A Side Step

Sailing Away From  Serenity


The mountain of clothes wasn’t going to do themselves, but the thought of gathering them all into a basket and lugging it downstairs to the laundry room seem like an impossible chore. Scaling Mount Norquay would be easier, and at least I might fall and be seriously injured or maybe even die.

September is always a difficult month. I don’t know what happens around the equinox but my disposition and desperation change. The demons and vigilantes invade my head and make staying under the covers the only bearable option. Sniffing stale air and weeping into a pillow doesn’t strengthen any resistance to the power of negativity and self-medicating only opens the neural network of pity and self-righteousness.

“Get up, suck it up, and cheer up” was my mom’s voice that rattled in my head even though her funeral was in September 8 years ago. For more than a decade she exhorted me to “pull yourself out of this,” “you have no reason to feel sorry for yourself.” As always she was right. It was also an embarrassment to her that her daughter didn’t appear perfect and her friends from church and the knitting circle, and bridge group, and book club and Zumba class all knew about her disappointment.

A deep breath and a tug of the duvet and the laundry and the demons and mom’s voice were shut out. I again promised myself “tomorrow; I will jump out of bed at 6 and get all this straightened away”.

Tomorrow comes and tomorrow. I eventually stop feeling watched intently and invisible. Another cycle begins. Tick, tick, tick – knowing there will be an explosion doesn’t make the apprehension any less.

Tomorrow comes, and I reluctantly join the living. Sophie greets me at the train station “Glad you are feeling better, we missed you at the office.” She doesn’t mean to, but her red hair tussles like licorice and her freckles twinkle like pop rocks on your tongue. Her exuberance is deafening and nauseating even when I am at the top of the cycle. There are days the 40-minute ride leaves me wanting to smash her silly little head through the compartment window and toss her into the ditch. It would be a terrible way to lose my best friend, and then I wouldn’t have anyone to love.

We have a history – back to before the Septembers started, back to high school in Fallbrook. She was my first kiss, and I was her first rejection. We fought about clothes; music, boys and we shared hopes, dreams and dares when we still believed in such things. We plotted and planned our escapes and cheated together on exams and boys. There wasn’t much we didn’t tell each other, but she didn’t know the secret – still doesn’t. Mom pretended that she didn’t know it either, but pretending doesn’t make it so.

At the end of senior year I started to tell ” Soph, do you remember when you were 8 or 9?” But Jamie Douglas stepped around the corner where we were sneaking smoke and invited her to come for a ride. She invited me. Neither of us knew he had a car. It turns out he didn’t. On the way into town, there was a storage facility for the car plant, and he had helped himself to a Taurus or maybe was a Sable. That road trip was the start of the journey into dark alleys and even darker hearts. But I am ahead of myself already. That’s what happens when the depression breaks and the mania begins. I race from one adventure to another idea to the next assignment chasing completion and recognition before time winds down, and the covers beckon again.

Jamie, Sophie and I enjoyed that afternoon in May 1989 with a case of beer, a pack of cigarettes and some really bad, cold, pepperoni pizza. Four hours later and a hundred miles from home we abandoned the chariot and spent the night wondering the streets of Detroit. The morning dawned, and a Greyhound ride home waited. This adventure repeated itself a dozen times before Sophie, and I went to college and Jamie went to prison for selling coke. On all those trips he had never even mentioned blow, hadn’t used, didn’t try to get us to snort, and if it wasn’t for the wad of cash, he gave us no reason to suspect that he was involved in anything more serious than joy riding.

Deep dive on first joy ride/

Well, it wasn’t as innocent or carefree as the initial telling. Jamie did have a reputation, not with the police but every girl knew he was a player looking for notches on his belt. He apparently had 26 pelts by grade 12 and had left shattered dreams and pails of tears along the way. Amy St-Pierre shouted at him in the cafeteria over shepherd’s pie, so it must have been last October, “how could you do that to me? You didn’t even dump me; you just used me and then moved on to another. Three girls at one party, you are a big man aren’t you. A rutting pig, that’s all you are.” The room erupted, as I imagine Jamie had, with “oooh.” From the girls, it meant either “eew, gross” or “oh, I’m jealous.” From the boys, it meant “wow,”” what” or” how.” Needless to say that brand was the talk of Fallbrook and the legend of Jamie grew. So the invitation to Sophie wasn’t innocent, and her acceptance wasn’t chaste. My joining them, the first time, was just a safeguard. If someone else was there and she got cold feet (she joked a week later, “It wasn’t her feet that were hot”) she had a way out. The story was that no one had ever said “no” to him but that if they did, he was cool.

The midnight red Taurus was our first chariot but not Jamie’s first ride. It looked like something an uncle might drive, sensible and safe and ready for a family. But it said “SHO” on the trunk, and somehow that meant “bat out of hell.” We hit 90 plus on I75 just south of Flint and were over 110 mph for a stretch before all three of us admitted that we were scared. Uncle Frank would never drive over 55, so this wasn’t for him.

Paula Abdul sang ” lost in a dream;
I don’t know which way to go.
A-let me say if you are all that you seem,
Then, baby, I’m movin’ way too slow.”

“Turn it up” we yelled. And then all three sang along
” Straight up, now tell me ,
Do you really wanna love me forever,
Oh, oh, or am I caught in hit and run?
Straight up, now tell me,
Is it gonna be you and me together,
Oh, oh, oh, or are you just havin’ fun”

The radio blared Janet Jackson, Bette Midler, more Paula and Milli Vanilli before
” Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
And it feels like home

When you call my name it’s like a little prayer
I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour I can feel your power
Just like a prayer you know I’ll take you there”

Made me and then Sophie really quiet. After Madonna had finished Jamie turned the radio off, and we drove in silence for 40 minutes. I’m not in Soph’s head and too much in mine, so I don’t know what she was thinking, but I was naive enough to be lost in possibilities. It wasn’t white picket fences and fresh cut grass, but there were a crib and a dog and someone who would always call my name. So far that hasn’t happened – not for lack of trying. Married twice and in a ‘committed relationship’ twice and now in 2015, I am living alone and lonely. No dog, no crib and there is still a pile laundry.

