We Have No Secrets
by Jennifer Sabin
We were boy chasers that summer in a fire engine red, Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale with a Rocket V-8 engine, otherwise known as “the boat.” It was a convertible that could seat eight comfortably across two white pleather sofas, no seatbelts required in 1979. But mostly it was just Angie and me, trawling the neighborhoods of our town looking for the boys who had caught our eyes that spring and still held onto them with an adolescent tenaciousness. It was a lousy summer for cruising in a vehicle with a voracious engine, with so little gas to be had. But we had all the time in the world to wait out the lines of cars that turned our roads into smoggy mazes and made street fighters of civilized adults.
I was the unlikely driver of the white-topped car that looked more like the road office for an urban pimp than a recreational vehicle for suburban teens. I inherited the car from my father, a man who sold computers for IBM. He would acquire new wheels every three years, and the company would offer him a good purchase deal on the car he’d been driving. He took them up on it with the Royale, figuring it would be an “instant classic.” The car’s marketing slogan was: “Today, a beautiful Olds convertible. Tomorrow, a collector’s item.” Angie and I weren’t thinking about the future then, just stringing together a series of blistering summer days, hoping September would never come.
We were a study in contrasts, Angie with her flawless Italian skin, hair so thick and curly you could stand a pick in it. Her eyes were a shade left of black, and her lips were the softest pink. I was tall, but she had three inches on me. My light hair was as thin and fine as cotton sewing thread, my eyes the color of the tiger eye stone popular in jewelry then. We never competed for boys. I liked Mike, freckled, skinny and as impossibly fair as me, as Irish as if he’d been born in County Clare like his grandparents. And she was in love with Victor’s russet Cuban complexion, his scratchy mustache, eyes glossy and dark like marbles.
I was dangerous behind the wheel of the boat, a novice driver, my NY State license newly minted on light blue paper, the underage birth date so easily altered with whiteout and a Corona electric. We drank beer and Sea Breezes in the local bars where sixteen year olds were as ubiquitous as cigarettes, but I didn’t usually drive after drinking, too afraid of losing the one thing that ensured my freedom. I still had my share of accidents—although nothing I’d ever cop to.
The first was on a surveillance mission in mid-July, when Angie and I thought we’d spotted the avocado green Chevy Impala one town over, the kind of place with gated houses and sculpted trees. I pulled into a driveway to quickly turn around, knocking a ceramic lion statue off its stone pillar with barely a tap. It fell to the ground and crumbled into tiny shards, half its head preserved, a single eye staring up at us in condemnation. We got the hell out of there, not a nick on the boat, all evidence of our vandalism left at the foot of someone else’s driveway.
Oh shit, Angie said. Did you see that lion crash?
We laughed so hard once we were far enough away, the Rocket V-8 powering us back to our town where the houses were closer together, the lawns neat squares, the cars domestic. And then we spotted the Impala pulling into Mike’s driveway. Mike and Victor didn’t notice us there until they got out of the car, and then we stepped out of ours and into their line of vision. The boys were all bravado, and we were all curves and cleavage, jeans so tight in the ass we had to lay down to zip them, synthetic t-shirts clinging to our torsos as if they were applied with a wet sponge.
Hey Jules, Mike said. What are you guys doing?
Looking for us, looks like, Victor said, a big grin opening up his face.
No, we just happened to be driving by on our way to get smokes. I smiled through the lie, a pack of Marlboro lights and a Bic visible on my dash.
Uh-huh, Mike said. You guys want to come in?
Sure, Angie answered, bouncing on her toes.
We walked up the wood ramp to Mike’s back door and into the cramped kitchen, every surface covered with pots and utensils. A series of crucifixes hung above the oven, some bloodied, others grease-stained. A yellowing plastic statue of Mary in a light blue gown sat on a small shelf; the walls were painted the exact shade of her dress as if Mrs. O’Donnell had used the Virgin as a paint chip.
The house was too small for six—Mike and one of his older brothers shared a tiny room, his sister had her own. His other brother slept downstairs in a former sun porch that now accommodated his steel hospital bed and a motorized wheelchair. Danny had been a Syracuse University football player until a freak car accident threw him onto his back and severed spine from limb. Sometimes Mike had to lift his 180 pounds and transfer him from wheelchair to bed, or to his parents’ car. It was tough for Danny to be dependent on his little brother. He was friendly and sweet, but I could see the sadness right behind his smile as if it were on the tip of his tongue, held back by the lips and teeth that were his last line of defense. I had the same smile.
