· POETRY ·
J Andrew Clark
Bill the Cat
· FICTION ·
· SWAG ·
S P I N N I N G ' R O U N D A G A I N
That road dead-ended just a little way past your house, didn't it? Damned if I can remember what it was called, but I can and always will be able to conjure up how it snaked and weaved off our town's gritty main road, the one that many well-intentioned community improvement projects failed to rescue from the onslaught of Rally's Burgers and Boney's Cheaper Market.
How many times had I hung that left against traffic, swinging by Pecos Pete's Steakhouse and up into the brush-strewn Southern California fire-hazard hills, to see you?
My memory, fuzzed by what even at 25 I accept as the inevitable aging-and-filtering process, doesn't delve that deep. But I remember how the Nameless Road bypassed the Lesser Homes of the flatlands, of weed-choked lawns and uselessly rusted cars parked on chipped blocks. Crack houses, we called them, snickering with the assurance bought by our well-heeled daddies' money.
Then after the brief silence of a yet-undeveloped canyon came your clove of custom homes, none under 3,500 square feet and all reeking of nouveau riche. Yours was the ranch down the cul-de-sac, fully landscaped yet somehow unnatural against the charcoal hills.
Whenever you were behind the wheel on the way back from one of our silly high-school haunts -- a fast-food restaurant, or, like as not, the mall -- I could always count on seeing the end of that winding road, where the moneyed constructed yielded and nature reclaimed what little territory the developers allowed.
You'd cackle as if the joke were new, turning Aerosmith or Poison up to screeching on the cassette deck and downshifting to fourth. We'd slight your street, charging instead for the dead end.
Once there, you'd sling the wheel all the way to the left, boomeranging the little car around and around in a stomach-clenching orbit, laughing all the way, ha-ha-ha. I'd play my expected role, clinging to the dashboard and begging you to stop in that high-itched, close-to-hysteria way teen girls seem to have patented, not really meaning it and being utterly sincere all at the same time.
And 15 or 20 circuits later, you'd comply, liberating the wheel enough to guide us the half-mile or so back to your parents' porcelain-and-china lair.
Only now do I realize how cleverly you kept this privilege to yourself, stopping me with a ring-bedecked grasp the few times I motioned my own car toward the road's end. Don't, commanded in the saccharine, authoritative dulcet tone I was certain you rehearsed. I don't feel like it.
Never was I given that option, the choice to decline, on the days you put it in a lower gear and jacked up the tunes. Not that it ever occurred to me to refuse.
After graduation and a nostalgic summer, higher education called, sending you halfway across the country and I a comparatively chicken-livered few hundred miles up the coast. Cyclical jaunts grew limited to holidays and occasional vacations, but your grip on the wheel -- and our friendship -- never lessened.
The first year of college rolled into the second. We were sophomores. It was Thanksgiving. You were returning by plane, I by car. And I was Bringing Someone Home. He was Just A Friend, but the way he'd begun to hook his jeans-clad leg around mind in the movie theatre and during dinner gave me hope of progressing further.
I couldn't wait for the two of you to meet. Each of you had been prepped with an earful about the other, and I so wanted your opinion of him. My God, I only now realize what an Amazonian goddess you were to me then, how I figuratively -- as well as literally -- looked up to you.
He and I arrived late at my parents' house two nights before Thanksgiving. It was a quick set of pleasantries, him handing her the flowers I'd bought to ensure a smooth greeting, then off to chastely separate beds.
Your plane was scheduled for a 6:30 p.m. arrival at Lindbergh Field the next evening. The telephone summoned us to your home two hours later.
My mother, possessor of the ever-hereditary desire to please, surrendered her newly bought German convertible for the occasion -- on the condition that he drive. I just wasn't deemed safe behind the wheel -- and he gladly followed orders.
I was so glad to see you. We embraced in the spacious terra-cotta entry, your generous cleavage briefly suffocating me as usual, our girlish cries echoing off the vaulted ceiling. He greeted you similarly -- even as a stranger -- and I felt the first unbidden jealous arrow pierce my heart.
