Trudi Jenkins was my best friend that summer, as she had been since she moved into the house next door four years earlier. We were both thirteen that summer, both had older brothers, and both of our mothers were divorced. It was our first summer without daytime adult supervision, a fact we both relished.
I got up at about 11 that day and put on what I wore every day: Levi’s, tank top, Dr. Scholl’s. I had Grape-Nuts for breakfast, which I started to eat in the kitchen, but then carried into the living room, moving away from my brother Jim. He was shouting at me, something about me being stupid and how I’d ruined his life again. “Why would you tell her that? You little idiot! You and your stupid 12-year old friends just don’t know when to shut up. Now, Mom’s not going to sign for my license!”
I didn’t bother to correct him about my age, but quietly ate, counting the minutes before he’d be gone. Jim was dressed for work, waiting for a ride to his shift at the gas station. Soon enough we heard the blare of a horn in the driveway and he ran out.
I sat on the old blue couch chewing my Grape-Nuts, waiting to make sure Jim wouldn’t be back for some reason. Once I was sure I was safe, I set my cereal bowl on the coffee table and moved quietly into his room, stepping over dirty clothes, shoes, empty TV dinner trays. He slept on a mattress on the floor, and it was hard to tell where the piles of stuff ended and where the unmade bed started.
Jim’s record player sat on one-half of the top of his tall dresser. The last disc he’d played was still on the turntable: Jethro Tull. I set the record carefully on top of whatever pocket debris was covering the other half of Jim’s dresser and then browsed through his small record collection in the milk crate on the floor: Kiss, Bad Company, Wings, Aerosmith, Montrose.
I settled on Aerosmith. Before dropping the needle, I took a moment to carefully study my surroundings. Nothing could be out of place when Jim returned. He accused me daily of stealing things from his room – change from his change pile, which was true, but I always denied it; pot from his bottom drawer stash, which was not true, but I liked that he thought so.
Satisfied that I had memorized the order of Jim’s things, I set the needle down and cranked the volume up for track three on side one and track one on side two, over and over. I went back and forth between the songs, or sometimes played the same song several times before flipping the record.
I learned later that Trudi had called on the phone while I was rocking out. She had called six times, she said, letting it ring a dozen times on each call before I finally picked up. But, I had been deep in my loud fantasy, onstage with Steven Tyler at my side, in a duet that would be my rocket to early fame.
Secure on my path to young stardom, I had shut the record player off and returned Jethro Tull. But I hesitated as I set the record down. Which side was facing up when I removed it? I must have picked it up and set it down just as it was, right? But maybe I had spun it in my hands, recklessly flipping it just to spite Jim. Standing there, paralyzed, for the first time, I heard the phone ring and bolted toward the sound.
Our phone was tethered to a wall in the dining room, roughly the center of the house, by a thick, black, 50-foot cord. From there, the phone could reach any room in the house and when it rang, rather than run toward it and risk missing the call, my brother and I would grab the nearest section of cord and drag the phone to us.
I sat on the living room floor, having pulled the phone to me, while Trudi complained about how hard I’d been to reach. She was loud, but trying to be quiet, as she insisted that I get to her house immediately. Her brother had a girl in his room, a runaway, who’d spent the night there. I had to come RIGHT NOW.
The front door was open when I reached the top of the Jenkins’ steps. Trudi sat on the couch in the corner of the living room, smoking a cigarette. “What are you doing?” I almost shouted, shocked to see her smoking inside the house. We both smoked occasionally, but secretly and never in the morning.
“If he can have a runaway in his room, I can smoke in here. He can’t exactly tell my mom, now can he?”
I joined her on the couch. “But, won’t she smell it when she comes home?”
“Naw, I’ve had the door open the whole time. Besides, I’ll just say he did it. Seriously, he has a runaway in there and he can’t talk any shit about me now.” She kept her voice low.
Trudi explained that Tony, who’d been out late with two of the Collins brothers, had come to her room in the middle of the night to tell her about the girl. He made her promise not to tell their mom under threat of exposing her smoking.
I asked who the girl was, why she’d run away, where she was from. Trudi didn’t really know much. She could only say that the girl was somehow connected to the Collins brothers, and that ever since Tony had started hanging out with them he’d been acting like a bitch. Her use of the word bitch to describe boys always confused me, but I tried to stay focused on the strange girl in Tony’s room.
