Florida Days: the teen years

Driving from the airport

to a new winter retreat –

a 20 story high-rise in Pompano Beach –

it’s clear things aren’t as they have been.

Gone are the Mid-Century neighborhoods

with small, tidy bungalows

and pastel-colored apartment complexes.

Gone are the small, neat streets

crammed with big, American cars

and the quiet, inland canals

with their 90 degree curves.

Modern high-rises now loom along the coast,

casting long shadows over these old ghosts.

Smothered by “The Strip”,

a popular stretch of beach –

and the only way to their new place,-

Nonna and Papa are forced to face

nubile, bikini-clad, beer drinking youth

balanced precariously between child and adult

unkempt,

half-naked –

all god-forsaken.

But Gina and I crave this uncharted world,

which we’re slowly cruising past

in the back seat of a tightly sealed Cadillac,

filled with the sounds of Perry Como

and the smell of Jean Nate.

The closer we get to Nonnie and Papa’s,

the older the demographics begin to slant,

until beers and bikinis are soon replaced

by beer bellies and Platex bras.

The upside to the new zip code

is a bigger abode –

and a separate door to the outside world –

or at least to a corridor,

and an unused stairwell.

To Marlboro Lights

and poorly rolled joints,

and late night escapades with girls from New York.

Gone are our grandparents’ halcyon days

of minding their ways.

These are the carefree days of youth.

Of baby oil and B-52s.

Getting stoned in the sauna.

Drinking beers on the beach.

Somehow convincing Nonnie

to hand us the keys.

Of cranking up the radio

and rolling down the windows

to inhale the salty air

and the sweet smell

of being newly licensed.

Of boys on the beach noticing us

and Nonnie –

from high above –

noticing them, noticing us.

These are the Florida days

of pushing boundaries,

especially ones so poorly guarded.

Well past our very strict curfew.

Nonna is waiting and bleak.

She’s worked herself into such a state,

she’s lifted off her bunioned feet.

She cross-examines,

reprimands,

and threatens to send us home;

then leads us in to Papa

in the unlit living room,

Leaden and pacing.

My heart is breaking.

When all is said –

which isn’t much –

he turns his back

and sends us to bed.

The first thing we see in the morning

taped prominently to the fridge

is a newspaper clip with a giant headline,

“Girls Found Charred on Beach”,

and Nonnie,

with her back to us.

Sighing and tsk-ing,

but not saying anything.

Until behind closed bedroom doors,

on an all-day call with her sister, Rose,

we can hear her tell of all her woes;

heralded, at times, in a pitch so high,

dogs throughout the high-rise begin to cry.

This leads to quieter Florida days,

of shorter visits

and solo stays.

Now more observer than the observed;

studying Nonnie and Papa

in their Florida world.

In their well-aged routine of marital malaise.

Wondering if I know what a happy marriage is?

Hours of watching old ladies by the pool;

with their sun hats and cigarettes

and bad romance books;

their games of Canasta,

and over-tanned skin…

wondering if any

were ever really young?

When Papa leaves to tend to the store,

it’s hours of Gin Rummy,

and little more.

Alone with Nonnie,

playing round after round

on the windy, high-rise balcony,

sixteen floors from the ground.

Where 8-track cassettes

of Liberace and Lawrence Welk

teach me tolerance,

and the importance of a wickedly good game face.

Happy to see the rainy skies.

Happy to stay indoors

and in our nightgowns.

The condo is especially quiet.

No washing machine

or television

reminding us of other things.

Other lives.

No dinner out

or big meal in.

We barely move.

Rarely talk.

Occasionally, Nonnie disappears,

returning with something powdery and sweet

or cheesy and crusty

and hot from the oven.

Such deliciously quiet moments

of simply doing nothing.

Oh these my Florida days.

Within Close Range: Curfew

Every mile or so,

I glance to the clock.

Hoping time will stop.

Or that it’s not really five o’clock.

The final mile along the road,

I roll down the windows to air out the smell.

The woodland creatures are beginning to shift,

so once in the driveway, I turn the lights off

and roll slowly along, with the engine hushed.

Safe inside, it’s straight to the fridge.

Grabbing cold pasta, I start up to bed.

But a light from the den stops me instead.