Small talk followed in your parents' living room, all cerulean and leather, dominated at the west end by a big-screen TV. So many hours we'd spent in that room, pretending to do homework or making prank phone calls or watering a selection from your father's extensive pornography collection on that selfsame big-screen, goggle-eyed and with half an ear toward the automatic garage-door opener.
So many, so many countless days, hours, minutes, seconds, years. Far too many for your betrayal to begin there.
So of course, it did.
How was it that I wound up in your father's La-Z-Boy and you beside him on the couch' Usually the recliner was coveted for its flexibility and straight-shot view to the TV, but this wasn't a normal evening, was it?
That night, I had the view, didn't I -- a panoramic scene of seduction. No, you didn't take him there, right on your parents' two-thousand-dollar couch, but you may as well have.
You see, you'd been in love only as a teen can be, had men covet you, despite your weight, invite you to dances, dinner and even the opera on one gloat-inducing occasion.
But I'd never had this, never had someone smile at me the way he'd begun to, never had someone phone me with the hushed, intimate urgency I'd started to hear in his voice. It was giddy and frightening and oh, so addictive.
And you, Miss Would-Be Southern Belle, came on like a dream, peaches and cream, lips like strawberry wine, jockeying for my first chance like you'd fought time and time for the wheel. Bold, brazen, determined as hell to win.
Late-night phone conversations separated by two time zones had communicated his importance, my trepidation, the situation's intensity, to you. Or so I thought. We'd spent two hours dissecting a sigh, another 45 minutes analyzing a look he'd given me over beachside chili dogs. The stuff crushes are made of.
You sound so happy, you'd crooned when last we spoke just three days earlier, no doubt admiring your manicurist-constructed acrylics. I can't wait to meet him. I bet you two are so cute.
Actually, this night it was you two were cute enough to border on adorable. Really, a less prejudiced eye than mine would have made that judgment. For even your coloring complemented each other, your auburn curls and his ruddy German-ancestor cheeks, your hazel eyes and his flashing green gaze, your pale freckled hands, scarlet-tipped talons, and his tense back muscles. That's where it began, isn't it? With his complaint of a sore spine and your all too eagerness to help, to relieve, to retrieve, to deceive. And my foolish, crazed desire to believe.
Ah, but if only your pop's omnipowerful Sanyo remote control could've manipulated your actions, my Scarlett O'Hara runner-up. Instead, you plunged on past my pleading glance, striking gold as you found the spot at the nape of his neck that made his eyes roll back in his head.
You dug. Harder and harder, you dug. And I watched him arc back, half-wincing, half gasping as we all somehow feigned conversation.
Somehow, a small hidden part of me admired your nerve. I'd known him nearly two months -- you two were acquainted less than an hour -- yet you emerged the victor.
Because he let you touch him, forge a bond of intimacy in a way I'd never dared. Our occasional knee dalliances aside, he and I had been quite innocent. You weren't helping the situation.
My eyes burned as you playfully -- oh, so lightly -- put your bare, pedicured foot atop his. Unbidden, my teeth dug into my lower lip.
Desperate, I offered up my only hope for a way out. Denny's. Denny's Always Open. The perennial favorite of french-fry-throwing high schoolers and nitwits desperate to regain control of the situation.
You accepted. I exhaled relief like discarded cigarette smoke as we hopped in the BMW, jacked the top down, warmed up the black leather seats for insulation against an unusually chilly Southern California night.
He had possession of the wheel -- something he'd taken as his right since my mother flipped him the keys -- and showed off, tearing down the windy road past the crack houses and dead cars, flicking a cassette tape into the stereo with a studied, casual gesture. He'd read your signals. He was out to impress. To step into that path meant getting steamrolled.
