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tearing the rag off the bush again
1980: the night of the silk worm PDF E-mail
I pulled my body into new positions, wiped the sweat off myself with the thin sheet, aligned my spine along the cool wall and held the pillow between my legs to keep them from sticking together.

It was 1980, a round and possible number, and I was going to be a high school sophomore at Memphis Central in the fall. The year before -- pointy, awkward 1979, when I was indivisible thirteen -- our family had gone to Ireland for a month in the summer. My sister and I shivered in the backseat as my father drove between the hedgerows. Sweaters in July! I came back to Memphis with no tan, no close connections. But this year, 1980, I was in unmitigated light from May until August. It was the warmest Memphis summer ever, eight days of temperatures over one hundred, and by our pool I turned the perfect, toasted-marshmallow gold. I had a best friend, and a boy I liked was home from college. All these things felt like they’d almost happened before, or that I’d known for sure they were coming and now they’d arrived. Some moments matter more than others, and their edge and delight can never be repeated or replaced. It was my time of first-times.
It was the summer of my first real kiss. The college boy and I took a bike ride on a Saturday and stopped at the amphitheater in Overton Park and sat there alone. (Memphis in those days was emptied out. We crossed traffic-less boulevards and walked through abandoned buildings. You went everywhere and saw what was left behind.) As this boy’s face came towards mine he said, “Have you been kissed since the last time I saw you?” and while we were kissing I thought about how to answer him. He went to Yale, didn’t he want a serious answer?

I had borrowed some sandals from my mother and I let them dangle from the handlebars as I rode home, but I wasn’t paying much attention and when I got home there was only one shoe. My mother was furious. The veins around her lips showed in a vivid blue circle and she took her car keys off the shelf. “We are going back to find that shoe,” she said. We never did find it, although we drove slowly through the park for over an hour. I could not understand the heat of her anger. I sat as far over to my side of the car as I could. I watched the wide roads through the park, shaded by the trees I’d so recently ridden under while I was still radiating from the kiss. But they did not seem like the same trees. They seemed entirely new.

It was on that same bike that I rode to see Caroline almost every day.  

Having a best friend the summer between ninth and tenth grade was even more important than having kissed a college boy in Overton Park. All the girls I knew were matched up in these friendships. Without one, you were sort of stranded. Maggie and Julie were best friends. Jenny and Katherine, Pam and Elise. Looking back, I realize that your best friend had to be almost like you but with some distinct differences, minor and important, talked about and unspoken.  For example, Pam and Elise were both petite and blond, which you could say. But you couldn’t say that Pam was not just a little pudgy, but really and truly fat, and Elise wasn’t. Or that Pam was from a big, quarrelsome family and her father couldn’t keep a job and Elise was a lonely only child who was giddily grateful for any friendship at all. Both Jenny and Katherine had bushy dark hair, they were both cheerleaders and on the yearbook staff. They both had divorced parents, but, like Jenny, Jenny’s mother was pretty and popular and was sure to get married someday and that was impossible to imagine with Katherine’s mother, who, like Katherine, looked ragged at the edges. Maggie and Julie were both tall and fair-haired and good at basketball, but Maggie was very, very rich and Julie was so poor that she had to take a summer job at Sister’s Chicken n’ Biscuits to help support her family. It’s not that I didn’t notice any of these things then, it’s just that I didn’t realize how consistent the pattern was.  Caroline and I both had dark hair. We were tall and thin, the thinnest girls in ninth grade. We were both vaguely artistic. And I believe now that our secret, unspoken difference was that I saw that Caroline’s family was happy and mine was not.