I was about to try my questions from another angle, when we heard Tony’s door open in the hallway off the living room. He moved slowly across the deep gold carpet, barefoot, wearing only cutoff Levi’s and grinning. He stood for a minute in the doorway with his chest high and his shoulders back, his long curly hair wild around his blushing face. Finally he asked, “What are you two looking at?”
Trudi took a long drag from her cigarette and then blew a series of perfect smoke rings straight at Tony. He was standing several feet away so none of them reached him, but her point was made. She now smoked in the house without consequence. Finally, she demanded, “What about Carol?”
Tony replied quickly, “What about her? We broke up.”
I stifled a gasp. Carol was Tony’s serious girlfriend, off and on since seventh grade. They were both fifteen now. That summer, Trudi and I were determined to answer one question: were Tony and Carol doing it? My mind raced: Would they break up if they were doing it? It seemed more likely that they would break up if they were not. Trudi and I would have to discuss this.
Trudi was playing things very cool now. Nodding toward the hallway, she asked, “What’s her name?”
“Becky,” Tony answered, still grinning. He ran his hands up and down his bare chest and stomach. He stretched his arms and yawned. For the first time, I noticed his soft mustache. When had that happened?
“So, you and Becky did it?” Trudi came right out and asked.
“Yeah,” Tony said, still smiling. “She was all over me. What was I supposed to do, say no?”
Trudi and I sat quietly, watching, as Tony walked to the table in front of us, picked up Trudi’s pack of Marlboros and shook one out without asking. I was losing track of all the rules being broken.
Tony struck a match that flared and then burned softly, all of us watching, before he brought it to the tip of his cigarette. He puffed a few times, getting the cigarette lit, then shook the match out and tossed it into the ashtray Trudi had brought in from the patio. Tony held the cigarette between his teeth, and speaking through the smoke that curled off the end, he said, “Funny thing is, she’s not really a good lay.”
As his words echoed through my head, I felt my stomach turn. I feared my face had gone white, and I was grateful to be sitting so my knees wouldn’t buckle. Tony’s words moved into place, dislodging all previous understandings of sex. Did I need skill for sex?
“What the hell does that mean?” Trudi, asked. Her directness impressed me again.
Tony, whose smirk had never left his mouth, took a deep draw, let the smoke slowly out, and said, “She just laid there. Kinda like a dead fish.”
Tony didn’t stick around long once he was up. He showered and was out the door at the sound of Tommy Collins’ horn on the street. Trudi and I were left “in charge,” Tony said, of Becky, should she wake up.
Becky did wake up, and made her way to the living room in search of a cigarette. She was younger than I had expected – not much older than me. And although we were close in age, she was clearly different than Trudi and me. Becky’s hair was short and cut in a sort of shag; Trudi and I wore our hair long and plain. Becky wore belled hip huggers, a partially-buttoned blouse, with puffed sleeves and a stand up ruffled collar; Trudi and I wore 501s and T-shirts or tank tops. Becky wore white sandals with noticeable heels. Her shoes were badly worn and dirty, but had been fashionable. Trudi and I alternated between our Dr. Scholl’s and Adidas. Becky’s eye makeup from the previous night was obvious; our faces were always bare.
Becky was friendly, breezy: she asked our names, ages, interests. She wanted to know if we both smoked, and if so, what brand (did she not notice that she was smoking a Marlboro?); what kind of music we liked, and if we had boyfriends. I couldn’t politely interrupt with my own questions: where are you from, why did you run away, how long will you be here, where will you go next, did you want to have sex with Tony, what’s sex like, do you think you’re good at sex, can you tell when you’re bad at sex?
After her cigarette, which she smoked comfortably inside a stranger’s living room, she said she wanted to take a shower. Trudi got up to show Becky to the bathroom and find her a fresh towel.
That night, the three of us walked down to 35th and MacArthur, Trudi, Becky and I. Trudi thought this would impress Becky: the fact that we could walk after dark to a major intersection, complete with liquor stores, fast food and bars. We’d only managed to pull it off once before and followed the same plan this time. I asked if I could go to Trudi’s to watch TV, without telling my mom that Trudi’s mom would be out. Then, at about 9, leaving the TV on to provide sound and a telling blue glow through the windows, we snuck out through a side basement door and headed down the street. Once we were a few houses away, we doubled back through backyards and behind bushes to avoid my mother’s view through our big front window.
