Light My FireBy Robin Antalek
January 14, 2011
Southwest Florida, 1976: at sixteen Kathy and I are not quite there. We are half girl and half woman. Our knees still bear the shadows of scrapes from roller skating falls while our hips and breasts swell and curve beneath our batik cotton sundresses. We kiss boys with skin as hot as toast, their tangles of sun-bleached hair longer than ours, whose surfboards hang out the back of their dented el Camino’s and who want more than we are ready to give.
When we aren’t at the beach after school we are at Kathy’s house where our time is not governed by parental law. Kathy’s mother left when she was five. She lives with her father and an older brother who returned from Vietnam to sit in a green webbed lawn chair in the middle of their backyard where nothing but scrub pine grows gnarled and deformed in a sandy soil of crushed shells. His chair faces away from the house and ringed around the base are empty cans of beer. When he first came home his head was shaved but it has grown back into long dark ringlets. He looks like Jim Morrison from the Doors and I tell Kathy this but she frowns and tells me she doesn’t see this even though I know she does. The only time he leaves the chair is to go to the 7-Eleven at the end of the block to purchase more beer. If you didn’t know that fact you could easily imagine the beer magically replenished itself.
For a while his high school girlfriend, (who he had promised to marry before he enlisted), came over in the afternoons. We hear them fighting and then having sex until they scream or cry or both. The roar of their pain crowds the narrow hallway of Kathy’s house that leads to the chain of bedrooms occupied by Kathy, her father and her brother. Their cries are like a fire given oxygen: his deep and guttural and hers high and reedy. They cut through The Stones You Can’t Always Get What You Want and force us out of Kathy’s room to the galley kitchen where we sit on opposite kitchen counters and eat Skippy out of the jar, (an anomaly for me since my mother insists on the peanut butter from the health food store that tastes like sticky dust, but Kathy shops for her family and so the choice is hers) the room is so narrow we can stretch our legs all the way out and rest our bare feet on the opposite counter.
When Kathy’s brother left for Vietnam he gave her his record collection. We worked our way into an appreciation of the Doors, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, and the Rolling Stones. With the music playing we closet ourselves in Kathy’s room where she has lined the walls with Indian tapestries from World Bazaar and burns sandpapery cones of incense and we talk about how far we might let the surfer boys go, not as far as they want, but we want, oh how we want, and how that wanting is in danger of unraveling.
One afternoon her brother’s girlfriend walks into the kitchen for a glass of water and tells Kathy loving her brother is like fucking a ghost before she drops the glass onto the plastic sink mat and walks out the door. Instead of leaving she sits in her car on the street parked next to the mailbox. We know she is waiting for him to come out but when an hour passes and his bedroom door is still closed, she leaves.
The first phone call comes on a rainy afternoon. We are sitting on the carport, waiting out the storm, talking about the waves, about who might be surfing, about the possibility of thunder and lightening and riding our bikes in a storm to the beach. We dash out into the yard and hold our faces and arms up to the rain. We spin in circles like children yet our bodies ache for something else, for something more, to go back but at the same time to go forward. My skin, the hair on my arms, the blood coursing through my veins: everything quivers from the power of wanting.
We are soaked, my patchwork skirt clings to my legs, and my bikini top is visible through my t-shirt as Kathy runs to answer the phone. I see her through the window twirling the long black floppy cord stretched out now from years of pulling it down the hallway to her room. Her face is dark and then light, the fingers of her other hand flutter around her breasts, holding the thin wet material of her tank top away from her body. I press my face to the sliding glass door and she motions me forward, holds the phone out to me and opens her mouth as if in shock or surprise.
When I get there she presses the phone to my ear, I smell her musky shampoo on the receiver, I hear the sharp intake of breath on the line, a low moan, like the sounds Kathy’s brother makes when he is having sex with his high school girlfriend.
What are you wearing? The voice rasps. Are you all wet?
Who the fuck is this? I ask.
Kathy leans closer and tilts the phone so we both can hear. The guy moans again.
Fuck off, I shout and push the phone out of Kathy’s hand. It dangles a moment on the long loopy cord before it smashes against the table and we laugh out of nerves and fear and excitement. We are standing there like that when we notice her brother walking up the driveway with a six-pack. He is shirtless and shoe-less and his chest looks remarkably like those of the surfer boys we like to kiss. He disappears around the house and reappears in his lawn chair. It doesn’t matter that it is raining. He settles himself and the beer in his usual position.
