Honorable mention: “Life at the Edge.” photo by Bill Akstens “Girls in Fall.” story by Liz Lydic
A sensible decision with unfortunate consequences
by Liz Lydic
Of course, you don’t get it at the time. When you’re young and something happens where you live, it feels far away from you. It’s a lifetime before you recognize the thread from this to that, that one thing made the other. When you’re young, you think you know what could happen in your town. You know what isn’t supposed to happen.
For a month, everything was better about Mira Costa. We could walk across the street and be in Hermosa. Our parents were relieved we were further from the preschool. Some of the public school kids were nice. It was great, and we knew it at the time, until Homecoming weekend 1987, when, of course, everything changed.
A passenger in a Volkswagen van on Artesia rolled down his window and stuck his tongue out between his fingers arranged in a gesture we knew was inappropriate but didn’t yet know why.
“Holy cow, that’s Dan Fieldman,” I yelled, and we all ran. The van, probably driven by Dan’s older brother, accelerated, leaving behind blasts of a struggling muffler and the chorus of ‘Shakedown’. A breeze heated instead of cooled us. Hot air scooped up dirt and bits and signified something coming; the Santa Ana winds. The winds defined October, and the time of the Parish Fair at American Martyrs, where, just four months ago we’d finished eighth grade.
Converses slapping the sidewalk. We ducked behind the main building of Community Baptist Church, Cori barrelling into Alison. That would not have been a problem last year. Last year, Alison would have laughed and caught Cori and their thin arms would have flailed happily, limb over limb, plastic bracelets clanking together. Now, though, Alison stepped backward, and Cori stumbled.
“Watch out, turd,” said Alison, and she shook her hair out of her face, looking older. Cori laughed loudly, and we all inhaled heavily to catch our breath. Our walk continued, aimless, heading west.
Finally, I brought it up. I was always most willing to be vulnerable, perhaps, so long as I bookended my worry with humor, untightening any tension I had created. I’d do this for the rest of my life: cool off my insecurity with goofing. From this I’d make friends, be liked, and get into trouble. I’d never find a good balance.
“You guys know about Dan, right? He’s getting pulled from school? For the whatchamacallit trial, the court stuff.” I knew the details, we all did, but being casual kept us separate from it.
We hadn’t been together like this since the last week of summer, when we’d rode bikes to Penguins. We ate frozen yogurt hard and fast, licking spoons and playing just the tiniest bit at provocation. Our brains froze. We screamed. Cori didn’t finish hers, so Brianne and I took the uneaten part and before dumping it in the outdoor plants, tried to give it to a pimple-faced boy on a skateboard, delighted by his discomfort from our attention.
Brianne spoke without answering me directly. “What if we, like, went to the house where Dan said they took him once?”
“Ew, no, I don’t want to get molested.”
“Oh god, Cori. ‘Ew, I don’t want to get molested.’” She used a nagging mocking voice. It would be two years before Brianne’s brother would go to jail for drugs, an event that rocked her family. In hindsight, the boiling of her home life was evident in her increasingly aggressive behavior with us that fall, then later with other classmates. “Whatever,” Cori said, “Everyone knows he wasn’t telling the truth, he was just a baby then.”
Between child and adult age, you try to balance your intuition with what you hear at home.
A man walking his Spuds MacKenzie-looking dog in the opposite direction stepped off the curb to pass us. Brianne intercepted him. “Excuse me, sir? This is my friend Cori, and she doesn’t believe the children.”
“Shut up!” Cori went toward Brianne but didn’t touch her.
The man shook his head and kept walking.
“Where are we going, anyway?” I asked. “I thought we were taking the tracks to the mall?”
Brianne whirled around. “Oh god, Jennifer. Think about it. We’re too far. We’re not by the mall like before.”
Embarrassed, I tried to be light. “Good, no Hobo Bridge.”
“Let’s go to Vanderlip Mansion.” Of course, it was Alison’s idea. Those words, like everything she said, created a spark in the air around her. She was magnetic, could shine a light and give an electric shock. Boys wanted her. Girls did dramatic things — got involved with her hobbies, agreed to her crazy ideas, dressed like her — hoping to be drawn into her circle at least momentarily before being dismissed.
I pulled up my Jansport from where it was falling off my shoulder. Cori rubbed her tongue along her braces under closed lips.
“Hell yes,” said Brianne, her mouth wider than usual when she lunged toward me. “Glowing dog eyes!” She scared me, and I took a step back.
“That’s so moronic. We can’t even get all the way down there,” I said, picturing the Peninsula.
“You’re lame like your mom. She owes my mom, like, two hundred dollars from Mary Kay and probably can’t afford it since, no offense, she’s not married anymore.” My mom didn’t know that Deb had called several times looking for the money. I’d planned to save babysitting cash to give Deb myself. Brianne’s eyebrow was cocked. It looked like she had started plucking, but I don’t remember her mentioning that. I looked over at Alison, whose eyebrows were identical.
“That’s not Jennifer’s fault, and besides the dog eyes stuff is just, like, rumors,” Cori said, and I was grateful. It felt like this would pass quickly, like the old days. Instead, Alison pulled Brianne with one hand and stuck out her thumb with the other. A ring glistened in the sun.
Cars heading west toward PCH whizzed past. One slowed down, and the older woman driver glared at us, then drove on.
“I can’t hitchhike,” Cori whispered.
“I know,” I whispered back. “Come on, you guys. This is ridiculous. Let’s just go to the mall.”
Alison and Brianne swayed their hips as they walked. A Ford Taurus slowed down, and Alison ducked into the passenger side window to speak to the driver. I grabbed her by her arm, but she shrugged me off.
“Sorry, she’s wrong, we’re wrong,” I spoke at the car without looking in. “We don’t need a ride. We aren’t supposed to.”
“Time to grow up!” yelled Alison, over the familiar sounds of car handles clicking open. Brianne folded herself into the backseat. Strands of their brown hair flew out of the open windows.
Cori shrugged, and stepped toward the car. At the same moment, Alison threw her head back at something funny the driver said. Later in life it made sense that Cori got in. The next year, as sophomores, she’d cycle from her ugly duckling-genius student reputation to ‘easy’, eager to say yes to practically anything. I came to think of her as a person in two parts: a sophisticated brain that operated separately from an untamed body, until finally, as an adult, the two met in the middle. She eventually became a Deputy District Attorney for San Diego county.
Cori was pressing into Brianne in the backseat to indicate that she was to scootch over and make room for me.
But I wouldn’t go with them. I’d stay paralyzed and young on a sidewalk in the town I’d idolized my whole life. On the other side of PCH, the world dipped down and spilled out to the beach. You couldn’t see the ocean from this part of Artesia, and sometimes, I’d forget it was there. On a clear day, life here literally sparkled, the mirage haze making my eyes water.
Behind me was North, and what I knew best: the close-knit homes of this suburban heaven, foundations on rolling dune hills, hugged close together to keep us in, tucked and tight.
I would never know where the girls went that night, nor how they got home. My mom – whom I told about the hitchhiking, said she didn’t know what Deb was up to, but at least her own daughter had made a good choice. And I’d feel settled for that moment, since I rarely heard about doing anything good. But that feeling would fade through the weekend, and by Monday, once I saw the girls back at school, knowing nothing bad had happened, I’d be embarrassed by that good choice.
That good choice meant I’d never understand any of it, whether there really were boogeymen, or just parents who lied; if I should live in good choices or bold choices; if I should be wary of the world, or dive into it. What did any of it matter, if, when Monday came, the friends I’d spent my whole life with would act like they’d never known me at all? ER