IN THE EARLY SUMMER OF 1977, my brother Britt and I awoke to our mother shouting from the screened-in porch. It was around 2 AM.
“You sonofabitch!” Mom yelled into the darkness.
“Fuck you, bitch!” a mustachioed man in a three-piece suit shouted from the driveway next door. A moving van had been there earlier that day. “Mind your own fuckin’ business!”
He slammed his fist into the door.
Bam, bam, bam.
“Stop it, Mike,” came a female voice inside the house. “Please, please, please, stop it…”
“Want me to call the police?” Mom yelled.
“No,” whimpered the woman’s voice, on the verge of a scream. “Please no.”
“Shut the fuck up, lady!” Mike screamed at my mother.
Bam, bam, bam.
“Get outta here!” Mom shot back, her voice loud and shaky. “I’m gonna call the police if you don’t get the hell outta here!”
Mike kicked the door several times, grunting on impact, limped to his Corvette, yelled more profanity at my mom, flipped her off, and peeled out.
My brother, mother, and I stood speechless for a few moments as the night sounds drifted back in and the lights next door flicked out, one by one, leaving the house shrunken against the darkness.
“What was that all about?” I asked, my heart racing.
“Yeah,” Britt said. “Who was that dickhead?”
“He’s an asshole,” Mom replied. “An asshole. Go back to bed.”
The next day, I awoke to high-pitched squealing coming from next door. I headed back to the porch, instantly awake, terrified of what I might see in that driveway.
I stood rigid, gasping, not from fear, but from the sight of a slim, tanned woman in cutoffs and a green bikini top, washing her car with a garden hose. The sun was blazing toward noon. A small boy in a bathing suit danced in the spray, laughing with piercing joy. The boy and the woman shared identical surfer-blond hair. I watched from the porch, transfixed, hoping the mimosa tree separating our houses camouflaged me.
“Let’s go meet our new neighbor,” Mom said, startling me. She closed her book and I followed her to the house. The woman saw us coming, tossed her hose into the grass and strode in our direction, ponytail bouncing.
“I’m so sorry about last night, ya’ll,” the woman said. She was glistening. Like my mother often did, she’d applied baby oil to her already browned skin. The distinctive scent of oil and sweat filled my nostrils. “I’m Rachel. This is my son, Isaac.”
Isaac was the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. He wrapped his sunburned arms around Rachel’s twig legs and smiled at me, eyes twinkling.
“That was my ex,” Rachel said. “Isaac’s daddy. He broke his foot, you know. On the door.”
“Serves him right,” said my mom. The women laughed. Isaac’s green eyes blinked rapidly. Rachel narrowed her identical eyes at my mom, grinned, and relaxed, her breasts rising as she drew in a sigh.
“This is my son, Robert,” my mother said. “I’m Mary. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
Rachel gave my hand a firm, slippery shake, and winked at me.
“Hey Robert,” she said, “you ever babysit?”
“Oh that’d be perfect for him,” my mom said. “He’s great with kids.”
“What are you, fourteen, fifteen?”
“I’m twelve, actually,” I said, pushing my glasses up my nose. I’d been growing, my trouser legs rarely passing my ankles, my shoulders broadening as my hands and feet elongated. Seemingly overnight, I’d become taller than my mother and most of my friends.
“He’ll be a seventh grader in the Fall,” Mom said, running her hands through my hair. “He’s my baby.”
“You’ve got another one?” Rachel said, as if this was highly unusual.
“Yes, my eldest, Britt. He’s thirteen. But he’s short. Like me. It’s just the three of us.”
“Well that is so cool, ya’ll,” Rachel said, winking at me again. “Three dollars an hour to babysit, big guy. That’ll buy lots of… whatever. How bout it?”
I’d never babysat before – I’d never made money – but I said yes, several times. I didn’t even think once about the possibility of Mike returning.
“She’s unbelievable,” I told my best friend and neighbor, Todd. “She’s, like, a total piece of ass.”