After that first afternoon there is a pattern to the calls. A half an hour after we get in the door from school the phone rings. The caller asks what we are wearing. He tells us what he will do for us. He tells us things that we have to guess at their meaning, he tells us what we can do for him. There is a lot of heavy breathing on his part. We are scared and thrilled by the game because we are newly sixteen and virgins and the idea of sex is ever present. We lay on the floor in Kathy’s room shoulder to shoulder with our feet pressed against the door in case anyone tries to come in, the cord squeezed between the frame and the latch. The calls last no longer than ten minutes and after my nerves jangle, my legs feel like rubber, and in my chest nests an apex of anxiety. After several calls Kathy acts funny and says she wants to be alone. As I leave, her brother twists around in his lawn chair and stares as I take my bike from the crumbling concrete slab. I wave, but he turns back around before my hand is even in front of my face.
One day I ride my bike to the beach after leaving Kathy’s house. I find Daryl, the sweetest of the surfers, the one that I have the deepest crush. His mother is a teller at the bank where my parents have an account. He tosses my bike in the back of his car along with his surfboard and we go to the apartment he shares with his mother and he shows me his room with the surfing posters and the blue plaid bedspread. He kisses me and opens a beer and takes a sip and hands it to me and I do the same. We kiss again and our teeth are cold when they accidentally hit. We laugh and readjust positions and when Daryl tries to kiss his way down my neck I start to cry. Embarrassed I make my way to the door. Daryl jogs after me outside and says: Hey, I like you. Did I do something wrong? I can’t even look at him as he lifts my bike out of the back of his car and holds it steady until I get on.
I pass the 7-Eleven and notice Kathy’s brother outside the store. He is leaning against the glass, and his eyes are closed. He lazily strokes the skin below his belly button with his fingertips and my stomach squeezes and then as if he senses someone watching him his eyelids flutter open and he disappears inside the store. Through the glass I see him remove a six-pack of beer from the cooler and put the money on the counter. I pedal fast to beat him to his house and when I get there I follow the phone cord down the hall to Kathy’s room. I press on the door with my full weight but it doesn’t budge. Kathy, I whisper, let me in. When she doesn’t answer I push harder and say her name louder. Again, there is nothing and I slump down on the floor to wait. It is crazy to feel jealousy but I do. The guy has chosen her. I try to think hard if she has better responses to his questions and I realize I am mostly mute, always listening, slightly embarrassed by the way my body is reacting to the sound of a stranger’s voice asking me the color of my underpants. It is Kathy who is always ready with an answer, Kathy who always seems to know the right thing to say and I wonder how she has gotten so far ahead of me when we started in the same place.
I get up to leave because no matter what my mother expects me home for dinner. I know what I will see before I get there. My father will have arrived home from work and taken a shower after a long hot day fixing pools. He will be on the carport having a drink while he pokes whatever is cooking on the grill while my brother runs soccer practice drills on the patch of adjacent grass calling out to my father over and over again: Are you watching? Dad, are you watching?
My father will look up at me and wink and the ice will rattle in his glass as he raises it to his lips. Nice to see you sis, he will say. How was your day?
I will drop the kickstand on my bike in the shade of the carport. I will allow him to tug on my ponytail as I pass although I will pretend to hate it and squirm away. I will enter the coolness of the laundry room, slip through the landing strip of a kitchen, and push wide the swinging doors into the dining room where the phone sits on a desk. I will lift the phone while my mother, still in her white uniform, asks me to please make the salad. I will dial Kathy’s number. I will hold my breath when I hear the busy signal. Before I put the phone back in the cradle I will whisper: light blue with lace, just to hear myself say it out loud and then gently, quietly, I will hang up the phone.
Chills, I got. This is short-story good, Robin.
So many great details: the descriptions of the brother, the stretched out phone cord, the wet clothes.
Great, great piece. I really love the Florida ones.
Oh, thanks so much, Greg. The new manuscript mines some of this Florida territory — so I have been very much “there” lately.
Oh goodie. I can’t wait!
Me neither!!! Hurry! Hurry!!
Greg and Zara… you are wonderful
Seriously gorgeous and textured and poignant. Wow, Robin. Bravo.
I must ask. What happened to Kathy’s brother? That line his girlfriend said about him–the ghost part–made me cringe and shiver. I’m the daughter of a veteran who returned without the scars that many of his fellow soldiers endured and many still bear. On some level, I myself have a score to settle with that war.