Caroline had two older brothers, a well-known father and a mother who was a nurse. Her father, Riley, was an artist, a painter. This was the ideal thing to be in Memphis, because it meant you could be known and respected without being envied; you weren’t in competition with all the other fathers who were trying to make more money than each other at cotton or lumber or the law. Caroline’s mother was named Vella, and she was unlike any other mother I knew. She was from some place no one had heard of in Arkansas and had picked cotton as a child. She was part Cherokee. Black hair, wide-set eyes. She worked, which wasn’t exactly rare, but still wasn’t common in those days. My mother did not work -- my father said no wife of his ever would. My mother sat around our pool with her friends. She was long and elegant, like a cigarette holder. When I was near, she called to me, “Lovey! Darling! Precious! Loveydarlingprecious! Come over here and give mother a big, big hug,” and I went over to her and knelt into her smoky arms and felt my bones against hers.  Vella never called Caroline anything but “Caroline” and that sharply, because Caroline was often in trouble. There was always something she’d forgotten to do – take out the garbage, put away the dishes, make her bed, things my mother would never ask me to do – and Vella was always in a tear, coming home from work and shouting her children’s names as she came in the back door.

But on her days off, Vella played cards with us on the deep front porch. She asked Caroline and me about our friends, she laughed when we impersonated hers, and she talked in kind, soft words, about her husband.
Rhodes, the middle brother, was seventeen months older than Caroline. Shaggy-haired and gentle, he was our pal. That summer, he drove us around town in his grandmother’s ice blue 1963 Polaris. We went to the bowling lane, mostly, or sometimes to the college bars where we didn’t get carded. We had IDs anyway, laminated cards with our pictures and false birthdates, real-sounding addresses. You got them at the Blue Star Portrait Studio on Front Street, sneaking downtown on an empty Saturday. You didn’t want to have to show this card to anyone, but you had it.

Carter was the elder brother. He had graduated from Central with the boy who had kissed me and he could have been in college too, but because the family didn’t have much money he took a job at the airport at night, saving for a better school than Memphis State.  He had an apartment, but he often came home for a few days at a time and did his laundry and ate his mother’s meals. He came in during the night, we never heard him, just saw in the mornings that the door to his old room was shut. Carter slept until midday and then roamed the house with a lean, cool distraction. Part grown-up, slightly animal. His old room opened into Riley and Vella’s room and it had a window which overlooked a flat portion of rooftop where Caroline and I sunbathed.
Most of the days that summer, this is what we did: I rode my bike over in the early morning, Caroline and I took a quilt and some magazines out on that piece of roof and we lay in the sun until it was too hot to stay out there anymore and then we came in through the window, turned on the air conditioning in Riley and Vella’s room, and took a nap. (Riley and Vella’s room was the only one with air conditioning; the others had ceiling fans, and at night we opened windows.) Our friends kidded us about it. “What are you going to do today? Go over to Caroline’s and take a nap?” When we woke up, we’d go back to my house and swim, and then at night, we’d go out somewhere with Rhodes, driving around in the Polaris with the windows down.

I often spent the night with Caroline. My sister, Rachel, was away that summer. It’s funny that I don’t remember where. My father was hardly ever home at night. He would tell my mother that of course he’d be home, he’d come home directly, right after work, in time for all of us to have dinner together in the dining room. But then he’d call and explain something had come up, he had to see a client or go to a meeting or every now and then he’d say he just wanted to go out. It reached the point at which he was out four or five nights a week and when he was home he sat in the corner of the couch watching television and my mother served him dinner on a tray. That – dinner on t.v. trays – might happen at Caroline’s house, too, but there was laughter in it, Vella saying to Riley, “You want more iced tea? Too bad! I just sat down!” My mother waited on my father, and with a shrill and polite violence. It made me nervous. There were lots of reasons for me not to stay home.
When I slept over at Caroline’s, we shared her bed. On the roof or in her parents’ room during the day, we had a lot of space and we used it. Stretched out head-to-foot with our magazines, or crossways, or each with our own corner of the blanket or mattress. But in Caroline’s little bed, there wasn’t much room. We slept on our sides, curved like S’s, a few inches running between us like a stream. Two thin best friends.

