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.