knee, and one of his booted feet bobbing.
My mom sat erect on the edge of her chair and glared at me with a dog’s snarl. “Then get an abortion.”
“No way, Mom, I want this baby.” I squeezed Benny’s flannel shirt into my fist.
“Kathy! Jesus Christ…you’re only eighteen! You’ve got your whole life ahead of you! Do you want to ruin your god damned life? What the hell are the two of you going to do?”
By this time, my mother was standing, pacing, and shaking her finger at me. “I knew this was coming!”
When I was in seventh grade, I got my first lesson in sexuality from my mother. I remember standing in front of my house at the edge of the road, wearing my favorite green and white sweatshirt, trying to keep my hands warm in the pockets, looking at her waving a packaged condom at me from behind the screen door, her other hand on her hip. Her voice was fraught with disdain. “What are you, some kind of whore?”
I was still a virgin at that point, and really had no idea what to do with the rubber she found in my dresser drawer. But a picture was being painted, with she and I at opposite sides of the frame, my back turned, the hues surrounding her dark.
“We are keeping this baby, Mom.”
By my sixth month of pregnancy, I pretty much prayed and wailed daily. I shuffled nervously through the apartment from couch to kitchen table to bed to couch again to wait out Benny’s latest binge, which came just about every four weeks. I lived fifteen miles from a store. I had no money. My head boomed relentlessly. My eyes were permanently puffy. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t stop pacing. I couldn’t sleep.
He would disappear for three-day stretches, saying he’d be right back. During those days, I hovered in the living room watching Princess Di’s proper image on our old 19 inch RCA, distorted and undulating from a worn out picture tube. I was sharing my pregnancy with royalty--the white-blonde-blue-eyed-sort. Swept off her feet in a spectacle of entourage a year or so earlier, she, in perfect order, became incepted with child within months of me. Clean-cut, big eared, Charles, the proud prince and father-to-be, stood by her side. Wasn’t this how it was supposed to be, swept off your feet in a royal fashion, jeweled crowns to pass on to the next generation, the world holding you up? The heir to the throne, the legacy of aristocrats, the next generation of Windsor, held in her belly. But she and Charles didn’t look at each other either, her eyes cast down to her left. I could see in her shy, twisted, smile she wished what I was wishing, for this to be over.
By nightfall I began frantically scanning the highway outside for his return. The picture window was dusty and dirty from tractor-trailers whizzing by, and webs of black spiders hung outside the glass. My brain was a whir, but I tried lying down. I started to doze, yet the sound of each passing car jump-started my heart into a panicky rhythm, and I was wide awake again. On day four he stumbled up the metal stairs wearing a black, blank stare, empty of words, and reeking of left over booze.
The fight putters then stalls. The contenders have out of gas, and stand in mutual surrender, catching their breath, dirt streaking their sweaty faces. Benny wipes his palms on his shorts then turns to me pointing toward the car. Maybe he can finally see the distress on my face, the way I’m bent over, the urgency of the situation. I get in and stay to my side, my body pressed into the door. The crowd is dispersing as we back out slowly, but at the top of the drive, Benny hits the gas and the back tires fishtail, leaving behind a cloud of dust.
On the highway, he cranks the volume on the radio and turns up the bass. My face catches the relief of the wind shifting through the windows, and I’m thankful to be moving. He is driving over the limit, reclining back in his seat. Grabbing his Winston’s in the center console, he taps the pack over his wrist and pulls out a smoke with his teeth.
“Give me a light, Kate.” The gruffness is gone from his voice.
The back of my legs grab the seat as I try to slide his way. Sprinkles of rain slap the windshield and everything seems to darken.
“They’re less than five minutes apart.” I say cupping my hand around the lighter trying to capture a flame. I still have no idea where we are going.