One night we were out with Rhodes in the Polaris. He had heard of a bar downtown that might not card us, a place called Jefferson Square. I’d heard of it, too. Little Laura Dukes played there, and Sid Selvidge, a white piano player. We decided to go, to show our fake IDs if asked.

 “Okay. You have to order real drinks at a place like this,” said Rhodes. “Not just pitchers. Something complicated, like a rum Collins or a sloe gin fizz, something they’re not expecting. It throws them off.”  We were driving down Madison over the viaduct, the way of coming into downtown that made its emptiness seem grand and city-like.
“Okay,” said Caroline. “What’s a rum Collins?”
“It’s a Tom Collins made with rum.”
“And what’s a Tom Collins.”
“Shit, I don’t know.”
“Oh, great.” Caroline had a sharp voice, narrow and cool like her face; Vella said she was too hard on her r’s.
“They’re not going to ask me to make it, you know.”
“But what if they ask you what’s in it?”
“Like, what, a pop quiz?”
“Like if they don’t think you’re old enough to order it, or if they don’t know what’s in it. I’ve never heard of it. I’ve never heard Mom or Dad order it.”
“Oh, they’ll know what’s in it. You can’t get to be a bartender if you don’t know what’s in the drinks.”
“Well we should think of something else, too,” said Caroline. “Strawberry daiquiri. That’s what Heather always orders.” Heather was Carter’s sometime-girlfriend, a short, wasp-waisted girl with almond eyes. I’d seen them dancing at a party once, his chest to her back, his face in her neck and her mouth just open. It hadn’t occurred to me that dancing could be done that way, with someone holding you from behind. I stared for a long time.
“Gin Rickey. Scotch and soda,” said Rhodes. “What else can you think of.”
“Hurricane, like they have in New Orleans,” said Caroline.
“Long Island iced tea.”
Caroline said, “What’s that?”
“Everything white and a splash of Coke.”
“I bet that’s tasty.”
 “White Russian.”
 “Brandy Alexander.”
“That’ll be expensive. Brandy and wine are more expensive. I bet mixed drinks are a buck and a half anyway.”
I only had three dollars. I thought I’d get two drinks and not leave a tip, although I knew it wouldn’t look good for us not to leave a tip. A waitress who tolerated us might change her mind after that and then we wouldn’t ever be able to return. I was anxious about this and sat alone in the backseat saying nothing.
Jefferson Square was on the ground floor of the old King Cotton Hotel. I didn’t remember the hotel ever being open for guests. Just like the Peabody, just like Memphis, it was hollowed out, something that had-been, not something that was. A few years later, the King Cotton was torn down. Rhodes sat in a tree in Confederate Park and watched the explosion.

 We entered from the street, opening a warped and cracked wood door into a low-ceilinged, smoky room with an L-shaped bar at the back. The room was about three feet below street level and as we came in we stood for a moment on a small landing with a bare light bulb swinging above us. The sound of a piano and a man’s voice came from another room to the left, but in this first room it seemed for a moment that all sound had stopped. The talking and laughing dropped away, the clink of glasses froze in the air and all the faces turned to us. I saw them: pink, rubbed, lined, and weary. Faces framed with hair that carried streaks of gray. Women, drawn and fissured, men with stony jaws. I saw them and I thought:  I will never be that. Then the sounds picked up again and we stepped down into the room.

Rhodes lifted his chin and walked into the second room and Caroline and I followed. Here it was loud and raucous. At the front was a small stage, a piano, and a light shining down on a man with short blond hair. People weren’t listening as at a concert, but spoke in raised voices, leaning over the tables to be heard. Women put their heads back and laughed up into the smoke. A few of them looked at me as I passed, their eyes starting at my face and moving down me, the corners of their eyes and the corners of their mouths making two frowns. There was a booth against the wall and we slid into it. Caroline put her purse on the table, opened it and took out a pack of Marlboro Lights. We each took one, lit it from the candle in the red, bumpy glass holder, and sat back.

