Saturday, November 4, 2006

On the Road Again (Chapter 21)

The troubles of our proud and angry dust are from eternity, and shall not fail. Bear them we can, and if we can we must. Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.
     — A.E. Housman

          A Shropshire Lad, 1896
Women and drink. Too much of either can drive you to the other.
     — Michael Still


The most surprising and unexpected development in the spring was the return of Lynn. Not that she’d gone anywhere, I had just stopped trying to impress her and act the fool around her. With my mother’s cancer and the issues with Kelly, I wasn’t really caring what anybody thought of me. I had taken on a very laissez faire attitude. Don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with you. For reasons passing understanding Lynn found my carefree or uncaring attitude very attractive. She was in effect proving the Taoist concept of wu wei, which literally translates as without action. In other words as soon as I stopped paying her any attention that’s when she began craving it. I became infinitely more alluring when I just didn’t give a shit about anything or anybody.

Since publicly Kelly and I were no longer a couple, Lynn thought I was available and she began to find reasons to spend time with me and flirt with me. Kelly couldn’t do anything about it this time, either, not without revealing our deception. I was quite puzzled by it all and didn’t know what to do. My relationship with Kelly was clearly a dead end, more so now than ever. That the sex was so good I undoubtedly assigned a higher importance in my reasoning because of my age and immaturity. But when I’d been openly interested in Lynn, in fact asked her out several times, she soundly and completely rejected me, giving no hint whatsoever that I should hold out any hope of a change in her feelings toward me.

In the end, I was too intrigued by the possibility of new love with Lynn and knew in my heart it would be best to get past by the dysfunctional relationship with Kelly. So I accepted Lynn’s invitation to take me bowling. The day before I told Kelly we had to stop seeing one another and she correctly guessed why. We fought wildly but there would be no making up this time. I was strong and resisted, for a change. I figured Kelly would try to find a way to sabotage things for me and warned Lynn to not believe anything she heard about me that might not sound right. It ended up being a very good beginning to our relationship. I was honest with her from the start, something I hadn’t really tried before that. Lynn appreciated my telling her, she told me, and it made me feel oddly good not to have any secrets from her. We spent that afternoon just talking and telling each other stories about ourselves and managed to know quite a lot about each other even before our date Friday evening.

So it was with great anticipation and possibilities that I picked Lynn up from her house Friday. It was more like a normal date than any I’d ever been on. I had to shake hands with her father, while he eyed up the older boy taking his daughter out. I had to promise I’d have her back by midnight. And I also got the opportunity to watch her walk downstairs in tight jeans and a bright red wool sweater that looked fantastic on her. Her hair was dark and straight. She wore it shoulder length and parted in the middle. It almost seemed when she shook her head that the hair moved in slow motion, the way it does in the movies. I opened her door and held it for her while she got in my Camaro. She waved to her parents, who were watching from the window, along with her older sister who was my age and in my class, though I had never even given her a second glance.

Lynn was on the Girl’s Bowling Team, so I knew this was probably one her favorite things to do. I was pleased she had decided on this for our date. Bowling was low pressure and not terribly intimate if things didn’t go well. But after our talk earlier in the week I didn’t see how we wouldn’t have a great time together. She told me on the drive to Colonial Hills, the lanes just outside of Mohnton on the Lancaster Pike, that she wasn’t going to take it easy on me bowling. She told me I would have to work hard if I wanted to beat her because she felt she was a good bowler. I laughed heartily and told he she was on. I’m sure it was partly cockiness, but I felt sure I could beat her. I may not have been on the school’s team, but I was a decent bowler. I had been in a few bowling leagues over the years and had even done pretty well in a few local tournaments. And Phil and I bowled at least once a week at the Elk’s Club in downtown Reading, where his father was a member. They had this really cool setup in the basement where there were four lanes. The Elk’s building was this amazing giant structure that had once been a mansion in the 1800s. But the Elk’s members were dying out and fewer and fewer young people were joining. As a result, they didn’t even have enough interested people for a small bowling league. So Phil’s Dad invited us to join them. We were the only non-Elks there and the youngest people bowling by probably something like fifty years. But we had a great time with the old geezers and they welcomed us with open arms. I carried around a 160 average, not world class, but not terrible either. I’d never thrown a perfect game but had a few in the 240s, which wasn’t too bad for a high school kid who never practiced except for league play.

We did have a lot of fun, though I managed to beat Lynn two out of three games only by the slimmest of margins. So we had to admit we were pretty evenly matched. She also told me that night the reason she all but hated me at the beginning of the year. She thought I was immature and was just showing off for her, which not only didn’t work but after a while turned her off. She’d initially thought I was cute, she claimed, but that my personality made me unattractive to her. That was, naturally, rather deflating to hear but at least it was honest criticism. Apparently when I stopped trying and she saw what she thought was my true personality, that I was cute again and grew even more so as she spent time hanging out with me at school. That felt a little better and I was really enjoying being normal. I just gave her a friendly kiss goodnight when I dropped off — before midnight as promised — and drove home sober, which in and of itself was different for me. I even had some trouble falling asleep that night because I kept thinking about Lynn.