And before I can step a tip to a toe,

Dad rumbles from the den,

strong and low.

And I have nowhere else to go.

Perched on his favorite, swivel chair,

he’s flanked by portraits of ungrateful heirs.

Grumbling at the empty driveway

and disappearing night,

he’s been swiveling there for hours

without a child in sight.

Staring at my bloodshot eyes,

he asks if I know the hour,

and things aren’t looking good

for this early morning flower.

“What could you be doing

until five in the morning?”

All at once, the truth pours forth

without a single warning.

I tell Dad how the day was spent

cooking with some friends,

then going to a drive-in

for a zombie marathon;

about the beautiful night

and the shoreline fire,

and the remarkable moonlight

as we waded in the water.

Baffled by my sudden truths,

Dad takes a moment to recompute.

“I’m just waiting for your sister.”

(as the final plot twister)

were the next

and last

words from his mouth.

Equally confounded,

I leave the scene ungrounded.

Looking from an upstairs window,

just above where Dad keeps vigil,

I see the dawn beginning to dance,

and know, poor Mia,

doesn’t stand

a

chance.

Within Close Range: Bullies

Because our home’s so far away,

I’m the first picked up by the bus each day

and the very first stop after school –

which makes every student on our route

sit forty minutes more each afternoon

and me, an unwelcome sight.

Full of hormones and hate,

those in last few rows of the long, yellow bus

moan and groan

as soon as I climb on,

making me nervously skitter to the nearest seat

where I crouch and hide and wait.

The hardcore insults come later

and louder

cloaked in the anonymity of the rumbling and motion

of our rolling prison.

Deaf to what he hears,

the bus driver just stares ahead

and goes where he’s told.

United by the same neighborhood,

in the opposite direction,

they snarl and nip at the back of my neck –

piercing my thin skin.

It’s us versus them,

in every nasty word.

But the “them” they think I am

is absolutely absurd.

When their rabid, backseat words

have more than their usual bite,

I step from the bus

and race to the woods,

searching for a way to shake the hurt

in the thick, dim patches of unpeopled forest.

I disappear among the ember-colored leaves

which cap the many trees of Shoreacres

before the heavy freeze

steals the color from the land.

And there, I simply am.

Where I step to the sound of my breathing,

the movement of the clouds,

and to the busy hush of forest life about,

reminding me to go about my own;

and to heal my wounds

with the comforts of home.

Within Close Range: Clogs

Lake Forest High School’s West Campus

is a giant, brick and cinder block monstrosity,

designed with all the charm and comforts

of a state penitentiary.

Sterile,

uninviting,

uninspiring,

practically windowless, colorless,

and completely humorless.

Its warden roams the cinder block dungeons

in his plaid polyester sports coat,

smelling of cigarettes and body odor;

wielding his insignificant power

with more brawn than brain.

I’ve done everything I can to steer clear.

But best laid plans…

Still mocking an outdated documentary

on health, hygiene, and the hazards of smoking;

featuring mildly graphic surgery footage,

phony teens in dungarees,

and from a hole cut in his larynx,

a smiling man blowing smoke rings,

I start down the stairs to my next class

but never see past the very first step

because the clog on my right foot has chosen to go ahead –

getting only as far as the arch, instead –

landing my half-clogged foot on the step’s metal edge.

I plunge toward a stair-ful of surprised friends

and new enemies.

Twisting and hurtling through the innocent

and unsuspecting.

Coming down hard on my back.

With the grim, fluorescent lighting above

and the cold, cement floor below,

I am returned to the moment by the moans

of the stunned and wounded getting to their feet.

I attempt to do the same,

but am gently pushed back to the cold concrete.

“You can’t move.”

“I’m fine,” I sigh in response,

attempting to sit up again.

“No,” says our teacher,

as she pushes me back to the ground

(a little more firmly this time).

“I mean, I can’t let you move until the principal gets here.”

“I’M FINE!” explodes off the cinder block walls.

Faces grimace.

The class is soon sent on their way,

while like a one-shoed idiot, there I lay…

waiting…

imagining how the news of my nose dive

is already spreading.

Sprinting unnecessarily up the flight of stairs;

a figure is soon looming over me on the landing –

an oppressive cloud of Aqua Velva and brown plaid.