After a while, a woman wearing a black apron came to the edge of our table and set down three cardboard coasters, snapping their corners on the heavily varnished wood. My heart doubled its motion. I knew if I had to hold out my I. D., my hand would shake. It was already trembling to the rhythm of my pulse and the cigarette throbbed between my fingers.
“Ma’am?” said Rhodes, leaning forward. The waitress had said something.
“I said, ‘Y’all want a pitcher? Three glasses?’”
I looked around at the other tables and that’s what I saw, plastic pitchers half-filled with gold, mugs and pint glasses streaked with froth. A bubble of laughter, that laughter when you’re not supposed to laugh, rose in me and I looked at Rhodes and at Caroline and saw it swollen and trapped behind their mouths too.
“That’d be fine,” said Caroline, pinching her lips together and raising her eyebrows.
“Don’t laugh, y’all,” said Rhodes, turning to look at the piano player.

We stayed about three hours, drifting steadily into the beer and smoke as if going upriver into our own new country. The lines of my body wandered outside themselves, waving into prickly awareness then spreading out to its opposite, a soft trust and understanding. At one moment, I realized Caroline was leaned back against me and my arm was around her shoulder, and at the next moment I forgot it. When the waitress returned to our table with a new pitcher I was sure that if she and I ever had a chance to talk together, we’d laugh at the same things, and I beamed this understanding at her kind, bright face. At eleven o’clock, Rhodes, Caroline and I went out through the tables as if swimming through an obstacle course. We raised our hands and smiled goodnight to some of the people seated around, some of the people who had slipped in and out of our warm, golden cloud. Outside, the air was heavy with heat and quiet.

“Oh, that was fun,” said Caroline into the echoing downtown streets. I saw that Rhodes was swaying as he picked through his keys, waiting for the light to hit on the small silver one that fit the Polaris. He opened the front door, reached to unlock the back and opened it and Caroline and I fell across the squeaking vinyl seat. Rhodes got in and started the car. It coughed and flared to gaseous, drumming power. Caroline and I flopped backwards as Rhodes lurched away from the curb.

I rolled down my window and leaned against the door so that the air came right at me. It was like water, like lying down in a hot, blue-black stream. Or like someone’s hands running through your hair, the hands of someone who loved you and, by the strength of this true love, knew exactly how to touch you. Who would that be, who would touch you that way? I remembered the hand of the Yale boy on the side of my face as he brought us close together.  He did not love me, I knew it now in the black, hot air. But I could feel how the mound beneath his fingers fit right under my cheekbone and I let the rushing air feel like that and I lifted my chin as if to kiss him.
“I wish I had a boy to kiss,” I said.
“Me, too,” said Caroline, leaning into my side.
“Y’all are gross,” said Rhodes.
 Caroline went into the blowing cool and dark of her parents’ room to say we were home. “Close the door behind you,” said Vella’s sleepy voice. Caroline did, first pretending to fan some of the air out into the swampy heat of the hall.

Back in her bedroom, Caroline said, “Turn on the ceiling fan,” and I reached up to pull the string as she raised the window. The air that eddied around us was swampish and heavy. I leaned against the bedpost and started pulling off my jeans. They were damp along the seam and around my waist. I tottered and grasped the bedpost tighter.  The beer from Jefferson Square was building up in yeasty, yellow waves. I stripped down to my underpants and tank top and when I saw Caroline wasn’t looking I stared at myself in the mirror and my mouth came open and a wet and heavy feeling like crying from happiness came over me and I touched the gap of skin above the waistband of my underpants and rubbed my thumb around the edges of my belly button. Then Caroline turned off the light and we climbed into the narrow bed.
We lay quietly for some minutes. The room tilted gently side to side, like a box in the hands of a curious giant. There was the sound of the fan, which was unbalanced and rocked as it turned, and the sound of cars going by on Melrose Street, and, just under that, the sound of Caroline’s breathing. The usual distance lay between us, the swampy S. But as I came closer and closer to the edge of sleep, something in me seemed suddenly to rush across it. My tongue, the centers of my breasts and a new sharpness between my legs, these points formed a star shooting towards the heat of Caroline’s back. I felt, I saw as in a dream, my left hand go down to cup her bottom, my right hand go under her head and turn her mouth to mine. I felt my tongue sharp and fast around the edges of her ear, snaking along her cheekbone to her lips as my nipples came in electric contact with her side. And then I woke, sucking in a breath, and saw that Caroline was damp and next to me, but still distant and untouched.

