How Men Are [fiction]

#14, 14th Street, Santa Monica


They carried sunshine with them; sand filtering out the bottom

Of their woven bags from Guatemala, the smell of Coppertone in the air.

Linda and Marissa went to the beach almost every day that summer,
the summer they were seventeen. They'd walk down Wilshire in cut-offs and crocheted bikini tops, laughing at the sound of their huaraches flapping against the sidewalk, tripping on the way the ground glass in the cement sparkled in the sun like a zillion tiny diamonds, checking out their reflections in the store windows. They'd cross the Pacific Coast Highway on the Arizona overpass, stopping only for a second to take in the buzz of the cars careening along PCH beneath them, barely breathing until they could escape the stench of urine and what that stench implied. Some smelly bum might be anywhere, pulling his thing out of his pants and waving it around in the wind, writing his name on the wall with his pee or some other disgusting thing. The idea terrified Marissa; she'd never actually seen a penis before. She had, however, felt Tony's the night he pushed her hand down where it poked past the buttons of his opened Levis. The tip flopped against her palm and she'd pulled her hand away as if she'd touched a velvety caterpillar. She'd been too scared to look.

The girls had their own spot at the beach where the sand stretched for ages. Even in summer, it was almost always empty. A few strange solitary types dotted the sand, men mostly, the kind that wore socks with brown sandals and shorts that were a tad too short. They'd come to the beach without towels and sit on their shirts like it wasn't a totally uncool thing to do. No wonder they were alone.

Once down on the sand, the girls spent their days tanning and talking about boys. Talking about them was almost better than being with them; all the boys really wanted to do was get high and get it on. Not that Linda and Marissa never got high. To celebrate the start of summer they'd bought a joint from Marissa's brother, Roger, and took it down to the beach to smoke. The joint was the size of a cigarillo and hard to light; they had to use their poetry books to stay the beach wind. "It's so far out" Linda kept saying when they finally got it going. Marissa laughed between coughing fits, trying to keep her watery eyes on the distant lifeguard stand so they could ditch the pot if the lifeguard figured out what they were doing. Marissa guessed they'd bury it in the sand or something. 

"How was the stuff?" Roger asked that night at dinner.
"Far out," Linda said and both girls erupted into giggles.

Marissa's mother was working late again but she'd left something cooking
all day in the Crock Pot.
Whatever it was would be overdone and mushy. Marissa unplugged the pot and put it on a cork trivet on the table.
Roger lifted the lid gingerly. Pieces of white chicken meat floated in a gallon of red sauce. Chicken Cacciatore. Their English mother's Italian specialty.

"Good thing you guys have the munchies" Roger sniffed the Crock Pot critically.
"Shhh!" Marissa hissed.

Their father was in the living room portion of their L-shaped living room/dining room,
sitting at his desk phoning leads. He could come to the table any minute because his business calls never lasted that long. Most people said 'not interested' and hung up without even saying goodbye. Marissa hated the way he sat at that desk every day, fully dressed in a suit and tie even though he wasn't doing anything except make calls from the apartment.

"We got so high." Marissa whispered, "We couldn't stop laughing."
Roger's eyes went big. "Really? Good shit, eh?"
The girls nodded.
"It was oregano you twits. God, you two are just useless."

Marissa wanted to slug him but her brother was a giant; a 6'3" jock with a chin bar
installed in the doorway of his bedroom. When Marissa was little, back when they lived in their own two-story house, Roger used to wrap her up in their hallway rug and roll her down the stairs. Hitting him wasn't an option. 

Marissa could hear her father on the phone.
"I see Mr. Neal. "Well, I'm terribly sorry to have bothered you during the dinner hour, sir."
He sounded so polite that Marissa wanted to vomit.
"Perhaps I could call at a more convenient -. All right, sir. Yes, yes. I understand. Perhaps next week then? .... Well as I said, I apologize for the interruption -. Fine, fine. Have a pleasant evening Mr. Neal. Thank you for your time."