The boys made sandwiches, peanut butter and banana on white bread. Danny hung out with us in the kitchen, wheeling back and forth on the tire-streaked linoleum, telling jokes and talking about everything except what was on our minds. After lunch, Mike grabbed my hand and led me upstairs. We were halfway up when Danny yelled, Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.
Mike’s room was dark and smelled of boys’ sweaty, discarded clothes and white sheets worn down thin as spider webs. There were lacrosse trophies and books he was too old for now crammed on a bookshelf leaning precariously over his bed, vinyl records and liner notes strewn around the floor as if an intruder had ransacked his room looking for a valuable album.
Doobies or the Dead? He asked.
As the needle dug into the first track of American Beauty, Mike closed the door, and we stripped off our clothes. We heard a door close down the hall, a loud laugh and then silence. It was still hours before Mike’s parents would return home from work, but there was always an urgency to our intimacy. We were like adulterers, fueling our passion with the fear that we might get caught, going at each other as if it might never happen again. We were so sure of ourselves then—so sure of our bodies and their youthful beauty, allowing the summer daylight to do a revelatory dance over our skin. When he lay me down in his single bed, I could feel the taut, ropey muscles of his arms and the strong bones of his legs straining against mine and then we’d slow down, take our time, kiss so long and so hard that I would forget where I had been just hours earlier, forget the thoughts that usually kept me bound there. Afterwards, his fingers and lips were imprinted on my sensitive skin like tiny fossils.
Later in the car, Angie said, Geez Jules…you’re a mess. Your skin is so blotchy. Maybe you’re allergic to Mike.
You don’t look so hot yourself. Angie pulled down the visor mirror. Her hair was practically an Afro, and her mascara ran down below her eyes in the style of Alice Cooper. We both laughed.
Good thing we don’t have to explain ourselves to anybody, she said.
I didn’t think she really believed it was such a good thing, but I agreed with her anyway. That was the summer our mothers went missing: mine passed out behind a closed bedroom door from dusk to dawn, Angie’s dead of breast cancer, leaving six kids to a father who didn’t know what to do with any of them. It didn’t really matter how our mothers had abandoned us—the result was the same. But sometimes I thought Angie was lucky—her mother couldn’t have prevented her death, and Angie could never blame her for leaving. She had a disease that was unstoppable, that had eaten away at her body until there was almost nothing left of it.
My mother was feeding her voracious disease, slowly killing herself; I would always blame her for leaving me every night, coming back every morning as if she were starting over, as if I could forget as easily as she did. She would wait for me in the sun-washed kitchen, showered, dressed and pretty, calling me honey, silently apologizing with her eyes, a cloudier version of mine. I would inch away from her when she tried to get close, when she tested the slippery boundaries of our relationship with an outstretched arm and manicured hand. She would realize her error, tap the table and ask me to sit with her; after a brief hesitation, I would. But we would never talk about the previous evening.
Sometimes Angie and I would take ourselves out to dinner—pizza, or burgers and chocolate shakes at the Star, a classic mid-century steel railroad car diner. It was on the wrong side of town, and we were mermaids on land in the tiny establishment filled with the lonely and the homeless, mostly black men with bloodshot eyes and crooked postures. But I felt a sense of security there. The arthritic grey-haired waiter could have been our grandfather, and he always brought our food with a generous smile and a How are you girls doing tonight? Glad to have you back. And when we’d ordered a piece of apple pie or cake to share, he’d say, Dessert’s on me, ladies. Have two.
On summer weekends, the boat took us to Compo beach on Long Island Sound. I loved the nearly hour-long rides there almost as much as the pebbled sand and mildly polluted water. If Mike and Victor came along, Mike would drive, and we would roll down the top, letting the steamy wind billow over our faces and ripple along our outstretched arms. Angie and I would tie our hair in ponytails, but stray hairs would always escape and slap at our faces. I liked the look of Mike driving—his left arm resting on the open window, fingers tapping to the tinny static of AM Radio, his right hand casually draped over the top of the steering wheel like he wasn’t really driving at all. Angie and I would smoke, and the boys would complain. Sometimes Mike would lean over me, grab my cigarette, and flick it out the window, its orange sparks bouncing behind us down the highway.
You’re killing yourself with that shit. What’s wrong with you girls? He would put up the car top, pull out a tightly rolled joint, and pass it over his shoulder to Victor to light up. He’d send it around over and over again until it was nothing but an eighth-inch roach, our fingers resin-coated and soaked in the earthy scent of reefer, our bodies lighter in the dense heat of the car, the air conditioner only working sporadically to cool off the vinyl seats that clung to our naked thighs.