I turned onto my back. Sweat had broken out and drops ran from my collarbone over my shoulder. I looked up at the ceiling and the squares of light and shadow cast by the street lamps. The room was still. The curious giant had set it down. I wasn’t sure how long I’d slept.

I got up quietly, slowing lifting the sheet, sliding my legs out, sitting up, pulling the sheet back up to cover Caroline. I stood, resting my hand on the bedpost to get my balance, then I turned and went out into the hall and down to the room which was kept for Carter.

The room was empty. The bed stood against the far wall, next to the closed door which led to Riley and Vella’s room. I crossed the room, knelt on the bed and slowly turned the brass knob.  It fit just right into my sweating palm and I turned it slowly, like a thief, pausing after each creak until the door stood open and a trickle of cool air came in.

Riley and Vella’s room was almost black, with an amber slant of light against the wall beyond the bed. I looked into it for a long time, I challenged myself to stand there without moving as long as I could, until their shapes became clear to me: two low, long mountain ranges against the last of a sunset. I watched to see the motion of their breathing. Did they breathe together or in rhythm? Where did their hands fall on each other? What shape did Vella’s unbound breasts take when she lay on her side? Did Riley’s…. I couldn’t think about it -- I had to make myself think about it: did Riley’s penis press against her at night? Or did it curl away into a wiry nest? What was all this going to be like, that’s what I wanted to know. To marry someone, to fold up in a bed with him night after night, or to sit, as my mother sat, and wait for him to come home. It seemed impossible that I would ever know.

I got into bed and fell while I was thinking into a half sleep. Aware of the almost cool air, aware of the sounds from the street, aware of the last of the yellow, yeasty force sloshing around inside me. And then, suddenly, aware of a man lowering himself into the bed. The natural and welcome weight of him. The very thought I was thinking, come to life.

My body came up to meet him. Carter. Over me, on me. A hipbone into mine, a leg along mine and his hard, hard jeans. His calluses scraped the length of my ribs, he pushed my tank top up and his rough thumb brushed over my nipple. His mouth was near mine. We breathed into each other. I made a sound into the shared breath, a new sound that came right out of the middle of me, and when his teeth rested back on my lip Carter said, “A girl. There’s a girl in my bed.”
His mother’s voice came from the far side of her room. “Carter? Is that you?”
My body lifted up to go with him, a magnetic pull, almost levitation, but Carter’s hand came down gently on the flat bone of my chest. It stopped being the hot hand on my ribs as if that had been a dream, as if it had never happened, but I knew it had, my shirt was up and my nipple ached. I pulled myself up along his arm, felt the muscles, where they attached and separated. I reached up to his shoulders and pulled them back down but he pressed me away steadily, as if it I exerted no force on him at all.
     “Yeah,” Carter said. “It’s me. I didn’t know Emily was in my bed. I’ll sleep downstairs.” He pressed me back onto the damp sheets with his one sure hand and went out by way of his parents’ room. I heard the floor under his feet as he left their room and went out into the hall and then I heard him on the stairs.
The night settled back into a seething quiet. I pulled my body into new positions, wiped the sweat off myself with the thin sheet, aligned my spine along the cool wall and held the pillow between my legs to keep them from sticking together. Whenever I started to fall asleep, I woke with a start, arching my back up to meet only the air. After a long time, I heard some birds singing songs I hadn’t heard before, music they made only in the first light of morning. It was the first time I’d stayed awake all night.
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