"Any luck?" Roger asked, like the total dope he was when their father finally sat down. What kind of question was that anyway? Was Roger deliberately trying to rub it
in their father's face or was he truly that stupid? Marissa kicked him under the table; she couldn't help herself. Anyone could see that for all of his efforts to dress like a businessman and make polite chit-chat, their father was a lousy salesman. Was Marissa the only person in this family who had eyes, who had ears, for God's sake!? Marissa looked over at Linda but she was just looking at their dad with a blank smile on her face. She wondered if Linda felt sorry for him. Marissa would hate that. Pity. The idea that Linda found him as pathetic as she did was unbearable.

"Idiots. The world is full of idiots, girls."
"Right on, Dad," Roger said with his stupid grin. "I was just telling the girls
the very same thing. It's amazing the number of idiots there are in this world. Truly amazing. "
Her father reached for the serving spoon. "So, what haute cuisine did your mother boil us up for dinner tonight?"

Their poor mother didn't know she was a lousy cook any more than their father knew he was a lousy salesman. Or maybe they were both pretending not to know. How else could they keep on doing it day after day?
Mr. Collins dished himself up some chicken as if everything was perfectly normal.

"Haven't seen you in a while, Linda. You're looking lovely as usual. 
How'd you manage to tear yourself away from that boyfriend of yours? Don't tell me ... it's this 'soup', isn't it? Take note kids, your mother's cooking proves to be an irresistible lure."

"Bill!" Linda wagged her finger playfully. "I'm going to tell on you. Elaine would kill you if she heard you making fun of her famous chicken cacciatore. Besides, I think it's delicious!"

Linda had stopped calling Marissa's parents Mr. and Mrs. Collins a long time ago.

Just like Marissa called Linda's mom Pearl. That's how close they were. One big happy family. Still, Marissa couldn't see how her father could sit around making small talk. Marissa was dying for him to get as mad as she was feeling inside. She wanted to take that Crock Pot and dump the whole thing, the entire smelly red
and white mess, on someone's head. On Roger's head, if possible. At that moment it seemed to her that the world was, as her father put it, full of idiots. The problem was that he and her brother were two of the biggest.
The two most important male figures in her life, are nothing more than a couple of incompetent clowns. Marissa consoled herself with the fact that she had Tony. Tony was cool. He was 23 and had been to Nam.

"I enlisted," he told her when Marissa asked how someone so cool could have ended up
in the service. "All my buddies got drafted so I signed up." He shrugged, like what could you do? They'd been on their way to a party at this girl's house.' That's how he said it "there's a party at this girl's house. Wanna go?"

Marissa had sat in the passenger seat of his VW van wearing a string top she'd sewn herself, over clean patched jeans. She didn't know what to make of it. She'd never met anybody who'd actually enlisted. Certainly not anyone with a soft dark beard that tickled her lips when he kissed her and who looked the way he looked in a pair of jeans. Marissa remembered catching her parents crying at the kitchen table late one night because they thought her brother might get drafted. They'd talked with some friends back in Canada about sending Roger to live with them. He could go to McGill; their friends said it was a fine school. But here was Tony with his hippie-looking long hair and beard and he'd gone ahead and enlisted.

"I met a lot of good people," he said. Just like that. He was going to school nights
on the GI Bill. That semester he was taking witchcraft and jewelry making at West L.A. City College. He pulled a red plastic mold and a hunk of gold the size of her thumb out of the glove compartment. He was planning on making it into a ring. Tony said he was making it for Sarah. She'd asked him to. Said she was an old friend. 

"Sarah's good people. She cuts my hair."
Marissa smiled and bobbed her head like she was interested in what he was saying
about this other girl.
"Sarah says you don't have to be scared. You can get the pill at the Venice Free Clinic."
It was humiliating to think some girl, some older girl Marissa had never even met,
knew she was a virgin. Worse, a scared virgin. Sarah probably had sex all the time. She'd probably had it with Tony.