When we left Compo one Saturday, Mike and I were pink and in pain, Victor and Angie more golden than I’d ever seen them. We drove home into the sun—still high in the violet-streaked sky—and Angie, Victor and I fell asleep with our heads propped against the car doors, all of us waking as we exited the highway. Mike and I dropped off our groggy friends and drove to my house. We parked the boat in the driveway and as we started up the slate walkway toward the brick ranch, his arm slid around my waist. He pulled me to him, tight, and slowed down then came to a stop.
My mother was on the ground near the front door, partially obscured by a bush. As we got closer we could see she was splayed out in the wet grass, face down, her head turned to the left, her right leg contorted as if it were broken. There was a rivulet of blood on her face, and our cat was rubbing against her dirtied blonde hair, purring. The contents of her handbag were strewn around as if she had dumped it upside down and dropped it in frustration when her search failed to produce what she was looking for. A lipstick, used tissues, car keys, black leather wallet and a small brown paper bag just the right size for a pint of vodka, but empty.
Mike let go of my waist and walked slowly towards her. He looked back at me then crouched down to get a better look at my mother’s face.
She’s out cold, but she is breathing, he said. Jesus.
He shook his head and played with the stubble on his chin, then grabbed the back of his neck with both hands, elbows out, contemplating the scene. I turned away to the quiet street, dug my hands in my pockets looking for something tangible to latch onto. I couldn’t find my breath—it was trapped in my chest—and I started to cry silently. I couldn’t believe she was laid out so publicly. I couldn’t believe Mike was seeing it all.
Jules, what do you want to do with her?
I don’t know, Mike.
He took my hand, and we walked back to face my mother together.
How much do you think she had to drink? he asked me.
I just shrugged.
We tried to wake her by shaking her arm and speaking loudly into her ear, but she only grunted and said leave me alone, over and over again, never opening her eyes. We rolled her onto her back. Her printed blouse and white pants were dotted with pebbles and dirt. Her top had slid down, exposing the lacy edges of her black bra as if to warn me that my humiliation hadn’t yet reached bottom. Mike got hold of her under the arms, and I grabbed her ankles.
Stop it, she said without much conviction. What are you doing to me?
But we didn’t respond. We brought her leaden weight into the house, took her to her room and put her to bed in her ripped clothes.
Shouldn’t we call an ambulance? Mike asked.
No! My mother said. No hospital.
Mike looked at me for answers. I shook my head. I knew from past experience that it was futile to try to hospitalize her—as long as she was coherent enough to refuse help, EMS wasn’t legally allowed to take her away. She would know the answers to their questions—she would be able to recall her full name, the date, that the President was Carter and we were in her house in White Plains, New York.
Is that Mike? She mumbled.
Yes, I said.
Oh God, why is he here? Her voice rose, and she lifted her head a few inches off the bed.
Mike walked out into the hallway.
Her head fell back to the pillow as if hooked to a dropped anchor.
The light was quickly draining away from the room, casting damning shadows on the floral wallpaper and the shaggy blue carpeting. Something smelled sour, and I looked around for an old glass of milk or a bowl of yogurt, her staples. There was nothing on her nightstand except a brass lamp, a clock radio displaying the wrong time in red, and a fine layer of dust, which I instinctively wiped away with my forearm. It was her, and her stagnant life in that room that I smelled. My mother drank vodka because it was colorless and odorless. But inside her body, the alcohol mixed night after night with the enzymes of her empty stomach, causing a chemical reaction that had its own distinct, animate odor.
My mother looked so small and helpless in the queen size bed, curled off to her side as if to turn away from my father, who hadn’t been home in days. The bed was still made on his side, the pillows and bolsters still upright. He was out of town on another business trip or so he said, and she would likely sleep into the evening and through the night. Maybe she would get up in the pre-dawn hours and fumble in the dark for the telephone, call his hotel and argue with the night clerk that her husband was indeed a guest. Or maybe she would come to my room, flip on the lights and redirect her disappointment at me.
There was dried blood on her cheeks and chin, and I considered getting a washcloth to wipe it off but thought better of it. If I had to see her like this, then surely she should see herself.
As I turned to go she said, Julie, can you turn on the TV, honey?
I did as she asked and left the room.
