I stood in my favorite dress with pools of deep blue swirls and sleeves that hung off my shoulders. It made me feel like a piece of art, like I should have been a guest at a Jay Gatsby garden party instead of at a shady, underage-drinking gathering. Around me, summer friends scattered around the backyard, sipping on beer and sucking on clumsily rolled joints.
My legs were still stiff from my hostess shift at a trendy Mexican restaurant where I had stood with a smile on my face for nine hours straight. Somewhere in that span of time, any spark of mischief within me -- the one that sometimes led excursions to the local gay bar where they didn’t I.D. -- had faded. I wished I could enjoy myself like everyone else. Yet it was hardly past twelve, and I didn’t want to be there anymore. I was longing for a wholesome night at home -- one where I hadn’t lied. Guilt struck at the depths of my stomach and the base of my tightened throat. I imagined my dad watching TV, believing that I was spending the night at a girlfriend’s house.
I pulled the strap of my dress up a bit and ran a finger through my hair.
Minutes before, I had wound up behind the tall bushes with a guy I had just met. He was one of the built, well-groomed guys on the rowing team for the private, all-boys high school down the street. He approached me, and our conversation flowed easily; we had so much to say. I had seen him around before, but it was the first time we had formally introduced ourselves. I knew he had just noticed me for the first time. It was my eighteenth summer, and I was just beginning to carry myself that way. The male waiters and bartenders at work had forced me to acknowledge the fact that I was no longer childlike or hidden beneath an in-between stage appearance. They threw me winks and hung around the hostess stand during idle moments, telling me about their cars. The new attention thrilled me. I privately glowed from their glances, and I began wearing eyeliner daily. Yet, I had done little more than think and imagine intimate gestures; I was very much a virgin.
On this night, something nearly happened. When it was just the two of us, he smiled at me. “You’re a doll,” the rower said, a word I haven’t been called since, but still remember pleased me. He had brown hair and sweet eyes that met mine. Perhaps it was the alcohol, but I had never been able to talk with an athlete so effortlessly. The few guy friends I had, I had known forever and could probably count on one hand. We were delighted to discover we both liked Weezer!
“No way, my buddy and I went to a concert last summer. I don’t know any girls that are into them.” In one smooth gesture he pushed back a piece of hair, and stuck the hand into his pocket. Then he took it out and my touched waist, looking at me.
I was aware of every breath. Guided by his touch, my hips moved closer to him. The space between us pulsed with anticipation, and narrowed with each exchange.
“That must have been awesome. I hear they’re good live.” A splash of Bud Light hit my wrist since after a few drinks I always talk with my hands. I was losing myself in our conversation as the party around us blurred to white noise; it was just him and me. There was the cool sensation of the spilled beer, and suddenly we exchanged a different look, one that said we wanted somewhere private. Immediately. It was an out-of-body experience as he took my hand, and I followed feeling the electricity. I was both excited and scared that something beyond my limited kissing experiences might happen. We discovered a spot hidden by plants where we swayed into one another and kissed. When I opened my eyes, his hands touched my dress. I imagined how in a matter of minutes our clothes would adorn the damp lawn.
But, something in me wanted to stop, even though he was hot.
Guilt pierced my state of delirium. What was I doing? I could so easily do something my parents would never suspect. They wouldn’t know it, but I would. I didn’t understand why I was so distracted. I think it was the way my dad hadn’t even questioned me earlier that evening when I had lied about sleeping at Liz’s. I didn’t expect him to be particularly suspicious because, on most nights, that would have been the truth. I wasn’t the type who crept out the back door or through her bedroom window. Yet in that moment, I felt far from the daughter he thought I was, the one who deserved such blind trust. And suddenly, I wanted to be her. I stepped away from the rower apologetically. He was nice enough not to protest my radical mood change. We didn’t know each other well. He touched his hair again and shrugged my rejection off as we walked back to where everyone was gathered.
As he wandered off to find his friends, I felt ready to leave. I squinted into the dark, searching the clusters of tipsy teenagers for Liz. Aha! I spotted her talking to her long-time crush, Cameron. I tugged at her cotton sweater lightly and smiled at the two of them.