And now I’m truly wishing I was dead.

Finally ensuring my captors

There’ll be no need for an ambulance,

to lawyer up

– or even help up –

and hobble away,

bruised and humiliated.

Less than two weeks later,

fate becomes a hater –

as I tumble down another set of steps.

People are beginning to wonder.

Including the school nurse,

who meets me at the office door,

shaking her head.

Scrutinizing my footwear.

She hates clogs.

Thinks they should all be put in a big pile

and burned.

Just wait til she catches sight of my new Dr. Scholl’s.

Within Close Range: short stories of an American childhood – Annie, Annie, are you all right?

Everyone is anxious to be outside when spring comes to the Midwest.

And even though patches of mud-colored snow and ice still mar the school grounds, all I can see is sun and green because I’m sporting a new pair of white, Calvin Klein jeans, and red leather, Dr. Scholl’s sandals.

Making half-hearted attempts to throw a Frisbee to each other during lunch break, Jean, Megan and I are just happy to be breathing fresh air daily denied us in the newly constructed prison we call high school.

This semester, we’re in health class together being taught the basics of CPR. To help us, we have “Annie”, a training manikin in a spiffy red track suit, who inspires far more sexual asides than careers in the health care industry.

The first thing we’re taught when approaching the polyester-clad casualty is to ask:

“Annie, Annie, are you all right?”, while gentle shaking her shoulders; and if this fails to get the proper response – which it inevitably did – then it was time for cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

I think.

I haven’t really been paying attention.

None of us have.

So things don’t bode well when chasing the disk in my new, wooden, single-strap, Dr. School’s sandals, they hydroplane on the slippery, spring surface, sending me skimming across the old ice and new grass, into a cold, muddy puddle.

Slamming me hard against the half-frozen earth.

Searching for the wind knocked out of me, I bolt upright to see Jean and Megan racing my way. First to my arrive, Megan kneels by my side, and shaking me vigorously, asks:

“Annie, Annie, are you all right?!”

Then falls into a fit of laughter.

Jean isn’t laughing.

Grabbing me from behind with the strength of an Amazon, she lifts me off the ground and thrusts with all her might at my abdomen.

I don’t know whether to laugh, vomit, or pass out, but manage to signal, “That’s NOT it!”

and for Jean to release her hold.

Exhausted and humiliated, I slip to the ground – grateful to be alive but wishing I was dead.

Arm in arm, in the full day’s sun, we walk across the sparse spring lawn, revealing my grassy, mud-stained ass and “big girl” undies – now exposed – thanks to that lethal combination of white pants and puddles.

When Mrs. Waldeck, the School nurse, looks up from her desk,

it’s hard to tell whether her expression is anger, aggravation, or pity.

It certainly isn’t surprise.

Mumbling something about pinochle as a proper past time and a big bonfire for burning all clogs and sandals, she leads me to the back room where I can wash up; then offers the unsatisfactory suggestion that I slip on my gym shorts for the remainder of the day.

My face says it all, so she hands me the phone and suggests I call home.

Mom, as is the norm, is nowhere to be found.

Apparently, the day’s humiliation is far from over.

And this Annie is feeling anything but all right.