A few nights later, Angie and I went to a local bar where we weren’t the only high school kids. We decided to do shots—cheap tequila chased by wedges of lime and salted thumbs. The first one tasted medicinal, and I shuddered, sucked the lemon dry. But then we did another, and I didn’t wince. It wasn’t pleasant tasting, but I could tolerate it. At some point, the bartender bought us a shot. It was so warm going down, the tequila’s fire igniting something in my lungs and my stomach. We chain-smoked and ordered beers, then another round of shots. We talked to some hopeful boys for a while before telling them to get lost. Mike said he’d be there later, but I couldn’t wait. I was reeling. The bar was shrinking and heating up with the growing crowd.
I gotta get out of here, I told Angie.
Ok. Let’s go.
The boat was out front. You okay to drive? she asked.
Angie was too drunk to argue or to think I wasn’t telling the truth, and we both got in. I took a deep breath and started the car. I gave it too much gas, and we laughed as the car lurched forward and sprang back like a slingshot. Angie took off her shoes and put her feet up on the seat, played with the radio. The headlights coming towards us blinded me, and I strained to see the road. I didn’t know where we were going so I just continued driving down the main street that led out of town. The double yellow line seemed to run away from me, and I couldn’t catch it.
Watch out! Angie yelled. I swerved hard to the right to avoid a honking car in the oncoming lane.
What was he doing in my lane?
I think you were in his lane. I think we need to get off the road, Jules. Angie was sitting up now, paying attention, trying to adjust her eyes to the lights.
I made the next turn onto a quieter street and pulled into the parking lot of our elementary school, driving over a curb and landing with a thud. The lot was brightly lit, so I started to drive around to the back where we could be less conspicuous. But I suddenly had to pull over.
I was throwing up liquid fire on the pavement next to the car when the Impala pulled into the lot and came to a screeching stop beside us.
Mike got out and called to me. You okay?
You know you almost hit me?
Shit, Jules. What were you thinking, driving so wasted?
I don’t know.
Mike and his friend Jim stayed with us. Mike found me a towel in his trunk then got in the boat to drive us home. Angie was passed out in the front, and I lay down in the back. Jim took the Impala and followed us as we wound through the neighborhood of split-levels to Angie’s house. My head was spinning, and I didn’t dare open my eyes.
Jules, what are we going to do with Angie? Mike asked as he parked in front of her place.
Bring her to my house. Her father might be up.
Mike and Jim helped us into the house. They brought us upstairs, past my mother’s closed door, the muffled sound of her television bouncing through the hall, a ray of blue light sneaking out from under her door. Jim helped Angie get into bed in the guestroom, and Mike put me to bed in my room. I didn’t want to get undressed, just wanted to sleep.
You don’t want to wake up in your clothes.
I don’t care.
He undressed me and found an old t-shirt in my dresser, kissed my forehead and put the covers over me. He pulled the wicker wastebasket out from under my desk and laid it on the floor beside my bed. I was still spinning, still on the verge of getting sick again, but I was okay with Mike there, gently touching my hair and stroking my cheek.
I’m going to go.
No. Please Don’t.
Gotta. I’ll see you tomorrow.
As August cast a hazy spell over our town, Mike and I spent less time with Angie and Victor. Mike took a job with a local contractor putting up a new house, and we could only see each other at night. We would drive out to the dam after dark, hide the boat in the prickly brush and swim nude in the wide-open blackness of the reservoir, holding tightly to each other in the shocking cold of the water. Sometimes we would walk to the high school and smoke a joint in the middle of the football field, the chalk of the fifty-yard line underneath our backs. Other nights we would make love in the boat wherever we decided to camp that night, turn off the radio and listen to the music of crickets. In all of our ventures we sought out a certain kind of isolation in which we were impervious to the outside world, and oddly enough it was then, that I felt most connected to it.
During the day, Angie and I would hibernate in my room listening to Carly Simon records, blowing a steady stream of cigarette smoke out the window screens. The air outside was so layered and thick we would rarely leave the house to brave the 95-degree temperatures and enervating humidity. But once in awhile we’d get antsy and jump in the car, drive around aimlessly, two girls looking for something and nothing at all. We were out one weekday afternoon when Angie told me she thought it was over with Victor. They hadn’t spoken in days, and she just had this vibe that he was done.
You sure? But even as I said it, I knew something was wrong. He wasn’t around as much anymore. And Mike wasn’t giving anything away.
Hey, why don’t we look for him?
I don’t know, she said. I don’t want to be a stalker.
Come on. We’ll be stealth.
We drove to Victor’s neighborhood, a working class cluster of small two-family homes in need of paint and sturdier porch railings. We pulled onto his street, and I realized there was no way to be stealth in the boat, its hulking red body a beacon alerting Victor and everybody else that we were coming. We pulled up slowly to his house and parked just past it. It didn’t look like anyone was home, but it never looked like anyone was home.
