Last week I was cleaning out folders and found an old drawing I did in college of a riderless horse. The horse was saddled up and waiting, its head hung low. The image made me think of me and my dad, way back when I was twelve. When my mother and sister would fight we’d head for the end of the driveway where he'd smoke and I'd hang around next to him. There we'd be, the both of us, saddled up and waiting.
Back then, after my father moved out, two months after I bought my first pack of cigarettes, he moved back in. My parents started going out six nights a week and though I barely saw my dad something had changed. He was quieter, more mournful, distracted. “Want to go play Skee-Ball?” I’d ask and he’d point into the ether, toward a phantom somewhere he had to be. My mother was in a great mood from their non-stop whirl of dinner parties, but with him I was feeling left out. Was it me?
My sister Shelley was also out and I was left with huge chunks of time in an empty house. I was halfway through the sixth grade, still a straight A student, and I’d study, practice my cello, write in my journal, read and smoke.
Late one afternoon I tucked my cigarettes into my sock and went for a ride on my bike. I had been so caught up in school I had forgotten the pleasure of cruising the neighborhood. I pedaled to the end of my street then zigzagged onto the next, past the Craft house. The Crafts had just bought the White's house, a neat extended ranch that was cocooned by perfectly manicured shrubs. I hadn't met the Crafts yet but knew they had a bunch of girls and a boy and one of the girls, Janet, was only a year older than me. As I slowly rode by a voice from a back bedroom said, “You're a Harris, right?” I stopped and tried to see who was speaking to me.
"I’m Janet. Your sister's cool. Come in the front."
She noticed me. I had seen her in the woods behind the Junior High, near the sixth grade building, but my friends were twelve like me, not thirteen like her. I nervously parked my bike.
I knocked on the front door and waited. Nobody answered so I cautiously let myself in. I entered a foyer that was part of a living room that was empty except for a broken three-legged chair. Maybe their furniture hadn't come yet. A wooden Christ hung crooked on the wall and a tattered Duraflame sat half-cocked in the fireplace. Hot pink carpeting, worn and stained near the kitchen, covered the floor. “Hello?' I said and waited a respectful amount of time for someone to show. No one did, so I followed the hot pink carpeting down the hall. As I passed the first bedroom a little blond girl came screaming out of it.
“Jinx ate Mr. Bubbles and Scooter Pie!” She ran into the kitchen and I saw her scramble over a picnic table and disappear into a room beyond it. Howling laughter came from the bedroom she ran out of and I anxiously looked in. The Craft boy contorted with hilarity as he pointed at an aquarium that had housed something furry, not fishy. My radar said gerbil. A black cat sat next to the cage licking its paws and I hesitantly looked closer at the aquarium. There on the bottom sat a little pile of gerbil paws and tails, with nothing in between. I backed out of the room and hurried down the hall.
Janet's bedroom was the last on the right and I knocked even though the door was open. She laughed at my politeness and waved me in. Though she was only a year ahead of me she seemed twenty with her curvy, bursting flesh, her older girl clothes, and the way she confidently twirled her waist length hair around her finger. She was curled up on a hot pink window seat smoking a Marlboro as she paged through Cosmopolitan magazine. I mentally chucked my trolls and stuffed animals under my bed. Janet waved me over and offered me a cigarette. She could smoke out in the open? She laughed as if reading my mind and held the pack out. I took a cigarette, lit up, and as she went back to her magazine I took in her room.
The window seat was part of a white Formica built-in that wrapped halfway around the room. Every draw in it was open, clothes stuttering to the floor. Plastic pink lip gloss, blush, pale foundation, blue eye-liner, eye lash curlers and mascara fell over the countertop, into the drawers, onto more pink carpeting. Two double beds, one sheet-less, the other a jumbled mess shared a faded dresser covered in sparkly jewelry. Nearby, a large closet was missing its doors and I saw wreckage piled waist high. The clothing rod had fallen down, or perhaps had never been put up.
Who were these people? My room was neat, thanks to my mother. I didn't know how many Crafts shared the bras, high heels, lacey under things and shiny bits that hung everywhere. There was something forbidden in that room, the same forbidden that smoking held. As I tried to make out what a green shimmery thing was Janet glanced at it. "Go ahead. Try it on."
She got up and twisted the green thing into a skimpy top. "Thank you, but that's okay." I didn't want to try it on.
"Go on. If it fits you can have it. It's my sister's."
I didn't want to try it on because Janet was easily a 'C' cup and I was still in a training bra. A training bra that, until a week prior, I had been wearing backwards. (A training bra is like a camisole that stops mid-chest. It’s wider in the front than the back. My pediatrician, Dr. Goldberg, kindly suggested that wearing it the other way around might be more comfortable.)
Janet was still waiting for me to respond. "Really, thank you, but that's okay." She smiled like a cat that just ate a gerbil and slinked back onto the window seat. I tapped my cigarette out. "Thank you for the cigarette."
She looked at me, amused. "See you at school," she said and I quickly exited.
I wasn't ready to process paws and tails, but heels and bras and all that glamour shimmied before me. It’s not that it appealed to me; it was that it existed, right here in my neighborhood.
I rode home and my dad was sitting in the den, smoking. He was dressed to go out and as I plopped down next to him my mother entered, dressed up in heels. My father quickly stood. "You look beautiful."
She smiled her thanks then turned to me. "Did you see your sister?" I shook my head. "Her boyfriend is not to come in this house. There's chicken in the fridge, brownies in the freezer, and please pick up your shoes." My father helped her into her coat and escorted her out. He didn’t look back and wink like he used to, even as I watched him drive away. What was going on here?
I moved to the other side of the couch, into his seat, and pulled a cigarette from my sock. For the first time ever I smoked a cigarette in the den. It felt like what adult must feel like: I'm just smoking in the den with my shoes off, watching TV. I rubbed my feet the way my dad did when he came home and pondered Janet's bedroom. Maybe all that glamour did appeal to me. Growing up was getting interesting. I couldn't wait to be thirteen.