"Will you go with me?" Marissa didn't know why she even asked.
"Go with you where?"
"To the Free Clinic. Will you go with me?”
"What do you want me to do? Go with you and hold your hand?
Tell them 'this is my girlfriend. '"
The way he said it, it sounded like a stupid thing to want.

After the party which was mostly Tony horsing around with a bunch of his biker-type friends
and calling her jailbait, they got into the usual wrestling match in the van.
"Why not?" he wanted to know for the hundredth time.

That was when he'd unbuttoned his jeans and pushed her hand down into his crotch.
Marissa was relieved when he finally put his thing away. She knew he was disgusted with her but what could she do. If Marissa did it her parents would know. It would be in her eyes. One look and that would be it. Her mother was always talking about girls who had that knowing look. Or her father would say, "She won't die wondering" about some pretty girl in line at the market or waiting for a bus. Sometimes they said it about Linda making her wish she'd never told her mother Linda had done it with Sam. 

Linda had been a virgin too until Sam came along just before the start of summer. He was from Tacoma. He had frizzy orange hair and a flyaway beard to match. His skin under his baggy jean overalls was pale pink and freckled. The way he scooped Linda up and slung her over his big, bare, fleshy shoulder like she was weightless terrified Marissa. As if he might be a serial killer or something. The thought of his bushy beard against Linda's cheek made Marissa gag. Not that she told Linda that. Marissa admitted to herself that she might have been a bit envious. Linda and Sam had spent the night at Sam's sister's place, a funky rental in Topanga, with violet-dyed lace curtains and an old-fashioned claw foot tub in the bathroom. They drank champagne in a bubble bath. Linda said she barely bled and had two orgasms. Two. Marissa bit her tongue and wondered what it felt like.

After Sam left to go back to Tacoma, Linda spent a whole lot of time writing him steamy postcards and bragging to Marissa about how horny she was. Linda said after Marissa had IT she'd know what Linda meant.
Marissa called Linda the Horny Toad; Linda called Marissa the Virgin Queen.
The girls told each other they were just joking around.
"No wonder Tony hasn't called you since you went to Denny's" Linda snorted.

It was true Marissa hadn't heard from him in a while. Not since they'd gone out for coffee and parked down at the beach afterward. They'd sat in the van facing the water even though they couldn't see much of anything. It was too dark to see the ocean and too light to see the stars.

"Where are the stars? Shouldn't there be stars?"
Marissa wanted it to be romantic like in the lyrics from that song "Are the stars out tonight? I don't know if it's cloudy or bright. I only have eyes for you, dear."

Tony said how LA was so big and bright that the glow from its city lights lit up the night,
obliterating most of the stars in the sky. Light pollution ruined everything. You could usually see the Big Dipper but you had to drive out to the high desert if you wanted to see some really good constellations. It was something he'd picked up in an Astronomy class. They sat passing a joint back and forth and listening to the gentle whoosh of the waves. It was perfect just sitting and talking but when Tony leaned over and started kissing her, Marissa melted happily enough into the moment. She could taste the sugary coffee on his tongue, sweet and syrupy, and probably Marissa had never kissed him back quite so hard. When he slipped one hand under her top and cupped her bare breast Marissa didn't flinch. When he began to unzip her jeans with his other hand for once Marissa didn't even try to stop him, she simply kept kissing him and kissing him, feeling his tongue gently inside her mouth. Everything felt so soft, their tongues moving around each other's like a dream until out of nowhere his tongue turned hard and pointy and he was thrusting it back and forth fast. Marissa tried to change it back, to make the kissing feel soft and gushy again but he kept ramming his tongue down into her mouth like it was a plunger and her mouth was a plugged-up drain. She had to push him off her just to breathe.

"Let's go in the back," he reached for her hand.