“Is she as much a piece of ass as Linda? I doubt it.”
He meant Linda Ronstadt, whose album Hasten Down the Wind Todd had purchased. Linda had thoroughly captivated us. Any mention of her would render us gleefully stupid and coarse, more like the kids we hated than the poindexters we were outwardly becoming. Objectifying women was totally unacceptable among our elders: my mom subscribed to Ms. magazine and brooked no chauvinism, and Todd’s parents were religious, as was my grandmother. Nevertheless, in private, we experimented with obnoxious, forbidden personas.
Due to the sexy LP sleeve photo, Todd had hidden Hasten Down the Wind from his parents. The photo featured Linda in a sheer, thin dress, alert-nippled breasts clearly visible as she glanced over a Malibu-tanned shoulder at a horseman on a beach at twilight.
While certainly a feast for our twelve-year-old eyes, Linda had actually caught our ears first. Her version of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” – the first single from Hasten Down the Wind – was a hit on WQXI, and we really liked that song, which we assumed she wrote. Soon after hearing it, we saw her on a huge billboard outside Peaches record store, about a mile from our neighborhood. The billboard was a massive copy of the Hasten Down the Wind photo, and it ignited our mutual lust, which we strove to describe with salty talk. Our distinctly sexual ardor also elevated her music, affixing to it a heightened value tabulated mostly in the gut.
For the first time, we loved a musician for physical attributes and music. The music, in fact, became a touchstone to our lust, which bawdy discourse kept stoked like a little fire. With his allowance, Todd had even purchased a poster of the album cover, which he kept in a hallowed spot beneath his bed.
She’d been our first rock concert; we’d caught La Ronstadt at the Atlanta Civic Center the previous November. We were certainly the youngest attendees. Todd’s mom had purchased the tickets for us, chauffeured us to downtown Atlanta, dropped us off, and picked us up later when we called her from a pay phone. Although our seats were not great, Linda’s clarion voice and brassy-sweet-sexually confident presence filled the room, and her band of longhaired L.A. dudes delivered rock, country, and sweet balladry – this was my introduction to “Crazy” – with equal parts grace and swagger, all falling in line behind her, enthralled like us, but keeping it together. The concert had further inspired Todd to concentrate on his guitar playing, to the point where he could perform the entirety of the standard “Misty,” albeit in broken rhythm.
“Come on, let me show you how to do this,” he said, eager for our friendship to extend to music making. But I was still not ready.
Linda Ronstadt’s live show had also inspired him to say, “Imagine those guys lookin’ at her butt every night for like two hours straight. Imagine that!”
So when my friend questioned whether or not my new next-door neighbor was in the same league as Linda Ronstadt, I took it seriously.
“Yes,” I said. “Rachel is as much a piece of ass as Linda.”
“No way. Fuck no.”
“You can come hang out tonight and see for yourself. She’s going on a date, and I’m s’posed to be there at seven. Come on by.”
The sun was sinking when a flustered Rachel opened the door and immediately turned and ran back into the house, yelling over her shoulder, “Isaac’s in the tub! Could you go…?”
I watched her from behind as she rounded the corner into the hall, goblet filled with white wine in one hand. A silky, cream-colored disco gown tumbled over her curves, spaghetti strap falling from a shoulder. I walked through her wake of cosmetics-perfume-alcohol scent, my head swimming. The Eagles’ “One Of These Nights” blared from the back of the house.
As beautiful as Rachel was, I ached for familiar surroundings. I’d been told I would be a “great babysitter” and I had “nothing to worry about,” but I just wanted to go home, even though my mom was at her boyfriend’s and my brother was somewhere with his stoner friends.
I was “good with kids,” in that their world – a fantastical place I had only just departed – was still very real to me. When I met a child, I felt renewed access to that psychedelic, nonlinear place. Kids, in turn, instinctually realized I was present with them on their turf, and thus, one of them, only bigger. They trusted me, and their trust made me feel special.
