Blaise liked to joke that he was the free gift with purchase upon the wedding of his mother to the dermatologist with a house on the beach and, even better, a casita that was now exclusively Blaise’s domain. Blaise not so secretly called his new stepfather the pimp. A snide reference to the lucrative pimple popping business that purchased the dermatologist’s silver Porsche, Blaise’s green Karmann Ghia and his mother’s candy apple red convertible Mercedes, along with the beach house. Though recently the dermatologist had moved past pimple popping and onto saving lives. The news that the sun, a nearly inescapable presence in South Florida, caused cancer, created a financial windfall for the dermatologist that was beyond his wildest dreams.
Blaise’s mother was a once upon a time waitress, and her experience in the hospitality industry was now exclusively directed toward her new husband. No matter when I was there to visit Blaise, his mother appeared underdressed. As far as I could tell her wardrobe consisted of terry cloth short-shorts, slip on cork platform sandals, and a variety of tube tops, as if at any moment she might be called upon to have sex quickly.
She also sunbathed topless, taking a long time to lather on the appropriate prescription sunscreen. Flat on her back the double orbs glistened in the sun, a diamond heart pendant nestled snugly in her cleavage, a belly chain draped across her hips, and against her flat stomach, the long manicured fingers of her left hand, weighted by a diamond so large it looked fake, loosely gripped a can of Tab. The outdoor surround sound speakers filtered a never-ending rotation of disco hits featuring the Gloria’s: Estefan and Gaynor and her body vibrated against the chaise lounge, even in the silence between tracks.
To reach Blaise’s casita I had to take the path cutting directly across the pool area to the gravel walkway that led to the entrance, unless I was coming from the beach, which I hardly ever did. It never seemed to matter to his mother that she was on display and soon enough, her nakedness became as invisible as her clothing.
The section of beach the house occupied was a quiet enclave that faced the Gulf of Mexico, near a rocky inlet that led to the inter-coastal waterway. Yet inside Blaise’s four walls you would never know the sun shined or the water lapped at the edges of the sand turning it the shade of wet concrete. In the living room black-out curtains were pressed against the windows and the volume of the stereo was usually cranked high to obliterate the offending music coming from the pool area, erasing any and all sounds of the world outside his door.
Due to the lack of fresh air, there was a slightly chemical smell mixed with something sweet, most likely from the bowls of sugar that covered nearly every surface. Blaise liked to empty the brightly colored paper pixie sticks of candied sugar into bowls and refill the hollow cylinders with drugs. The process consisted of tweezers, a toothpick and a drop of glue to reseal the paper stick, all kept on a silver tray that Blaise put on the table between us while we watched old movies in the afternoon.
They were the perfect decanter, unassuming and easy to transport and Blaise was so casual about it that he always kept a few sticks in his back pocket. Once, during class, our art teacher came up behind Blaise standing at his easel and plucked a stick from his pocket, twirling it between his thumb and forefinger until the colors blended a solid pink, while he waxed nostalgic about penny candy. I held my breath from across the room as Blaise lazily stabbed a brush in the direction of his painting until the Valium filled stick was back in his possession.
Blaise and I were in studio art together that last year of high school, a class reserved for seniors serious about art school, although Blaise mostly spent his time perched on a stool next to me talking while I worked, his painting or drawing abandoned. He was quick witted and made me laugh, his observations about people and life were sharp and wise, or maybe he just said aloud the things other people only thought. While he never produced anything during class I was consistently amazed that on portfolio days Blaise would arrive with a ratty bloated sketchbook filled with curled and torn pages, but on those pages were the most exquisite little pen and ink renderings. It was where I first saw his mother’s sunbathing form, supine on a lounge, the view of the drawing was as if you were kneeling at her feet, her breasts rose in front of her, obliterating all but the tip of her chin and nose.