Within Close Range: The Devil at Lake Forest Cemetery

There’s a grave in the corner of the Potter’s Field at Lake Forest Cemetery.
Rumors tell of devils and demons,
of curses and misfortune;
of strange things happening to graveside visitors.
But I’m curious.
And bored.
Finding two equally bored cohorts, we head out in my convertible.
Autumn whipping our hair.
The heater blasting on our legs as we wind along Sheridan Road,
beneath the red, yellow, orange and brown leaves
silently floating to the ground on the fishy lake breeze;
shrouding the lawns, the sidewalks, the forests, and the last season,
in moist, earthy layers.
Entering the cemetery beneath its great, grey gateway,
we haven’t a clue as to which way to go;
only away from the grand mausoleums and stone angels
that mark the graves of the rich and powerful.
We find the unmarked field down a short, dead-end lane
already twice passed.
A small, unkempt and inconspicuous patch.
No statues, flags, or flowers.
No benches or shade for mourners.
Just a sad stretch of grass, cornered by a chainlink fence,
choked with neglected vines and scraggly branches of struggling pines.
Phil and Betsy step into a small ravine separating us from the forgotten field.
Their feet, ankles and shins sink into a river of yellow and brown leaves
and I’m startled by the thought of them disappearing.
Swallowed by some, strange, autumnal underworld.
Eased only when both climb out on the other side.
Wandering up and down the quiet plot, we find nothing but nameless headstones. Unadorned and unnoticed.
So many stories untold.
Until we happen upon a half-buried cross at the very corner of the lot
where the wealthy suburb’s poor were given their unsung plot.
Barely legible, Damien, is scratched in a crudely made crucifix,
toppled by wandering roots of the towering, lakeside trees.
Smothered by overgrown grass and thick, green moss.
Who cared enough to mark a life among the many lost?
Hovering over the grave, we tell our own tales about death, the damned and Damien,
until the daylight suddenly disappears behind a dark cloud rolling in off the lake,
silent and mountainous, like a great, grey whale.
All at once, wicked gusts of wind turn the sky to twisting, twirling, whirling leaves.
Turning our backs to its unexpected violence, we race to the car,
laughing and swearing and shivering in our meager layers.
As the last roof latch clicks into place, the sky over us turns black and wild,
shaking the convertible.
I clutch the wheel and smile at my friends.
A seasonal storm… or something more sinister?
Best to ask later.
I turn the key, but nothing happens.
After a moment of startled looks and nervous laughter, I try again.
Not a sound, except the pounding rain and my impassioned pleas.
On the third try, the engine fires up and my shaking hands quickly shift the car into gear.
Phil and Betsy urge me forward a little too loudly.
Just as the cemetery gates appear in the rear view mirror, the violent storm ends,
and the sun, as quickly as it had abandoned the scene, reappears
as we hurry away from Damien’s grave
on this strange, but strangely perfect autumn day.

Within Close Range: The Being in Basements

Some are reached by steep, wooden steps,
only at the end of which,
is a switch,
and salvation from the dark;
where cold, cement floors sting bare feet
and we search for cousins playing hide and seek
beneath an old, pine table,
and in cupboards stuffed with moth balls and old lives.

Down other stairs, parents send rapidly sprouting offshoots
(and their weedy accomplices)
to remain mostly out of sight, sound and smell.
New worlds explored in sunless rooms of cinderblock;
where mismatched 13-year-olds kiss, and later tell,
and budding musicians, mid black lights and bong hits,
learn to shake and rattle the house;
while in the dark and in a lawn chair, I learn to hang out.

Some sunken spaces are like snapshots
kept on a shelf in an old shoebox.
Still lives of vinyl bars and swivel stools
and down-turned glasses on dusty shelves, long unused.
Moth-eaten scenes of what might have been.
A gathering place for friends and kin
where woes of the week were drowned deep in cocktails
and lost in card games – or a top twenty song – to which most sang along,
as the stereo spun its new-fangled, stereophonic sound.
Curious but comfortless, being long-deserted and people-less.
Apart from the ghosts in the room.

My favorite sunken places are worn, but happy spaces
in which my favorite female faces
grow leaps and bounds beside me,
unconstrained and nearly unimpeded by upstairs edicts.
Sharing cigarettes, dance moves, inside jokes
and cases of beer bought just over the border;
making evenings fuzzy, and hangovers a new, underworld reality.
Playing pool, the juke box, the fool;
while trying to play it cool
when faced with firsts and friends far more in the know
about nearly everything that happens down below.

Within Close Range: Midnight Swim

The house is quiet.
All are sleeping.
I strip down to nothing
and dive into the dark of the deep-end,
where unabashed, unheard and unseen,
I howl.
For as long as my breath will hold.
Unleashing my teenage discontent and crippling self-doubt.
I howl out the sadness.
I howl out the funk.
I howl until it hurts.
Then I float.
Facing the night sky
and the barely discernible stars
with my rather dysfunctional eyes.
There’s peace in the blur and the sound of my breath
and the occasional call of a neighboring owl
hidden somewhere in the silhouettes
of the tall trees surrounding me.
Shivering, I climb from the water
and into my bed.
The smell of chlorine drifting me into watery dreams.