Sophie didn’t succumb to Jamie’s advances that night. She didn’t climb into the back seat and spread her legs. Ecstasy didn’t flow from her lips, and she wasn’t the next notch. After she had said “no,” not emphatically but more sorrowfully, he asked me, and I was quick to jump to the chance and his bones” I wasn’t a virgin but no slut either. I had gone the distance in my junior year with a senior whose name has escaped me, The romp in the car was better, longer, and he was interested (by his actions) in my experience. Sophie sat looking out the front window in a trance the whole time we danced. Well, that was what she was doing when I lost track of my surroundings and what she was up to when I returned to the here and now. It was a shitty thing to do to her, and she has never mentioned it.

Two weeks later it was her turn, in the back of a boxy Ford Explorer that Jamie helped himself to. It wasn’t a competition or an act of jealousy; we just spent the next five years crossing stuff off a list almost simultaneously.


Graduation was a month away, and a couple of final exams loomed every week. I didn’t care about school but “I as sure as shit don’t want to have to come back here next year.” Sophie had been conditionally accepted at Pontiac College, but she needed to raise her GPA by more than half a point, or deferral was a distinct possibility. School came easy for me. My letter from the Dean of Admissions didn’t mention any requirements, so I wasn’t worried for myself. I could get a B by just attending most classes and listening to some of what our teachers were saying. I knew that the foolishness that they blathered on about would get ” stuck in my head and I could puke it on the test papers almost verbatim” We agreed that we would both buckle down for the month and get this over with. It wasn’t like we were part of the popular crowd and getting invitations to soirees, so any distractions were of our own creation.

History, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, and Calculus were the big five that were weighted in GPA calculations and admission criteria. Not because they were the most important or integral to further studies but because curriculum designers knew how to distinguish right answers from wrong. Even as some schools in Michigan were experimenting with more free form subjects like Art Appreciation and Dream Capturing we were still pounding out the fundamentals at Fallbrook. The structure made learning hard but studying easy. You just needed to memorize the underlined texts and duplicate them into the right blanks. Seeing ” Which of the following is (are) true?
1) f is continuous at x = -2.
2) f is differentiable at x = 1.
3) f has a local minimum at x = 0.
4) f has an absolute maximum at x = -2.” on page two was the same as the ‘practice tests’ that Mrs. Mason left stacked on a desk by the door of her classroom.

” Give a value of c that satisfies the conclusion …” meant that you needed to remember some formula or write it on your forearm. Nothing needed to be recalled after the 90 minute exam period and for the two of us would “never be helpful in real life” whatever that would look like when we got old enough to worry about it.

Black and white, true or false, right or wrong was the domain of the classroom. In the chaos of being teenager, nothing was that simple. One Friday after cramming so much Chemistry into our heads that Soph’s head exploded into a crying fit she listed the litany of stuff she didn’t get right ” Are pastels in or out, denim or cotton, big hair or slicked, jackets, skirts, pantsuits or dresses. Long or short, loose or tight, bright or drab, in or out. I don’t think I every fucking got it right.”
“and when we did manage to figure something out it was already out” I added. We commiserated about why it was so rough; who got to decide what was in, how did they get elected to be queen bitch?

With too much information and too little social graces, we decided to get revenge on the latest bitch that looked down on us and made her court of jesters treat us like crap. Joanne Kramer strutted the hallways with an entourage in tow. She dictated the dress code and who was to be shunned. She also was prim and proper and wore the fact that she hadn’t been late and had perfect attendance as her crowning achievement. This might have been because she really wasn’t very smart and struggled to keep up a C+ average. Did you know that if you squeeze a few drops of super glue into the top of a combination lock, you can spin all the numbers you want and it won’t unlatch?

The janitor always secretly left the back door between the gym and the boiler room unlocked so he could sneak out for a couple of puffs and be back inside before principal Jamieson noticed. Everyone in the school, except apparently Jamieson, knew about the door, so it wasn’t much of a secret. At 11:30 on a Friday, no one would be around the school. The jocks would be at home getting ready for the regional track meet, the druggies would be smoking somewhere far from school, and the popular crowd would be doing whatever it was they did. Even so, we climbed quietly over the chain link fence and snuck across the dark practice field to the door. When my hand pulled on the door, and it opened, I felt a twinge of electricity through my body. It was an alarm; it was just me waking up from the dreary slumber of conformity and feeling the anticipation of minor rebellion. We were in and out if less than 10 minutes and added some drops to as many cheerleader’s and other snooty bitches’ locks as we passed by.
Monday morning we awaited the conclusion of the deed.
We stood by the stairs to the east wing and watched as the confident queen dressed in a spring sweater and short skirt nonchalantly spun the dial. When nothing happened, she looked confused but still confidant. Paying closer attention, she dialed her secret numbers left stop, right twice past zero, stop and straight to the last number stop. Before her confidence turned to panic, we needed to hurry up the stairs, so our giggles that soon became snorting laughter wasn’t heard. The story goes that the unflappable Joanne was sobbing and shrieking about “tardy slips, detention, 21, 50, 11″ as her crew abandoned her. It was mean and hilarious at the same time. “The queen is dead; the queen is dead. Long live the queen.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s