But I did all I could, tugging on his arm as he shifted, cracking inappropriate, silly jokes, rambling on and on as if it would somehow change something, cast your spell into the evening's mist.
It didn't work.
Instead, you took over, sliding snake-like across the back seat to continue the work I'd hoped you'd discarded when we left your house.
All the way down Poway Road, past the new Albertson's and boarded-up Hallmark toward the shabby city library and worn park where we'd smoked forbidden marijuana you rubbed and kneaded, caressed and wheedled. Do you like it here, you wanted to know, or what about here?
No longer able to protest, knowing that control was, as usual, taken by you, that the situation was literally in your hands, I surrendered, turning away in silence, teeth gritted and staring at the dimly lit street signs as Ace of Base played.
She leads a lonely life. Midland Road. All that she wants is another baby. Community Road. She's gone tomorrow. Pomerado Road. But all that she wants is another baby.
The haggard ten o'clock waitress led us to a semicircular table, where he sat -- where else? -- in the middle. We ordered onion rings and Diet Cokes. When I came back from the ladies' room, I saw your scarlet lip imprints on his straw.
Funny -- sad, actually, with five years' hindsight -- how despite everything, I still held out hope.
Under the greasy, half-wiped table, I'd extended my knee as far as possible without appearing obvious, hoping he'd take up the offer as he'd done in Santa Barbara.
But my gesture went unheeded, my leg left alone.
You were keeping him occupied. All in the name of being friendly, of getting acquainted, of embarrassing the hell out of me. As you'd always done so well. Telling him all your favorite stories -- my unreciprocated crush on our class president, the time I failed to get cast in the school play, how you'd pulled the chair out from under my descending behind one day during journalism class sophomore year.
I remember that one well, how I sprawled on the cheaply carpeted floor, how you screamed with laughter along with the all the seniors I worshipped.
And four years later, you were pulling the same stunt. Only this time you were pushing me to my knees instead of making me fall on my ass.
Again I looked away. I brought this on echoed through my head as I watched you two play. I could have predicted this
Looking back, I know that not only could I have predicted it, I should have.
But you know -- I didn't. For better or worse, my 19-year-old naivete didn't allow me to.
Not that we weren't all to blame. You for requiring the spotlight. Him for so blatantly, willingly, playing into the trap. I for not heading it off immediately, for providing the vehicle in every way.
No, I don't want to play the martyr -- a role that you (and later he -- perhaps you'd at some point compared notes) always said I do so well.
And make no mistake: I did gain control later that night. After the late-night meal, after staving off your shared suggestion that we visit the beach. Not tonight was my response. Not ever was my thought.
I took the keys. I took the wheel. I controlled the radio and the silk-like gearshift as you settled, purring cat-like, next to me and he perched on the edge of the back seat. Rubbing your shoulders. Paying you back for all your hard work.
Do you like it here? What about here?
And Ace of Base, our theme: She's gone tomorrow. Wal-Mart. The Community Center. Marijuana Park. All that she wants is another baby.
I swung the turn by Pecos Pete's -- deliberately rough -- he almost fell from his seat -- I chuckled inside -- weaving up the road I knew so well. The path I should have understood would betray me until the end.
The end. For once the opportunity was mine. You couldn't say no.
I wouldn't let you.
Tomorrow you'd sit at my family's Thanksgiving table and eat the sweet potatoes my mother had prepared, one hand on your fork, the other on his leg. He'd smile apologetically at me and neglect to remove your grip.
Later, I'd cry outside, by the pool, as your cornered him in the pantry, the one half the size of my freshman dorm room. Nouveau riche. Crack house. I'll never know what happened in there. I'd rather not.
And at some point on the drive home, somewhere outside of Ventura, he'd apologize. Days later, so would you. And I'd accept, ever the willing fool.
But that was all ahead of us as I approached the blinking construction barrier, barely slowing as I slung the leather wheel to the left. Hearing your hoots and howls, his surprised birdlike squawk as we spun.
Around and around. In a circle.