He had an old mattress with a madras bedspread on the floor.
Marissa wondered how many other girls had gone back there with him and if he ever washed it.

"I can't," Marissa said. She knew Linda would. Likewise his friend, Sarah Goodpeople.
But she couldn't.
"Come on" he insisted. He grabbed her by the waistband of her pants and
started pulling her up out of the seat. "I've got a rubber."
"I said I can't!" Marissa was trying to pry his fingers open.
"Jesus, Marissa!" He let go of her pants and she plopped back into the seat.
"What did you come here for anyway?"

God, he was so mad.
"I don't know. To talk, I guess." Her voice was a whine, a whisper. She hated the sound.
"To talk you guess? Shit. You really are still a little girl, aren't you? Daddy's little girl."

He turned the key in the ignition.
"Where are we going?" Marissa felt frantic. She had wanted him to stop. That didn't mean she want him to go.
"Where are we going? We're not going anywhere. You're going home."
"Tony, please." Marissa went to put her hand on his arm.
"Please what?" He moved his arm out of her reach. He wouldn't look at her.
"You don't want to do this, do you?"

Marissa didn't know what to say. She stared out at the blackness thinking if he would ever
simply say something nice to her. Anything. Then maybe she could do it. Maybe she could believe that she meant something to him. Some small thing. Then maybe it wouldn't be so scary.
"Right," he said, "Let's go."
The clock on his dash glowed green. It was only nine-thirty. Nine thirty on a Saturday night.
"Couldn't we do something?" Something other than have sex.
"Like what? Go bowling? Talk? I'm tired of talking. I'm going home."

When they got to her building he pulled over in front, double-parking. "It's been real," he said,
reaching past her and pushing the door open.

He didn't look at her 
before he drove off. She wondered if he was really going home or someplace else? Like Sarah's?
It was awful to know he wasn't going to call but wishing and waiting anyway, like in that stupid Brenda Vaccaro song. 

She went to the beach with Linda almost daily and tried to pretend she didn't care. But she did. Marissa kept her watch in her beach bag so it didn't make a tan line and whenever Linda turned away she'd steal a look at the time, dying until she could go home and check the answering machine.
She tried to focus on getting ready to go back to school. "Back to high school boys" Linda sneered. Day after day they lay on the sand, the sun playing across their faces. They were brown but never brown enough. They wanted to be black. Especially on the first day of school. They concentrated on what they would wear. Something that showed off their tans. Something hot, something that made them look really cool. As if they'd changed over the summer or something. When Tony finally did call a week before Labor Day, Marissa forced herself to wait until they got to the beach and had their towels laid out perfectly with the cigarette pack and Bic lighter ready before she told Linda.

"Tony called."
"What, you don't believe me?"
"Of course I do. What did he say?"
"You sound surprised."
"No, honestly. I knew he'd call. What'd he say?"
"He wants me to go over there for Labor Day. To his place." 

Marissa drew a daisy in the sand with her fingertip. She wondered what Miss Horny Toad would say now.

"All the way to Highland Park? Are you going?"
"Maybe. He said he'd pick me up. If I go."
"You can't exactly take the bus. It's only a zillion miles away."
"I told you. He's picking me up. On his bike." 

He had a Yamaha. Marissa knew Linda would be jealous. Every girl wanted to ride on the back of a motorcycle pretending they had their arms wrapped around Peter Fonda, their hair flying in the wind.
"Hmm. So are you going to do it?"

Linda didn't mean to go to Highland Park; she meant what would Marissa do when she got there.
"I don't know. I'd like the first time to be special. I don't want to just do it. 
I know this sounds stupid but I want to make love. Love? And the crazy thing is that sometimes I don't know if he even likes me. Likes me! Seriously. D'you know he's never given me compliments. He never tells me I'm pretty or that I have nice eyes. Once I actually said something about it to him, you know, why don't you ever compliment me - why don't you tell me I'm pretty? So pathetic! And in a whiney voice too. I could shoot myself. Anyway, he goes 'Why would I be with you if you weren't pretty? Do you think I'd go out with an ugly girl?' And that was supposed to count as a compliment. He's such a jerk. "

Marissa blew a wisp of blonde hair out of her face.