But I’d never been alone with a kid just a few years younger than me, in a strange house, with a harried, tipsy mom, and no idea what to do if something went wrong when she went God knows where. I’d made a terrible mistake saying yes.
It was a small bungalow, like ours, with three bedrooms and one-and-a-half bathrooms. Stucco’ed walls, shag carpet, a chrome and glass dining room table on which sat a big white cardboard box that read, in blue letters, Natur-Slim. I passed the bathroom and there was Isaac, sitting in the tub, eyes fluttering.
“Hey!” he said, breaking into a smile.
“Hey, Isaac,” I said. His pleasure at seeing my face dispelled some of my anxiety.
“Could you rinse his hair?” Rachel called from her bedroom.
Isaac’s hair was crusted with dry Head & Shoulders. Floating in the tepid tub were many plastic toys, including a bucket. I filled it with water, the way my mom had done when I was small and she washed my hair. But just as I was about to pour it on his head, Isaac screamed. I jumped and he laughed loud.
Rachel stomped in and knelt beside me on the tiles, quaking with fury. She held up her hand and Isaac flinched.
“You let him rinse your hair, you hear me?” she said, pointing a finger at his face. “God damn it!”
I noticed a red imprint in the shape of fingers on Isaac’s upper arm, where Rachel had slapped him before I got there. I recalled how I’d had similar marks on my skin, very early on. Isaac nodded at his mother and Rachel braced herself on my shoulder and plodded back to her bedroom. I just sat there, cold fear creeping through my limbs, memories playing out. Isaac patted my forearm with wrinkled little fingertips and held up a rubber chicken.
“Come on,” he said, his green eyes wide, an open door. “Let’s play. Let’s play.”
I turned on the hot tap to get the water warm again, and poured a clean rinse over his head, telling him, as my mom had done with me, to keep his eyes shut, safe from the stinging suds. He obeyed, and the tenseness in me melted.
Isaac was in his PJs, in bed, and listening to me read Curious George when Rachel walked in, decked out in full disco regalia of dangly earrings, upswept ‘do, eye shadow, lip gloss, silver lamé purse, and clunky heels.
“Oh Robert,” she said, bending down to kiss her son. His hands touched her bony shoulders. “You really are a natural.”
She ruffled my hair, said she’d be back around eleven and to make myself at home, and left.
Isaac watched her go, and I braced for tears, but he closed his eyes dutifully and said, “Night night time.” I was relieved and a little surprised. Dusk was only just ripening to night outside his window. I turned out the light, patted his arm, and went to explore.
Rachel’s dining room was littered with unpacked boxes of books, but some had made it onto her shelves. I recognized several titles from both my mom’s collection and the nearby Oxford book store, where I hung out: Your Erroneous Zones, I’m OK, You’re OK, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Helter Skelter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and, to my amazement, The Joy of Sex, plus one I’d not yet seen: The Joys of Fantasy: The Book for Loving Couples.
I’d perused The Joy of Sex at Oxford and felt mildly titillated at the drawings of hairy couples in all manner of sexual congress. The Joys of Fantasy, however, was different. While similar in size and shape – a softcover coffee table book – it featured soft focus photographs of men and women, in poses illustrating various fantasies, including threesomes, office sex, orgies, gay sex, BDSM, and fetishes; text of fantasy on one page, photo on the other.
One fantasy – a woman’s fantasy – was about initiating a young boy into sex. The photo was of a woman placing a teenager’s hand on her breast. I considered folding the page over, as a message to Rachel, but the thought of doing so filled me with panic, so I didn’t, but promised myself I would, eventually.
I was reading about a man’s exhibitionist fantasy and looking at the accompanying ridiculous photo of a Tony Manero-type guy in a trench coat flashing an aghast woman when a knock came at the door.
