The year after she left, my mother visited our house in San Diego only twice. The first time, she came with a U-haul truck and three broad shouldered men who frowned as they pulled our big buffet and her small dresser out through the front door. The second time was the day before my fourteenth birthday. It was that part of the Southern California fall when the nights are still warm and clear, and after dinner, we sat together with my dad and my older sister Mel in the new kitchen chairs. There wasn’t any birthday cake and nobody was talking. I guess my dad had forgotten to go to the store for a cake and Mel had been too upset to bake one. The kitchen that night was quiet in the way that makes people feel like getting up and leaving, and when my dad went out of room, my sister Mel followed him. That was when my mom asked if I would like go for a walk with her, just the two of us. I was afraid she was going to tell me that she wasn’t coming back.
I know lots of things. For example, I know how Anna Karenina ends and what it feels like to have your heart broken. On the night of my fourteenth birthday, I knew that my mother had been drinking because I could smell the wine on her skin, like a layer of tangy perfume, floating up off her clothing.
We walked together along the street and my mother nuzzled into my shoulder. I wanted to ask her why she wouldn’t just stay and why she’d taken the lamps out of the living room so that it was now too dark for reading. But I didn’t say anything. When she asked whether I had a boyfriend, I could tell she was disappointed by my silence. Later that night, she saw the expression on my face and asked if everything was okay.
Her alcohol smell and the missing lamps belonged on the list of the list of things that were not okay, but I didn’t tell her that, or about what had been going on between me and Dean, who I guess was my first boyfriend, and who, because of what he had done, probably belonged on that list too.
The day I first met him, Mel and I were at Christy Staples’ sweet sixteen and everything was going badly. The afternoon was cool and breezy and you could almost smell the ocean, even though the Pacific was a fifteen-minute walk from the Staples’ overgrown backyard.
Christy’s dad had a row of empty Grolsch bottles stacked on one side of the barbecue where everyone could see, which made me kind of sad for Christy, because even if she wasn’t good friends with my sister Mel anymore, it was her birthday and, ideally, her dad wouldn’t do things like stack a pile of Grolsch bottles up against the grill in front of all of her friends.
Dean was standing next to the barbecue, waiting for Mr. Staples to finish the forever burgers he had going, and Mr. Staples was succeeding, mostly, in splattering himself with grease. When I walked by, Dean reached out and put his hand on my arm. Just like that. As if he knew me.
I said, “I’m Lauren.”
While we waited for his hamburger, Dean told me he was in the drama department at his junior college, where he had been going for a few years. Ordinarily, drama was not something I would think of as cool, but for some reason, standing next to him, I started thinking that everything he did, even something kind of lame and girlish, like being in a drama class, was so interesting and wonderful that I could barely stand it.
When Mr. Staples finally finished grilling, he wiped his hands on his shirtfront and left a swipe of grease across his belly, which made me feel worse for Christy. Even though I hadn’t asked him to, Dean got me a half-charred burger from the platter where Mr. Staples had stacked them up. My stomach was kind of knotting from standing next to Dean. I took the burger though, and held onto it like my life depended on it, held on so tight that the pressure from my hand left little Lauren-finger prints on the edge of the white Chinet plate.
Dean finished his hamburger and asked if I wanted mine. We were sitting on the side of a rusted-out lounger and Dean was almost through with my hamburger when he told me about Lemore, his girlfriend, who was Israeli, and went to college two hours away.
When he said the word, “girlfriend,” I stared down at the pine needles that floated like tiny corpses on the surface of the Staples’ pool. Dean and I must have looked more alike than I thought, because when Mr. Staples stumbled back by, he patted Dean on the shoulder and asked if I was Dean’s sister. I guess I knew then that Mr. Staples was pretty drunk because he had met me about a million times when he used to pick Christy up from our house. That was before Christy had gotten her driver’s license, when she and Mel were still close.
I knew that my mom had liked Mr. Staples. Whenever he came to pick Christy up, he and my mom would sit together drinking out on the patio, where my mom grew lemon and orange trees in brown plastic pots. I knew they were drinking because I came home once and found them laughing and laughing at something neither of them could explain. Mr. Staples had jumped to his feet when I opened the screen door and when he did he spilled his Grolsch, which left a permanent stain on the gray patio tile.
A few weeks after I’d found her and Mr. Staples outside drinking, my mom started moving things out. At first, it was small things—a stool, a chair, a jewelry box. She told us she was going to stay with a friend, who was not Mr. Staples, but someone else who, I was certain, also liked beer in the afternoon. I wanted to say something to her when I saw her pushing the writing desk down the hall, but I didn’t really know what it was I wanted to tell her, so I locked myself inside the bathroom and listened to her voice and my dad’s voice hurtling around the living room until finally the front door slammed and everything went quiet. When I came out of the bathroom, I went and sat in the breakfast nook with my dad and Mel. My dad’s face looked bloated, like he’d swallowed something that had started to grow inside him.
I guess he thought seeing a psychologist would help me adjust. I only went to go see Dr. Frost because I thought it might make my dad feel better. I also thought maybe Dr. Frost would be related to the poet Robert Frost, who I loved and who we had studied in English that year.