Maybe we should go.
Come on, we’re here.
We rang the bell. As soon as the door opened, I saw my mistake. Victor answered shirtless, his beautiful black hair a tangled mess. He looked too surprised to see us. It wasn’t the happy satisfied look he usually gave us when we showed up uninvited on one of our cruising expeditions. And coming up behind him to the door was a pretty girl from school, someone from the grade below us I didn’t know but recognized.
Oh shit, I heard her say under her breath.
Hey girls, what’s up?
I figured I better do the talking. Hey is Mike here? He’s not home, and I have something for him.
I haven’t seen him. Isn’t he working?
The girl behind Victor walked back into the house. There were tears pooling in Angie’s eyes, and they melted something in Victor. He came out on the porch.
I’m sorry, Angie. I should have told you. But I’m seeing someone else.
I can see that.
I’m really sorry.
But Angie had already turned around and was headed for the car.
You know you really suck, Victor. She didn’t need this. Not this summer, I said.
He wouldn’t meet my eyes, but he nodded his head in a kind of conciliatory agreement. I left him on the porch, staring after us.
In the car Angie was sobbing, her whole body shaking.
I am so sorry, Ang. It’s all my fault.
The sky was electric as we pulled away from the curb—flashes of fluorescent light against the darkening sky. Angie pulled her knees into her chest and even with her height, she looked tiny and fragile, swallowed by the enormity and power of the boat.
As soon as I got home, I knew something wasn’t right there either. My mother’s car was parked partly in the driveway and partly on the lawn and her headlights were still on, illuminating the front door to the house, which was wide open. I walked through the dusty hall and peeked into the empty living room, then walked back to the kitchen. There she was, lying face down on the speckled tile in front of the sink. Her skin was a sooty grey, and she looked dead. I leaned down to listen for breathing and was disappointed when I heard it. I tried to wake her, tried to roll her over on her back, but she was too heavy. I yelled at her, but she didn’t stir. I wanted to call Mike for help, but I was worried: what if he thought I was going to be just like her? What if I was just like her?
I tried to call Angie, but her father said she was sleeping. I paced through the hall and back into the kitchen. Finally I dialed Mike’s house.
Hey Julie. He paused. You okay? You don’t sound good.
Yup. Is Mike there? I covered my mouth so he couldn’t hear my staccato breathing.
Yeah, sure. Hold on. He hesitated, and then I could hear him cover the mouthpiece and yell for his brother.
What’s up Jules? I heard the bass of Mike’s voice.
Can you come over?
I just got home. What’s up?
I need you again. I need you to help me with my mother. I closed my eyes and let out a long, quiet breath.
He said he would come. He said he just had to do something for his brother then he would be right there.
I waited on the front porch in the rain. At first it was just a sporadic tapping on the slate, an irritant. Soon it started to come down, hard, and I was getting soaked. But I didn’t go inside. I didn’t want to be in there with her alone on the off chance that she might come back to life or stop breathing. I looked over at the driveway and thought about waiting in the boat but that seemed even lonelier. The Impala appeared over the rise of the hill ten minutes later.
We stood in the kitchen with the body at our feet. Mike pushed back my wet hair and touched my cheek. His pale brown eyes were so sad.
I’m sorry, he whispered.
Then he leaned down and once again, took my mother by the shoulders, and I grabbed her ankles. She murmured something unintelligible through bloody, cracked lips, and neither of us answered. We hauled her to her room and put her to bed, as is. I leaned down inches from her face.
Asshole, I said into her ear. But she didn’t hear me.
Mike touched my arm. Come on, Let’s get out of here.
I looked back at her slack body once more. Maybe next time, I thought, I won’t bother to rescue her. But before I left the room, I pulled her bedspread up over her shoulders and turned on the TV.
Jennifer Sabin is a writer, editor, self-styled political pundit, and journalist. She is a political blogger at Huffington Post, a food and lifestyle writer at The Hook magazine, and the co-founder of Kids Write Now, a creative writing program for elementary and middle school children. Jennifer’s work has also appeared in the literary magazines Fiction and Promethean. For nearly two decades she wrote and produced national and international stories for ABC News before leaving to pursue her passion for writing fiction at The City College of New York, where she received her MFA and taught creative writing. Jennifer lives outside New York City with her husband and two children. She hopes to soon publish her first novel, To Bury the Lead, a story of family, loyalty and legacy set against the incendiary backdrop of the 2003 Iraq War.