It was Todd, standing in the swirling moths, looking for a second like the chubby seven-year-old I’d met five years earlier: blue eyes wide, red hair mussed, glasses on the tip of his nose, anticipating he knew not what, but something… big. I’d never been happier to see him.
“I can still smell her,” he said, walking in and closing his eyes like he was in a bakery. Sure enough, Rachel had left behind a slowly dissipating cloud of scent.
Soon, Todd and I were standing before the refrigerator.
“What the hell? What the hell?” he whined. “Is tuna fish all she eats?” In addition to a fragrant Tupperware bowl of tuna salad, the fridge also housed some basic sundries, several bottles of white wine, milk, and some dishes of cellophane-covered chocolate pudding. But we were most interested in the unopened Vanilla Swiss Almond Häagen-Dazs in the freezer, which Rachel had advised me to eat completely. I’d never seen Häagen-Dazs, but had heard about it: The Best Ice Cream Ever, rumor had it.
“But first,” I told Todd, closing the door authoritatively, “I gotta show you her books.”
“Whoa! Whoa whoa whoa!” Todd said when he saw The Joys of Fantasy. I swelled inside at the notion that I was a kind of pirate who’d stumbled on forbidden treasure from a distant land; deigning to share it with my matey would grant me status, which was a new feeling for me.
We’d been leafing through Rachel’s books for a while when Todd said, “What about her albums? Does she have any albums? Wonder what she likes.”
This had not occurred to me. We walked to the back of the house, to her bedroom and half bath. Her king size bed was made up tight as a drum, her vanity table impeccably neat. This surprised me. Her life was chaos, but her room was almost oppressively tidy, save for a wicker basket overflowing with t-shirts and lacy underthings. Against one wall was a small collection of LPs wedged between a wardrobe and an end table, upon which sat a cheap stereo. The speakers were pointed toward the bed.
I sat at the vanity and picked up a small amber bottle labeled Locker Room and a yellow one labeled Rush. Todd plopped before the LPs, grunting displeasure at most of the selections. “KC & the Sunshine Band? Gross! Leo Sayer? No! Abba? What? This sucks!”
Then he said, “Hell yeah! Linda!”
In seconds Todd had placed Hasten Down the Wind on the spindle and cued up “That’ll Be the Day.”
“Not too loud,” I said. “You’ll wake Isaac up.”
Todd nodded, and with a screech of needle on vinyl, the song streamed into the forbidden room, rocking low. We were accustomed to listening to music quietly in his room as his parents slept. We bobbed our heads for a couple minutes and passed the LP cover back and forth, lost in our heroine’s big voice and beautiful body.
“Remember when she did this at the Civic Center?” Todd said over the music.
As the LP side played out, Todd got up and ambled around the room, idly opening drawers and raising his eyebrows. I was about to ask him to stop when I heard footsteps.
“Hey,” Isaac said. He was standing at the doorway watching us.
“Oh hey Isaac,” I said. “This is my friend, Todd.”
Isaac said nothing. Todd waved.
“You have a bad dream?” I asked.
Isaac nodded. I escorted him back to bed, Todd close behind.
Todd stayed in the room with me while I read to Isaac. My friend began a game where he hid behind my chair and, at odd moments, poked his head up and said Boo! Isaac thought this was hilarious until Todd, varying his act, went over the top and let out a scary, bellowing BOO! which made Isaac cry.
Todd was both annoyed and chagrined. I held up my hand to say, I’ve got this.
As I soothed Isaac with assurances that monsters were not real, that my friend was just pretending, Todd headed shamefacedly to the kitchen. I could hear him getting out the Häagen-Dazs and wandering into the living room, switching on Rachel’s huge TV, and watching Carol Burnett.
Isaac’s eyelids grew heavy and he drifted off, his breath slowing to a careless pace. I sat in the glow of his bedside lamp for a few moments and stared hard into the shadows hanging over his scattered toys, his chest of drawers. When I turned out his lamp, those shadows engulfed his peacefully sleeping form. So I turned it back on, and left it on.