"If you want to know what I say, I say go. Trust me, you won't regret it." 
The Horny Toad speaks.
"Oh sure. You're a case of walking hot pants so I'm supposed to hop into bed with Tony."

Marissa had meant it to be funny; somehow it didn't come out right.
"Screw you!"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. I just mean I want it to be special.
I don't want it to be just a sexual thing."
"God, Marissa. You make it sound like I walk around trying to get screwed all the time."
"Well, not ALL the time."
"Marissa! "
"Joking. I'm joking. But you have to admit you do have it on the brain lately.
All that stuff about your orgasms and how big Sam is and how you give the best Bj's. It is a little- Oh forget it."
"No. I don't think so. It's a little what?"
"I said forget it."
"And I said I'm not going to. It's a little what?"
"Fine. It's a little sickening if you must know."
"Sickening? Sickening! I love Sam. Pardon me for thinking my best friend
would be interested. Pardon me for thinking you'd actually give a shit that I was lucky enough to fall in love."
"Love? Hah! Don't you mean lust?"
"Look. Just because you don't have a real boyfriend, just some guy who calls you up and
drops by when no one else is available, don't go getting high and mighty with me little Miss Virgin Mary."
"That's a shitty thing to say.."
"And calling me a slut isn't?"
"I never called you a slut. Did I use the word slut? No. I only want it to be real love.
I don't see why that's so hard to understand. I don't get why you don't get it."
"Yeah? Try telling that to Tony and watch him run. It's Adios muchacha Marissa,
the truth is you're scared shitless and you know it. I'm just not sure what of."
Marissa stared down at the sand. She was scared. Scared it would hurt.
Scared she'd get pregnant. Scared she'd get VD. Scared she'd let him do it and then he'd never call her again. Scared because she knew she wasn't the type to go ahead and do it like it was just another fun thing to do. Like miniature golf. Scared her parents would find out and think she was some slut. Scared she was a slut.

Linda started a game of Tic Tac Toe with her cigarette in the sand. 

"I still say you should go. It's not like you have to have sex with him if you don't want to. It's not like he's going to rape you. If you don't want to, just say no." 
She held out the cigarette for Marissa to take. 
"Yoo hoo. Earth to Marissa. Are you going or what?"
Marissa took a puff and drew a circle on the center square. "I don't know. My dad says
if a girl goes to a guy's house, that's like asking for it. 'So if you're ever foolish enough to put yourself in that position Marissa, you’d better be prepared for the consequences. Men are just after one thing and charming as you may be my dear, it's not your personality. "
"Oh, God. Like your dad's some kind of saint."
"I never said he was a saint. But he knows about men. How they are and all. You don't understand."

Linda's dad had taken off when she was little and while Marissa wished her father wasn't around 90% of the time there was that 10% of the time she listened to his advice.
"Oh, he knows about men all right. Yeah, I'll say he knows about men."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. It's supposed to mean nothing, all right?"

Linda stubbed her cigarette out in the sand, demolishing the Tic Tac Toe grid with the butt.
Marissa turned her face away and put her head down on her arms. She could see
the lifeguard watching the water through his binoculars. The waves were wild today, pounding and crashing like crazy against the sand. Marissa's heart was pounding too.
"I can tell it’s something,” Marissa said, “tell me.”

"Do you remember when you went for that interview at Penney's?"
Marissa remembered. It was just after school got out for the summer.
Her appointment was at nine and Linda had spent the night. Marissa let her sleep in while she showered and got ready. Her father was home as usual. He'd fried some eggs up for them both and then he'd taken his breakfast back to bed with the newspaper. Marissa remembered she'd popped her head into her parent's room when she left.
"Break a leg," her father told her.
"You too" Marissa had said and given him a hug.