We were an unlikely duo. I was cautious where Blaise was reckless. I barely took aspirin while Blaise regularly dipped his hand into his stash sifting through self-medicating confetti colored pills and popping them casually, without care to the after effects of his prescription cocktail. He had parties nightly with small carefully curated groups of people, knowing instinctively what personalities mixed together would amuse or anger him. There were plenty of drugs and alcohol and always those damn bowls of sugar. Often to my disgust people licked their fingertips and plunged them wet into the bowls only to retract them and suck the sugar as if it were nectar.
For a time I was his constant, often curled in a corner of the rattan couch covered in a crazy flamingo pattern, my bare legs and feet tucked beneath me, a sketchbook in my lap. It was Blaise who had encouraged me to draw his guests and at first I thought they would think it bizarre, but the higher they were, people seemed flattered by their likeness. And while I was reluctant to let the sketches go, Blaise would occasionally ask me to give one away, his hand circled around my wrist, the pad of his thumb pressed softly as if he were taking my pulse, the corners of his mouth turned down, his eyelids at the stoners salute of half-mast. He would make sure I signed each and every one of them and then he would carefully admonish the recipient to take care of the drawing, that I was going to be famous one day. He would help me tear the sheet from the pad so it wouldn’t rip, and I would watch the ragged broken tooth edge of the paper as it was lifted from my lap and into the greedy hands of one of Blaise’s guests. I tried not to think about it jammed in a pocket, used to wipe snot, or fluttering away lost to the Gulf breeze.
Blaise attracted attention with his casual good looks. While the dermatologist and Blaise’s mother exemplified the waning days of disco, Blaise was like a throwback to a generation of WASP’s bred for the Ivy League. His wardrobe consisted of rumpled khaki pants shredded at the hem, faded Lacoste polo shirts and oversized white cotton button downs. He was unfailingly polite around adults, as if good breeding was his birthright. He charmed my mother, accepted the offer of her wildly uneven health food store meals, and allowed my younger brother to sit behind the wheel of the Karmann Ghia for as long as he wanted, practicing for the day he could drive. The greedy way Blaise looked upon my pedestrian family made my life at home nearly tolerable, but only through his eyes.
I knew my mother suspected Blaise was my boyfriend, but the truth was while we spent afternoons watching movies tucked into the respective corners of his couch and our evenings together as well, he had never so much as made a move to hold my hand. I told myself I was done with high school boys anyhow, even though Blaise hardly qualified as the typical boy. Once, our hands touched the gearshift at the same time and he slid his fingers from underneath mine with a cool indifference that left me shriveled until he turned his lazy smile on me, and made a joke that only I understood.
Christopher was a recurring guest at Blaise’s parties. He spent a lot of time sitting or standing near the couch where I was drawing. He made small talk with Blaise and me, paid attention to what was playing on the turntable, jumping up to change an album or make a suggestion. He made a mix tape for Blaise and sat with his head bowed and his fingers tapping the beat out on his thigh as we listened to it, but was otherwise quiet. I never saw him lick sugar from his fingertips or even accept one of the pixie sticks. He drank, but seemed unaffected by what was going on around him. I understood from the conversation that he had graduated the year before, gone off to Gainesville on a football scholarship, been injured the first month and hadn’t played since. He was atypical for a jock: tall and dark, with sharp cheekbones and a wild tumble of black hair. His exotic good looks added to his appeal and his mystery. I had caught Blaise on more than one occasion studying Christopher when he thought no one was looking. The one time our eyes met Blaise had winked at me and made a gesture as if I should go for it. Stung, I rolled my eyes and turned away. The insincerity on both our parts was palpable.