Over the next few weeks we spent an increasing amount of time together and by the time Spring Swing, our school’s musical production, began we were officially a couple. As usual, I was playing in the pit orchestra and helping out with stage crew. Lynn joined the chorus so we could be together after school. Whenever there were breaks or we had free time, we could be found in the dark auditorium seats making out. We made out a lot. I had the bluest nuts of my life but the weird thing was I really didn’t mind. I didn’t quite know what to make of the way I felt, but it was certainly different than with Kelly or anything other girl I’d been with. When alone, I frequently got to second base and occasionally rounded third, but that was it. I certainly wanted to steal home, but I didn’t want to do anything to ruin how good being with Lynn made me feel.

The only thing we ever argued about, ever, was Kelly. Lynn was understandably jealous of her and Kelly did anything she could to fan that feeling. She went out of her way to make things hard on us. That was just her way, which I tried time and time again to explain but it didn’t really help. I just tried to avoid any contact whatsoever with her and that usually seemed to do the trick for Lynn. I tried taking us places I was sure Kelly would never be, which meant avoiding a lot of parties. That also meant I was drinking less, which was actually both a relief and rather strange.

I did have more time to myself than I’d had with Kelly, because Lynn had family obligations, her horse, bowling team matches, and many other things she had to do where I couldn’t spend time with her. So we were just dating in a sense of the word I hadn’t experienced before. We’d go on dates. Outside of school, that was the only way we were together. With previous girlfriends, I just spent any free time I had with them, date or not. But it was probably healthier this way, and also afforded me chances to just hang out with my friends without any female interference.

Since some of us were no eighteen, we started going down to the Jersey shore on weekends. New Jersey’s resort towns along the Atlantic Ocean were about two hours from Shillington. We’d pile four or five us to a car, and rent a cheap motel room Friday and Saturday night. The drinking age was still only eighteen in New Jersey so I could drink legally there. We’d learned from upper classman over the past two years where the hot spots were. There was Atlantic City, pre-casino wasteland, Ocean City and what would become our personal favorite, Wildwood. If you didn’t have puka shells and a bright green t-shirt from the Shamrock Café in Wildwood, you just weren’t cool. Another feature of Jersey resort towns were the cheesy gift shops and in those days iron-on transfers were how they made cheap t-shirts for the tourists. For landlocked inland high school kids like us they were fashion statements that at once showed we’d been to the shore and that we were hip. At least that was the idea, we told ourselves.

Coors had recently achieved something of a cult status, in part because you couldn’t get in on the east coast. And when “Smokey and the Bandit” came out that May, it only fueled its prestige. I had a Rocky Mountain High Coors shirt that I’d gotten at the shore that was one of my favorites. It seems even cheesier and more than a little gauche today. Somehow, Eddie managed to get his hands on a six-pack of Coors’ cans around that same time. He gathered some of his friends and I invited a couple of mine. We reverently opened a couple of the cans and poured some in highball glasses for each of us to try. I still don’t know what all the fuss was about, as it tasted no different from most of the other light pilsners I’d tried. It wasn’t worse, but it was certainly nowhere near good enough to justify the cult status it enjoyed. But I learned a valuable lesson about perception and perceived value that day. People believed it was better, so in a way, for them, it was. A lot of life was like that. How valuable some thing or some person might be was a tricky business. I was beginning to question my own values and my own worth as I struggled to quite literally grow up and be a man. It was time, I knew, and I was still mired in the muck of my family politics, the reputation I’d created for myself in school — which was not entirely flattering — along with my uncertainty about the future. I feared many of the choices I made then would have far-reaching effects that I could not adequately predict and it paralyzed me with indecision at every turn.

And perhaps more frightening was the possibility that I would get stuck here in Berks County, Pennsylvania, like my mother had, like Eddie had, like almost everyone had. The region had at one time been an industrial center and a center of textile factories in its heyday. But those days were behind us, and the area was dying before our eyes. Businesses were shuttered almost daily, or so it seemed. For the last few censuses, the population was decreasing substantially every decade. The smart ones, I reasoned, were getting out. I was hoping that joining the army would afford me a similar opportunity but I really felt conflicted. I was beginning to feel emotions for Lynn that confused me and made me want to never leave wherever she happened to be, which might mean getting stuck in Shillington. Was the happiness I felt with her worth staying? I had no earthly idea.

The months wore on and I definitely felt like I was in love with Lynn and would do almost anything for her. But it turned out I had my limits, and I don’t to this day know what happened exactly. As my senior prom approached, I naturally asked Lynn to go with me, but she refused. The reason she wouldn’t go was because her older sister, who was also a senior, had no date for the prom and she Lynn didn’t feel right about going when her sister would be sitting home. She asked me to take her sister, which seemed very odd to me at the time. Looking back, it was sweet of her and I know she was putting someone else’s happiness ahead of her own, a concept I was not yet very familiar with. I don’t know why I said no, but I did. I’ve been kicking myself ever since, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. What was wrong me? I wish I knew, honestly I do.