Ronlyn — I’ve been thinking about you — glad to see via FB that you may have beaten your draft into submission. I’m sending good thoughts to you.
I wrestled with sections of this piece – especially regarding Kathy’s brother. In so many, many ways his was not my story to tell – and I so didn’t want to presume I knew anything of what it meant to go to war, to suffer the atrocities of war as a young man — he was only a teenager when he enlisted! But then he was a very important piece of that time for me — he was — as his ex-girlfriend said — a ghost and he was always there when we were — but not, you know what I mean? And he did indeed look like Jim Morrison — especially to my teenage self. Unfortunately, his life ended tragically. A few months after this story ends he disappeared and his body wasn’t discovered or identified until almost a year later. By that time Kathy and I no longer spoke and the circumstances of his death were never conclusive.
Actually, Novel #2 beat me into submission. I think it finally sunk in that there’s no use to argue or fight what it wants. Might not be the literary tome I hoped it would be, but at least it will be finished. Soon-ish. A first draft anyway. Thanks for the good thoughts. Back at you.
As for Kathy’s brother…You shared what you observed, which to me is telling the story as you witnessed it. My heart sank when you said that he died although I wasn’t surprised. He’s a casualty as much as any solider who died in country. I read a remarkable book for research purposes a couple of years ago called War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Edward Tick. I think about it often, especially as a war continues on and it seems no one talks about it…
Oh, this is just an aching piece!
So beautifully and perfectly written – every word is sharp and throbbing, every phrase drawn back like an arrow. You have captured – and I mean captured like a pinned butterfly -days of summer and puberty blues and the confusion of not quite knowing what’s out there, not quite knowing what it is going on. Fabulous work, Robin. I have missed your writing here and this feels like a surprise birthday present-one I wasn’t expecting that turned out to be just what I wanted.
Zara — lovely Zara – your words always thrill me! When I think of that time it is true — all that physical longing, all that uncertainty — in so many ways those teenage years are so secretive and uncertain and mysterious and painful. Perspective seems to be the only way we understand that while it all can’t be explained –it was to a certain degree necessary to who we have become.
What an incredible piece. I didn’t only feel like I was there, I feel like you were writing my memories.
So instantly evocative I was swept to beautiful (and some terrifying) moments of my own.
Thanks so much, Dana. As the mother of two teenage girls I can’t imagine how I would feel if that they were to experience anything like this….. and yet, certainly to an extent, they will, and I might never know. It’s all a part of the process, isn’t it?
“…I can’t imagine how I would feel if they were to experience anything like this… and yet, certainly to an extent, they will…”
So true. Adolescence and the anxiety/longing that come w/ it is one of those ‘universal yet oh so private/deeply personal’ experiences. We all have our version.
What a poignant slice of life this is, Robin. Thanks for sharing.
It’s always a joy to come across a piece like this that has a genuine presence where all the story elements fit together so perfectly. As soon as I read the line “…boys with skin as hot as toast” I knew I was in for something good. Thank you.
i’m glad you liked that — because I can still feel it.
love this, robin. it’s a perfect piece of writing, in and of itself, but i could see it as part of something larger. made me think of The Boys fo My Youth by Jo Ann Beard.
Thanks for leading me to that book, Angela. I ordered it– sounds fabulous! My second novel (still in editing form) has had me in this territory — while not autobiographical in any way — I can’t help but summon some of these demons and memories and so I spilled some here on TNB.
This is SO beautifully written and such a great story.
You perfectly nail the anxious, scary but exciting place of adolescence and wanting things you don’t even understand.
And l love all your descriptions! “STICKY DUST.” Perfect!
from you, dear Jessica, this means so much… do you think as adults we really lose the feeling of wanting things we don’t understand… or do we just get better at hiding those feelings?
You know, maybe we don’t lose that. When we want houses and cars and more cars and nicer houses we’re probably wanting something we don’t understand. Or, I guess we understand exactly WHAT we want but we usually don’t understand WHY we want it. So I suppose that’s a bit different than when we’re kids and we don’t even really understand WHAT we want. Oh this is getting confusing! What do you think??
This is so gorgeous, Robin. I felt completely there, with all that palpable, confusing longing and all the danger. I read this half as my once-young-self, and half as my mother-of-almost-teen-daughters self, and the schism is sort of fascinating and terrifying. Very excited for your next novel, too!
Gina, I cannot wait to hear about your fabulous trip!