There was always a point during those nights when the air inside the casita got too close and I would get up and slip outside to the beach to breath. Christopher began to meet me there, at first I thought by coincidence but then I noticed he followed me outside and it was too intentional to brush off, still he was company. We walked along the edge of the water. Our conversations were peppered with talk about the future as if it would never come. Christopher wanted to know where I was applying to school. How I knew Blaise. He wanted to know if I came here every night. What I wanted to be when I grew up. He admitted that he had only accepted the football scholarship because he had no other ideas, no money, no family to back him up. When he got hurt he had the choice to rehab, but his heart wasn’t in it so he left. He was living in his uncle’s trailer on land in Immokalee where the only industry was the prison. He was working construction, trying to make enough money to join a buddy in Texas where the jobs were plentiful and paid well. He thought at one time of taking the test to become a state trooper, which only struck me as odd that he was spending all of his nights inside Blaise’s casita.
One evening I returned inside to find the living room packed with people and Blaise in his bedroom with the door shut. It took several tries on my part to get him to flip the lock. He let me in, re-locked the door and returned to his bed with his arm thrown across his face. The sliding glass doors that faced the beach were curtain-less and wide open, in contrast to the cave of the main room, everything in here was bathed in a silver light from the beach.
“That Indian wants you,” Blaise said, his voice muffled by his arm.
“What are you talking about?” I knew what he meant, but it was so unlike Blaise to ever get this personal, I really wasn’t sure what he expected me to say. I ignored his slam about Christopher’s Seminole heritage, only because I was caught up in the idea that he was jealous.
“He waits for you. Every night. He waits until you get up and he follows you outside.”
“Has he touched you?”
“No.” The fact that anyone would physically desire me was still a new concept. I was slim-hipped and nearly flat-chested, easily going without a bra. If my hair had been shorter I could have passed for a boy, especially from the back. I remember I turned to look at Blaise and was surprised to see him staring at me in the dark. I crawled onto the bed, nearly faint with fear. I didn’t want to be rejected by him, but I was more scared of something else, I just couldn’t name it.
He held out his arm and I curled against the length of him, my face pressed into his shirt. I could feel his heart, or maybe it was my own. My mouth was dry and I couldn’t speak and I remember never feeling more like a child in that moment, more aware of what I hadn’t done yet. When Blaise finally kissed me there was an urgency to touch skin to skin, but nothing else. His brain seemed to want it more than his body and although we managed to make an attempt at pleasing each other, something was missing. Several times he stopped and asked if I thought Christopher would touch me like he was touching me, if Christopher would kiss my ear, my neck, the base of my throat and I didn’t know what to say in response. He was at his most passionate when he wasn’t looking at me, when our positions shifted and we came face to face with our eyes wide open, he looked shocked to see that he was in bed with me.
After that night we avoided each other until Blaise stopped coming to class and eventually school all together. At graduation I waited to hear his name, seven letters of the alphabet in front of me, but was not surprised that he wasn’t there to receive his diploma.
I left for art school in Atlanta. It was a program recommended by my teacher and so I went without a second thought. The dormitory housing was full and I was placed in a high-rise apartment off of Peachtree Street in the heart of the city. Nothing was as I expected. There was a payphone outside the building and I made my weekly collect call home where I said nothing of any consequence because I only called to hear my mother’s voice, and I clung to her recitation of the normalcy of her days as if I never left.
At the end of October, a few days before Halloween, a manila envelope arrived from home. I opened it expecting one of my mother’s goofy packages of newspaper clippings of people I didn’t care about, random photos she’d run across, coupons for things I would never buy. Instead inside there was another envelope addressed to me at my home address.
The envelope had been taped shut with band-aids and I lifted each of them slowly and carefully to avoid the sting as if I was peeling them from tender flesh. I reached inside and slid out a page torn from a sketchbook. The paper felt brittle in my hands and I hesitated to turn it over. When I did I revealed a carefully rendered drawing in fine black ink. I recognized Blaise’s bed and me, curled into the corner, my head on a pillow. I was sleeping on my side with my hand beneath my cheek, the sheets and blankets gathered like the tight fists of roses right before they flower, down around my feet. My knees were bent against my torso, so that hardly any of my body was exposed, just a slight curve of hip and the swell of buttocks, nothing more, just a whisper of what was to come.