When I said I couldn’t she broke up with me on the spot. Or at least that was the effect, which also made no sense to me. I was devastated. She asked me to promise her one thing, which that I not take Kelly to my prom. Naturally I agreed and if Kelly thought it strange that we got dressed up and went out to dinner on my prom night but never went to the dance itself, she never said anything. Because when I crawled back into a bottle after Lynn was no longer in my life, Kelly was there to pick me up. Or at least she joined me there in the bottle. And that’s how I passed the rest of my senior year, drunk.

Finally graduation day came, and with it the next phase of my life, though I still had to get through the summer. In the weeks before and after the end of school, there were endless parties. First, there were actual graduation parties than afterward we just celebrated being free with wild abandon. One of the best was a kegger held at the home of a senior girl we really didn’t even know very well. Her father was a projectionist at a local film theater and showed the movie “Young Frankenstein” on a screen in his basement, a room that had been converted into a home theater, complete with the actual seats from a movie house. We had a blast getting drunk with a keg of Genny while laughing our ass off watching Mel Brooks’ hilarious spoof. It had been a couple of years since we’d seen it in the theatre.

I guess because I had just graduated I feeling cockier than I normally did, and I did something extremely stupid one night. Just as I coming through the door after another round of parties, Eddie was trashing the house once more and had his hand around my mother’s neck. I instinctively grabbed his arm and pulled it off of her neck. He was red-faced from screaming, a condition I’d seen many times, when he turned to face me. Without a word, he grabbed my wrist with one hand and snapped it, breaking the bone. At least that ended the fight, as my mother and I spent the night in emergency getting a cast on my arm, while Eddie slept it off. I considered calling the police, but in the end I didn’t, because I was afraid of what he’d do to either my Mom or me in retaliation.

The following week I left for a summer job that would keep me out of the house for seven weeks before I left for boot camp in September. I had been a Boy Scout for several years — it was yet another organization that kept me out of the house — and took a job as provisional troop leader. Luckily, it was a job I could still do, even with a cast on my arm. It paid $600 for the whole summer, along with my own tent and three meals a day. I’d been going to Hawk Mountain Scout Reservation in Schuylkill Haven for several years, and played in the camp band. As a result, I’d gotten to know the head Scout (I don’t remember what his title was) who was in charge of the camp as well as the entire local district. He was a scouting professional, meaning he was paid a salary, whereas most scout leaders were volunteers. Henry was also a pedophile, which made him more than a little creepy.

But he offered me a job for the summer as a provisional scoutmaster, which meant I would have a group of orphan scouts each week who all be lumped together to create a temporary troop. Usually, it was kids who for one reason or another couldn’t be at camp at the same time as their local troop, so they came whatever week they could. I also had two kids one week whose father was an ambassador for a country in the Middle East. It wasn’t a bad gig, really. I was outdoors almost the entire day. Even when you were in your tent, you felt like you were outside because, of course, you were. The food was fantastic. I actually ate breakfast every day and that was nice. The elderly Mennonite woman who had been the head cook as long as anyone could remember was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. That she could make food for several hundred people taste so good was like a miracle. She had a thick, German accent and could not pronounce certain sounds. For example, she couldn’t say the hard “j” sound of my name, instead pronouncing it “Chay,” which afterwards was what everyone at camp called me.

Password was the “in” game and we played it endlessly after hours, while we were “off duty” at night and whenever our kids were off at a particular activity. We also drank heavily while we played, and who could play well stewed, rule. The other popular game we played was street hockey in the mess hall, where we put the benches around the perimeter of the mess hall to act like boards to bounce the puck off of. We had to do this because the mess hall had not exterior walls on three sides. Only the kitchen proper had walls. There was only one woman in camp, apart from the kitchen staff who to us all seemed to be at least a hundred, and that was the nurse. But she was humorless and rather plain, to be kind, not that she didn’t have her fair share of desperate suitors anyway.

The weeks passed quickly and by the time I got home again there was a little more than a month before my enlistment date. That final time I spent putting on one last play at Shillington Summer Theatre and drinking as much beer as I could every night with friends. I did see Kelly a couple of times and we screwed a few times. We told ourselves it was just for old times sakes, but the truth was that neither of us could pass up the great sexual chemistry we shared, no matter how bad we knew we were for one another.

It was even more difficult than usual to be at home. Eddie never apologized for breaking my arm, which constantly agitated me. My mother never thanked me for intervening on her behalf, which for some reason also irritated me considering the heavy price I paid. For my mother’s sake, I tried to act as if it was no big deal. I think she was truly frightened of what would happen when I was no longer around, which was strange since I felt I was almost a stranger in my house and had been for a long time. But military service represented a more permanent situation than simply not coming home at night and perhaps she thought it would embolden Eddie even further. I felt bad for the situation she was in, despite how much I felt it was her own fault. It wasn’t her fault that Eddie had turned into the monster he now was, but her inability to leave him or indeed even want to leave him I felt I could, and did, blame her for. So even thought I did feel a certain amount of guilt for leaving, I could not conceive of any other course for myself. I had been planning for the day I would leave Shillington for good for so long that now that it was finally within my grasp, there was nothing that could stop me from going through with my escape.

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