We walked on side streets, smoking openly, down Norton and then cutting over to Midvale. I did my best to be cool, like we did this all the time. But, our walking was urgent, like we had to hurry to the neon lights or we’d miss something. We walked in long strides, and my heels sometimes came down hard on the back edge of my Dr. Scholl’s. I didn’t slow down or say a word about it. I marveled at how fast Becky walked in her dressy shoes.
In front of the liquor store, Trudi and I wanted to sit on the bus bench. This is where we’d come during the day to see who might drive by, and it felt like the right thing to do at night. Becky wanted to walk around. She was waving to guys in cars and some of them were slowing down. I regretted sneaking off and wished we were home watching Mary Hartman Mary Hartman.
Eventually, a car full of older boys pulled over and Becky approached, leaning in through the window. One of the guys got out and talked to her on the sidewalk for a while. She turned to us and asked if we wanted to go get high. Trudi was doing a better job of being cool than I was, but I could tell she didn’t want to go with the guys. When we said no, Becky came over. “What’s wrong? I thought you guys said you get high?” She was annoyed, but smiling.
“Not with those guys. Do you know them?” Trudi sounded confident, but I could see her foot moving nervously.
Becky brushed off the question, “I know I want to get high. Wait here if you don’t want to come.” Becky and the guy headed around the corner on foot; the car took off up 35th Avenue.
Trudi and I sat on the bus bench, smoking. We talked about what we should do, what would happen if Becky didn’t come back, how long we should wait. Across the street, the lights came on at Donut Time, meaning the donuts were ready. Without a word we headed over.
On our way back to the bench, we ventured down MacArthur in the direction Becky had gone. We passed Glenn’s Burgers, and looked down the driveway to the back parking lot. We didn’t see Becky or the car the guy had been in. We didn’t dare go further down MacArthur.
Back on the bench, we ate our donuts.
“We should go somewhere,” Trudi declared.
“Anywhere. We should get on the next bus that comes. How much money do you have? We should go to the City.”
“I probably have about two dollars left. How much is the transbay fare?”
I liked the idea of going to San Francisco, but wondered what we’d do once we got there.
I slipped my sandals off, letting them drop under the bench and swung my bare feet. Soon, a bus pulled up. It was a 57, which might get us to the terminal downtown for a bus to San Francisco, but we weren’t really sure. The bus was pretty full, with groups of loud, young men. The doors closed and the bus pulled away. We sat without talking and finished our donuts.
I was back on Trudi’s porch the next day before noon. After knocking on the Jenkins’ unpainted wooden door, I waited for Trudi to call me in. We had stayed as long as we could on the bench the night before, but I got nervous about my mother discovering my absence. We had made our way slowly up the hill, walking backward much of the way, keeping our eyes on the bench until we had to turn onto Arizona Street. At the bottom of my driveway, Trudi said she’d let Tony know what happened. Hopefully, Becky would get a ride safely back to the Jenkins’ house.
The morning had been foggy and the overcast was just starting to burn off. The neighborhood looked flat. From the height of the Jenkins’ porch, I took in the vacant lot directly across the street: a patch of ground with overgrown bushes and a couple of trees.
Trudi and I had agreed to reconvene first thing in the morning to figure out what to do next. I had started calling at 9, when I woke up, but Trudi didn’t answer until almost 11. I surveyed the neatly trimmed, square lawns at the Robert’s house and the Wong’s house, and the low, box hedges along the front of Mrs. Peterson’s lawn. The houses were nearly identical on that side of the street: single-story stucco bungalows. When Trudi finally opened the door, she turned away without a word. I followed her into the kitchen, where she poured herself a glass of juice and we slid into chairs at the yellow Formica table.
“So, is Tony home?”
“No, he went to Berryessa for the day with Tommy Collins and Mike Ratto.”
“Who else went?
“I don’t know. How would I know? Why?”
“I just wondered if Becky was here or with them.”
“She’s not here and I don’t think she’s with them.”
Trudi and I spent the day playing cards and smoking cigarettes in her backyard. When Tony came home, he didn’t have much to say about Becky. He was full of stories about some girls from Vallejo they’d met at Lake Berryessa. The girls had worn bikinis without cutoffs and one of them, a girl named Kendra, had blown pot smoke into Tony’s mouth. Trudi and I eventually pieced together that Becky had shown up at the Collins’ house the night before, but where she went from there was unclear. We never saw her again.