“Hey. Sorry, could I have a moment with Liz?”
Liz nodded and stepped away with me. “Maddie. What’s up?”
“I think I’m leaving; I’m just exhausted from work still.” She looked me up and down. “Will hasn’t drank a thing and he’s driving home soon. My house is totally on his way.”
“You sure? Jeff’s parents are cool. We can literally just crash in his basement. Plus, you’re kind of tipsy. Your parents will so freak.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “They never notice, trust me. Call me later? I want details...” I eyed Cam, and Liz broke into an embarrassed smile.
“Pfft. I doubt there will be any, but sounds good.” She glanced over at him with longing.
“This one, right?” Will slowly pulled up in front my blue house.
“Yes, perfect. Thanks, Will!” I hopped out of the car and floated down the driveway to the side door. Liz was right—I was not completely sober. My plan was to tipsily sneak into my room and pass out without talking to my dad. Fortunately, my mom was out of town for the weekend. She was the one who liked to ask questions. Shit. My fingers searched the bottom of my purse furiously for my key, but I didn’t feel its metal ridges anywhere. I turned, but Will’s car was gone.
I rolled my eyes. Great. I would have to call my dad to let me in. He had just made me a new copy of the house key less than a month ago, but they always managed to disappear. I dialed his number and listened to a monotonous series of rings. No answer. I tried again and again. Shit. Shit. Shit. I made my way towards the back of the house to the TV room where I knew my dad would be hunkered down. My plan was to knock on the window, but when I came around to the back of the house, I froze.
There was a strange SUV parked in back with a light on inside. I saw movement in it and jumped in surprise. I could make out the silhouettes of two bodies moving together in sync, unmistakably a lovers’ embrace. My heart leapt when I realized it had to be my dad with a woman. I stopped thinking altogether. My body went on autopilot; I turned back around and just walked. Had they seen me? I was humiliated at the thought. I fled with no destination in mind other than far-fucking-away. I reached the end of my driveway and stood in panic unsure where to go. I made a sharp left down the sidewalk heading towards God-knows-where.
I put all my force into each step. I had to get myself away. Had I really just seen what I thought? Yes, I know what I saw. My mind couldn’t have conjured something like that. The image was as nonsensical as it was horrific. There needed to be as much distance between me and the SUV as possible.
The street lamps shone down between cracks in the tall houses in our Upstate New York town; I realized that I was very much alone and vulnerable. The neighborhood was a different place at night. By day, it was the safe area it had always been, but beneath the moon’s glow, the streets felt different. The moonlight illuminated peeling paint; a dog’s bark sounded more ferocious, and castaway cigarette butts glowed in the long blades of unkept lawns. I imagined a stranger could drive by slowly and force me into his car. I shivered in my summer dress at the thought. No cars passed, but every movement -- whether real or imagined -- made my heart jolt. I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t go back there. I still wouldn’t be able to get into the house, and who knew if that SUV would be gone or not?
The thought of my dad knowing I had seen him killed me. But fear revved my pulse and consumed me until, after walking three blocks, I decided to backtrack. I sensed no other options.
When I turned down my block, the house looked still. There was no sign of life or infidelity. But since I was gone less than ten minutes, they had to be back there still. With my heart pounding, I darted across the front lawn and made a break for the stairs of the porch. I feared the SUV could pull out at any moment, exposing me with its headlights. Thankfully, it didn’t. My breathing was hard. Each wooden step of the front porch shrieked in protest as I climbed. Crap! Was that a car door slamming shut? I froze. The hair on the back of my neck stood and prickled. If the two of them were standing near the side of the house, they definitely would have heard me. I would have sounded like an intruder. An intruder. That’s what I had become. I slumped down into a corner of the porch, hidden in the railing’s shadow. The combination of the cold and the hurt I felt made me draw my knees up to my chest tightly like a child.
My mind raced and tried to make sense of things. Had I not lost my key, I never would have walked around to the back. I would have gone upstairs, sat at my computer, and worried about how I had left things with rower.