Dr. Frost turned out not to be related to the poet. I realize now that this should not have surprised me, but at the time it did. Dr. Frost wore big plaid shirts that hung off of his frame like baggy sacks. I thought being so frail would also make him very literary, but it turned out he didn’t even have any books on the shelves in his office, which was full of puffy beige furniture and pictures of tropical fish.
Dr. Frost looked like he had never seen the sun, let alone a tropical fish. The only thing he did when I went to meet with him was to ask me how I felt. He didn’t have interesting ideas about books or poems or history, and I didn’t want to talk to him about my private life and why it was some adults drank too much and did hurtful things. I didn’t want to tell him about Dean, and about how we had kissed at Christy’s house after Dean had finished both our hamburgers.
What happened that day was that Dean had asked if I wanted to see his car. We walked out of the party, to the street where all the cars sat close together, their shiny bumpers practically touching the same way Dean and I almost touched shoulders when we stood side-by-side. Dean told me he thought his car was the most beautiful thing in the world and asked if I wanted to go for a ride. When we got inside, though, we didn’t go anywhere, but sat there, kissing in the hot sunlight.
I had never kissed anyone before and I was unsure about where to put certain body parts, about where my lips and teeth were supposed to fit. Eventually, Dean asked how old I was. I thought he asked my age because he could tell that I hadn’t kissed many people before, but when I told him I was almost fourteen, he didn’t mention the kissing thing at all. Instead, he kept saying that I looked “mature for my age” and said we should go back to the party and definitely not tell anyone where we had been.
On our way back, Dean said that he was almost twenty and that he thought I looked about twenty-five, which was something I already knew because people, mostly the men who were my mother’s drinking friends, were always telling me it was true. Normally, I didn’t love it when strange men said this, but when Dean told me, I felt guilty somehow, as though I had done something wrong.
When we got back in to the party, I found my sister and asked if we could just please go home. I didn’t tell Mel or my dad about Dean, and when my dad dropped me off for my weekly one-hour with Dr. Frost, I didn’t tell him either.
A funny thing happened after that week though. Dean started showing up after school in his black Camaro, his hair slicked up and neat, his driver’s side window open, spilling radio songs into the afternoon. For the first few days I didn’t say anything to him, didn’t even walk up to the car to nod hello. There were other boys who showed up at school, mostly people’s brothers coming to get them, but no one like Dean had ever come for me before. At first, I was a little afraid to go up and talk to him, afraid of the way standing next to him made my stomach twist into a knot, and of the way I had felt bad after kissing.
Around that time, I started noticing big gaps in the hallways and corners of our house. I wondered if my mother was secretly coming back for more furniture, or if I was so upset that I had started imagining things, seeing empty spaces for the first time in places where they had always been. On the fourth day, Dean showed up after school again and I decided I would ask what he was doing.
When he pulled up, I pretended to be preoccupied with Anna Karenina, which really is a good book, though it couldn’t keep my mind off Dean, out there with his smooth hair and shiny car without any explanation. I closed the book, got up, and went over to him.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said back.
“What are you doing?”
He smiled a kind of slow-spreading smile that I knew meant he had come just to see me.
When I opened the car door and slid in, the crackly sound of the leather was familiar and comforting. It reminded me of the way the seat had held me the afternoon we’d kissed. The car had the warm, broken-in feeling of a familiar chair. It was the kind of feeling that, all by itself, could gather you, and lift you up, and tell you you’d come home. That afternoon, Dean drove me back to my house and held my hand the whole way home.
I knew that he was twenty and that, technically speaking, what we were doing was sort of wrong. Once, when Dean came to get me, a teacher I didn’t know was standing outside and the look on her face said you’re getting yourself into trouble. But every time Dean picked me up, I got into the car and felt that same pull, that feeling of coming home. Some days we would drive around in circles, cruising the long way up Franklin Boulevard and into the hills above the middle school, where the spaced out houses had honeysuckle bushes and the quiet streets meant that it was okay for us to park and do whatever we wanted. Other days, when Dean had a rehearsal, he would just pick me up and drop me off, and I would try not to seem disappointed.
In the spring, “Little Shop of Horrors” opened at the junior college. I went to see it with Mel and afterwards I walked backstage by myself to tell Dean how good he was, how I was really convinced that he was a sadistic dentist, and how I thought he looked great in his vinyl pants. Other people, the other characters from the show, were in the backstage dressing room, changed out of their costumes so that they looked like regular kids. When I found Dean, he took my hand and put his finger over his mouth in that way that I knew meant, “don’t say anything.” The guy who had played Seymour gave Dean a look, and I stared at the ground, wondering what Seymour knew and whether he was going tell. Dean took me down an orange-tiled hall into a room filled with racks of costumes. He pressed me up against a wall of black and gold foil hats, kissed me, hard, and told me that he loved me.
I could tell from the way he looked at me that he really meant it. I wasn’t sure what to say, but I could tell he wanted me to say something.
“What about your girlfriend?”