What started out as a lovely family tale morphed into a story of disassociation to a new life and then into the story of a child’s introduction to hatred and terror.
Phew. I’m exhausted riding through it.
Irene, I had the same experience reading your last lovely piece. Thanks so much!
’scuse me. I kind of feel the need to go surfing now. Back later.
hmmmm…… you can’t ever separate the boy from the board!
This is a dense and vivid journey. Nicely done.
As a child I always feared the moment I would forget to shuffle my feet and plant my foot squarely on top of a stingray hidden under the murky surface of the water. Luckily it never happened. Well, not yet, anyway.
Keep shuffling…. that’s my motto anyway. Works for most everything. Thanks so much for the compliments, Richard
God, how creepy.
But what lovely writing Robin! I could almost smell the salt from the ocean and the smoke from the bonfire.
What happened next??
What happened next? I fell in love with another sensitive soul who stayed up with me all that night…..
A professor once told me that good writers
and the touch you put on things
is magic here,
where have you been?
ps. the Klan winds through my childhood as well
but I cant find the words to write about it
My God…thanks. I am humbled by the compliments. When I began this piece I thought I wanted my “Klan” experience to start it off – only to find the entire thing flipped around in the telling. You might find a way to tell your story yet. A wise teacher once said to me when I was stuck that I should think about…”going in the back door.” Have you?
Wow, good piece!
Like Irene, this one caught me by surprise. It started in one place, then ended up in another.
Sort of like childhood, I guess.
Simon – you are so right I hadn’t thought of childhood that way until I read your comment!!! I love TNB people!
You have a great way of letting what was then a new landscape help tell this story of strangeness and change. Beautiful, restrained portraiture. The cutting of a shark’s jaw sticks in my head. And the emergence of hillbilly hatred from the woods…it reminds me of a story my dad told me.
When I was very young, my parents — hippies fresh from Rhode Island in their red VW microbus — moved us to southwest Missouri in service of my dad’s quest to wash his hands of society to what degree he could. The Ozarks were beautiful. Some things about the Ozarks were not. He described to me an early meeting with a realtor/land guy who, upon their first appointment, met them not at a prospective piece of land, but a black graveyard.
“See that?” the man said to my mystified parents, pointing at the headstones. “That’s why we don’t have a nigger problem in this county.”
Your anecdote leaves me speechless. Have you ever told that story?
Only here, on this comment thread. And to a few friends.
(Comments wont nest below this level)
Your writing about Florida really knocked me back to my childhood: slopping through low-tide mud to hunt for urchins and horseshoe crabs, swimming past the sand bar, bonfire and boys with long hair. I was a teen in the 90s, but I guess the experience never changes.
I, luckily, never had any experience with the Klan, but racism was definitely alive and well in Florida back then too. And, I fear, sadly still is.
When writing this, I was never quite sure if a place that held such a strong and lasting impact on my memory would translate on paper… I’m glad it resonated with you. Writing about childhood can be unsettling when you layer in adult perceptions….
Haunting, and beautifully told.
I agree with Susan. Haunting (they look like ghosts, after all) and beautifully told.
Greg and Susan… thanks so much….
Florida’s such an anomaly. It’s a southern state, but it’s easy to forget that amidst the flea markets of Boca and the parties of Miami. You shine a lense on a very different Florida. And you do it so damn well.
You’re so right about that! Florida is indeed an anomaly…. one forgets that it is much more than the birthplace of Mickey Mouse! Going back to that town, which I did this summer for the first time in nearly fifteen years, was still unsettling. Although not sure if it was just me trying to reconcile past and present, or there was something else at work. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece – thanks!
Very well described, Robin, as others have said, and I love the conclusion, which to me is reminiscent of the final fadeout of a European art film from the 1960s, though it’s hard to explain why. I think, for example, of the girl vainly waving to Mastroianni on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita. Or maybe it’s simply sufficient to use the word “haunting” and leave it at that.