I ached from holding still, and I needed a hug more than ever before. Yet, there was nobody I could turn to for comfort. My father? The word set off a pang in my heart and sent a surge of anger through my body. My mom? My heart would break at the sight of her in her crumpled work suit, at the sound of her humming a show tune as she unsuspectingly prepared Tuesday’s dinner.
My phone lit up. I cupped the screen to hide the glow and read the message from Liz. “OMG. you should have stayed. Ian keeps talking about you. What’re you doing???? Come back!”
So that was his name. My mind wandered back to the party that was probably winding down. People would slowly be making their way into the basement to continue shenanigans, to sloppily hookup, to pass out or to vomit. I imagined returning and telling Liz everything, but I couldn’t imagine what she would say in the face of a real problem -- Liz, a girl who thought the world was coming to an end when she wasn’t the first of our friends to get asked to prom. I thought of Ian. Nothing we had discussed had been serious. I tried to imagine his reaction to me telling him what I had just seen. Would he hold me and tell me that everything could somehow feel all right again? I tapped my sandals on the wood floor feeling nervous, angry, and crowded with terrible thoughts. I put down my phone.
On the porch, time passed in its mysterious way. Seconds dragged on but minutes raced. Half an hour passed before the SUV’s engine growled on. I held my breath as the headlights crept up the driveway. The diffuse light they cast punctured my sense of invisibility. Whoever was driving could clearly see the blue of my dress and my blonde hair if they looked over at the porch. The vehicle lurked slowly. I promised the heavens I would do anything for the driver not to notice me. I even closed my eyes, thinking it could somehow make me invisible. The car passed without hesitation. The driver paused at the end of the driveway, perhaps to look both ways or maybe to check the rearview mirror for smudged makeup. My eyes narrowed. The car turned onto the street and disappeared, unknowingly taking my innocence and leaving exhaust fumes instead.
I heard the side door shut and a minute later my phone rang. It was my dad.
“Maddie, you called? Is everything all right?”
I answered in almost a whisper. “Great. I’m tired though, and Liz is going to drop me off soon. Can you unlock the side door for me?” I had planned my words before he called.
“You know it.” He didn’t sound reluctant as he usually did when I forgot my key; he sounded cheerful.
“Thanks, see you soon. Bye.”
I waited sixteen minutes before I mechanically stood, opened the side door, and went straight upstairs to my room. I closed the door and looked into the full-length mirror. I glared at the reflection because the girl who stared back had been so naive. I took off the dress and threw it onto the floor. And finally, I wept. I wept for my mom, for myself, and for the fact that I could never tell my dad why I wept or anything at all. I flopped down onto my soft childhood comforter and opened my laptop. Mindlessly, I began to flip through the digital library of photos. There were ones of the whole family taken at my aunt’s wedding last summer and a couple of standard photos in front of the Christmas tree.
A knock at the door startled me back into the present nightmare. “Hey, Maddie. You have a good night?” His light tone made me sick.
“Yeah, I did. Just tired from work. Sorry, I’m about to fall asleep.” I wasn’t about to invite him in or ask about his night.
“Oh, of course. I love you. Good night, honey.”
He hesitated behind the door for a response, and I felt peculiar as I said, “Good night, Dad.” It felt too much like goodbye.
A few more tears escaped as I lingered in a feeling of loss. After tossing and turning in the sheets as despair and sadness grew around me like weeds, I looked to the future. I drifted off with thoughts of the fall when I would drive off to college, dress wiser, and find myself far from SUV's in driveways.
* The author has changed characters names and identifying characteristics to protect her family’s anonymity.
Like glossy carpet, photographs lie all over my son’s bedroom floor. They’re spread out, poured from tipped over boxes. They’re stacked in piles. They stand in a line at the back of his desk. It’s the same boy over and over again.
There he is posed in his Astros uniform. There he is holding hands with a friend outside the Exploratorium. There he is, face pressed against his brother’s as they concentrate on something just outside the frame. There he is perched proudly in front of the 1000-piece puzzle he completed the summer before starting second grade. There we are, tongues out, eyes wide...