He'd laughed. "I wish I could. Break a leg that is."
He'd been looking through the want ads.
"Course I remember. I didn't get the crummy job, did I?"
"I got up right after you left. I was even waving from your bedroom window
but you didn't see me. Anyway, that was Sam's last day in town so I threw on some clothes and was going but your dad heard me. He called out and asked why I was leaving so soon. I told him I was going to see Sam. He was still in bed. Your dad.”
"He was looking for a job." 

Marissa didn't like the way Linda said he was still in bed like he was a bum or something. It wasn't his fault he didn't have any appointments. It had to be pretty demoralizing, all those people saying no, just like that, not even being polite about it. Like he was nobody. Nothing. Just a voice on the phone. Marissa didn't blame him for staying in bed. And he was looking for another job. He was always looking.

"Anyway, he wanted me to come in. He said "Come on, give us a kiss goodbye then. "
"What did you say?" 

Marissa was sure her father hadn't said that. Linda was wrong.
"It didn't sound weird at the time. I always kiss your folks goodbye. But he was still in bed and
nobody else was home so I felt a little funny about it. But then I thought, you know, it's just Bill. It's Marissa's dad, the saint, for Pete's sake so I walked over to the bed and kissed him. On the cheek."

Marissa dug up a fistful of sand and let it sift through her fingers until it covered the daisy completely.
"But that wasn't what he wanted. "Come on now," he said "a proper kiss." And he pulled me down and
kissed me."
"What do you mean, he kissed you?"
"Marissa, your dad frenched me okay? No big deal, I'm just saying he's no saint. That's the point.
So don't go and tell me your dad knows how men are. Just don't. That's the point."
Marissa sat quietly for a long while. She didn't want to know anymore but she had to ask.

"Did he try, did-"
"Nothing else happened. I pulled away and left. That's all. I just pretended it never happened.
Look I'm a slut, right? So what's one lousy little kiss? I just thought you should know. He's no saint and you can't go round listening to everything he says like he's God. He's just a man, you know? So when he tells you how men are, well, maybe that's just how he is."
Marissa wanted her to shut up but Linda wasn't too good at that when she had something she wanted to say. Marissa guessed that was more her territory. "Grin and bear it" was practically their family's motto.

"Personally, I don't think it means all men are like that. I don't think it means
that just because you go to Tony's house means you have to have sex with him. I think it's up to you, Marissa. It's up to you."
Marissa wished she didn't believe her. She wanted to scream "Liar!" in her face. Except that she could picture her father in his thin blue cotton pajamas, unwashed, unshaven,
sitting back against the pillows in bed. There would be traces of yellow, bits of dried egg clinging to the comers of his mouth. The egg on his breath would be mixed with the smell of cigarettes. Marissa could almost feel the harsh brush of his face pressing against Linda's soft skin with a terrible force. 
It was such a dirty thing to do.
Like he was some dirty old man to steer clear of in the street. 
Marissa felt dirty too. And ashamed.
Like he'd done it to her.

There is no evil, only thinking makes it so.
There is no evil, only thinking makes it so.

Marissa stared at the words on the black light poster taped up on Tony's living room wall
and said them over and over to herself, like a mantra. It was Labor Day and she was lying on Tony's plaid couch, her legs up like they were in stirrups at the gynecologist. Her jeans were around her ankles. She still had her desert boots on. She was wearing yellow socks. Her blood spilled a deep, rich, royal red. Real 100% Virgin proof. When she came out from getting cleaned up in the bathroom, Tony was outside in the yard, hosing off the couch cushion. Marissa stood watching from the back doorway as the strong stream of clear water shot out from the hose nozzle. The water blasted against the bloodied cushion and then gushed away in an arc like a pale pink waterfall falling, falling on Tony's backyard, drenching the dry grass of summer's end.

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