As I was writing this I was so terribly conflicted… anxious for my own teenage daughters and anxious for my teenage self as I remembered the chances I took…
WHEN IS YOUR NEXT NOVEL COMING OUT?! Oh, I’m SO SO excited!
i’m still editing the beast…..
Powerfully written, Robin.
Took me right there.
Is this non-fiction? Fiction?
I have to know.
Feels SO real.
Really, perfectly written.
Irene! This is really and truly non-fiction and as the mother of teenage daughters I scare myself…. thanks for the lovely, lovely compliments!
Damn good job, you really had me believing this, Robin.
I’m in agreement with everyone here. Brilliant. Terrifying. Real. Like Dana, the vivid scenes called a few stories to mind. Such a weird and vulnerable age for girls.
I’m dreading the teen years with my little ones!
i talked my teens to death… i believe I’ve seen their eyes roll back in their heads at the millionth time i used the phrase: sexual objectification… and that’s just for starters. i had the heart of a bad girl wanna be but the head was always way too cautious…..
Once again your writing thrills me. Just perfect in every way. Your descriptive phrases just put me right there. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I’m so glad to see you back at TNB – I have missed you.
lovely Jude… you and your daughter always know just what to say to make a girl feel welcome.
Wow, Robin – this gave me the goosebumps. Just gorgeous. And sad.
I love the description of “everything quivers from the power of wanting.”
I still remember that not yet woman, still a girl summer(s) I had – even had a caller like that.
And how my friend and I were “shocked” and “angry” at him – but yet couldn’t wait for his call.
Perfect description of the paradox of that age – needing the comforts of home with the younger role that we play and the excitement and danger what we will become.
This makes me miss your book – can’t wait for the new one!!
I loved your very brave, very raw and honest blog post yesterday. You can write, lady. More? Please?
and so it goes, this mutual admiration society….
I’m with Susan above. Wow. I was just about to post something but I’m going to need a few moments to process your gorgeous piece. Wow.
wow right back at you…. thanks, alison!
Writing makes you feel like you’re there. ahh, it’s Robin A. Goes without saying then.
As I read this, I’m struck with a seemingly completely unrelated thought: “skiers that never fall don’t have any notion of how fast they can actually go.”
I’m thinking this in the context of your story in the world of today, with Star-69, caller ID, etc. It would simply not happen.
On most every level, that’s a good thing…who actually wants creepy damaged men preying on young naive teens, after all?
But what I also read in the story, is a great example of “testing the edges.” Finding out where the boundaries are by walking up to them and standing on them.
It is a concept that is very quickly disappearing from our experience. When we were kids, Robin, we had pretty much open access to the edges. Today, I wonder…do the kids of today have access to the fringe areas? We seem to have been actively engineering this out of our lives, working very hard to direct lives into the middle of the pipe, moving the barriers farther and farther away from the danger.
And I don’t just mean the danger of creepy old men. Electronic virtual socializing seems to give the appearance and salty taste of experience, without the calories, so to speak.
Maybe it doesn’t matter how much “they” try to move the fences, and make it safe. Maybe the new people just engineer ways to outmaneuver it, in ways that I don’t quite understand yet.
My own girls are 19 and 15 and what struck me as I mine my past is a sort of melancholy for a world I was allowed ( for better or worse) the space to explore. The danger of creepy men making phone calls aside — there was an innocence to all that exploration — all that pushing of boundaries and all those incremental leaps — that seemed just dangerous enough for a teenage girl trying to figure out who the hell she was let alone her place in the world.
Robin, I wish you posted every week. This was fantastic. Well-written, a solid emotional core, a perfect vignette from start to finish.
I can’t praise it highly enough.
Simon! Loving your recent posts.. will there be more letters to Cecilia?
OK, I don’t know if I’m creeped out or if I want to start making prank calls to hot girls who might be wearing lacy something-or-others. Seriously, I agree with Greg’s initial comment about how much sensory detail there is in this piece, and how it reads like a really damn good short story. I almost bumped your book up in my reading pile. Dang.
thanks so much, nick. just curious: what would I have to write to be bumped to the top of the pile?
i am honored by the sublime simplicity of your verse…
Robin, this is stunning. Tense and wringing, sharp and glorious writing. What a story. I’m so there.
it’s always so difficult to transcribe memories into words that create images that make sense to someone other than myself… so glad you liked this, meg
[…] ROBIN ANTALEK a) goes fishing for sharks (and shopping for an electric clothes dryer), and b) loses her BFF to a mysterious prank caller. […]