“I’ll break up with her,” he said. He stroked my hair the way that men are always stroking women’s hair in movies. “Let’s go somewhere together, over spring break.”
“What about my dad and sister? I’d have to tell them something.”
“Don’t worry about it right away,” he said. “You’ve got time.”
That week at Dr. Frost’s, I talked about Dean, about how he had pushed me against the wall in the costume closet, about the thousand stars spinning inside me and about how I was going away over spring break, maybe to somewhere beautiful. Dr. Frost was wearing a greenish shirt that made his skin look yellow, and when I told him about Dean’s being twenty and about our driving around together, he sank into his puffy chair and turned even more yellow, which made me sort of sad. He touched his face with one hand and for a second I thought he was going to say something helpful. Instead, he put his hand over his chest and asked me how it all made me feel, which was the same question he had been asking all along and which wasn’t getting me anywhere.
I worked up my courage and told him that the question, “Now, Lauren, how does that make you feel?” made me feel like hitting him and screaming because therapy wasn’t making my mom come back and I didn’t want to talk about my feelings with strangers, especially ones who had names like “Dr. Frost” which should have made them very literary, but apparently didn’t, since he didn’t have any books, not even ones that he just kept around for show.
Dr. Frost got a little shaky and called my dad to ask that I be picked up. My dad asked me what had happened as he maneuvered us up the crowded freeway, following the streams of glittering taillights that lit our way home through the dark.
Two weeks after that, Dean called our house. It was a Saturday and raining hard. I was in the living room, watching “I Love Lucy” reruns with Mel, who thinks that anything in black and white is better than anything made in color, and who is probably right about that, at least some of the time. It was lucky that I answered the phone.
Mel was sitting on one brown couch and I was sitting on the other. We had the volume on the TV turned up pretty high so that we could hear Lucille Ball yelling, Ricky! over the noise of the thrumming rain. I could barely hear Dean’s voice on the other end of the line, he sounded so quite and far away. I asked him to speak up and when he did, all he said was, “Lemore and me are getting married.” I hung up right away, not because I was angry but because I was so surprised, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do. As I slid the receiver back into place, I thought I heard him say something like, “I want you to know that I love you,” but I had already pushed the phone away and couldn’t hear the words.
I sat there for a while, nestled into the nubby cushions, until I decided that the whole time that Dean was driving me around in his Camaro, kissing me and holding my hand, he was probably doing all the same things with his girlfriend, who was not me and who certainly was not fourteen and just a year out of middle school. She probably had longer legs and a driver’s license and everything.
I wanted to stand up and scream and cry, to run away to somewhere far from our small living room. But I couldn’t do any of those things, so I just sat there, feeling sick. There was no point in telling Mel. I was pretty sure that Dean didn’t want me to tell people, because dumping your underage girlfriend to marry your older one one is a pretty bad kind of secret, almost as bad as leaving your family and taking all of the chairs. Except that, in the case of our mother, everyone could come to our half-empty house and that made it harder to keep the secret to ourselves.
Weeks passed. Dean didn’t come to pick me up, even though I waited every day until all the yellow busses had pulled away with their loads of kids. I probably would have forgiven him if he had come, even if he had only come to say that he was sorry. If he had just said that, I probably would have said, “okay.”
In the end, there was nothing that my sister, or Dr. Frost, or Anna Karenina could do to make me feel better. I knew what had happened. It was the same thing that had been happening to other people, only now it had finally happened to me, not in the good way where everything feels nice, but in the way that hurts and hurts, for a long time, and maybe forever. Like the way that my mom leaving left a hole in our house that could never be filled up, no matter how many afternoons we spent tucked in against the rain and pretending not to miss her.
Right after Dean stopped picking me up, my mom came to visit. She brought a tall man I had never met and they sat in the kitchen chairs and talked with my sister. I didn’t want to talk to this new man, so I stayed locked in the bathroom. My dad had gone out for the day, I guess so that he wouldn’t have to see the man with my mother. When I came out of the bathroom, Mel was talking in a voice that was very quiet and the strange man was getting up to leave. My mom said she needed one thing before she left and she went into the bathroom. When she came out, she had the shower curtain rolled into a ball and tucked under her arm, like a pillow.
After my mom left, I went back into the bathroom and closed the door. I took off my jeans and tank top and stripped off my underwear and socks. I got into the shower and turned it on and let the hot water run over me. I turned my face up so that I could feel the warm water on my skin. The spray came out fast and strong and splashed all over the bathmat. In the fogged up mirror, I could see my body. It looked pale and small and I could see the places where Dean had touched me, all the different spots where he had pressed his lips.
I turned off the water and took a towel from the hook. The terrycloth felt soft against my wet skin. I wrapped the towel around my shoulders and stood there staring at foggy mirror for what felt like a long time. The steam in the air reminded me of music, like the music that had spilled out of Dean’s Camaro that afternoon when I’d first let him pick me up and we had driven into the hills and he’d held my hand the whole way home. Then, I had thought that I could leave my body, that I could float up like a song and spill out into the air and go on and on forever.