The first story I ever told [memoir]
My big bro Russell and me. Tripoli, Libya 1957-ish
I told my first story back in the Beatlemania days when I was just discovering boys, and mad for McCartney. I wrote this story about that story in 1993, the year my boyo was born and nap time meant writing time for Mommy. We were living by the beach in Redondo, and our small beach town throwaway newspaper published my story that summer.
At some point I took the story within the story out and published it elsewhere on this blog but here's the whole thing, a tweak here, a tweak there but pretty much the way it first appeared in print.
This is the first story I ever told. I told it when I was thirteen years old and went to April's party alone because my best friend Trixie had to stay home sick. If Trixie had been at the party I wouldn't have thought to tell the story at all; in our team Trixie was always the star attraction. I don't know how I got the gumption to go without her but I did, wearing soft gold-colored corduroys with my brother's camel colored V-necked sweater and brown penny loafers without socks. My hair was hanging perfectly for once, falling to my shoulders in a silky honeyed sheet and I remember feeling as rich and luscious as a Cadbury's golden caramel candy bar.
There was an older boy at the party, a high school boy, who wore wire-rimmed glasses like John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful. He was tall and had already begun that self-conscious slouching some tall boys do and I thought he was wonderful. He wore glasses like I did except he looked handsome in his while I looked like a bug in mine so I swept them off my face and stashed them in the pocket of my pea coat for later. Another of the boys was wearing off-white Wrangler jeans with a button-down fly and a cranberry shirt with gold polka dots the size of gum drops. He was the first boy I'd seen whose clothes caressed his form. Or maybe it was just the first time I noticed. He wore penny loafers without socks too, most of us did, and danced without moving his feet at all. He just stood there bouncing his head up and down, slowly bending and unbending his forefingers, held at shoulder level, to the beat of The Searcher's Love Potion Number Nine on the turntable, one of the other guys asking April if she had anything by the Stones. This must be the way all ninth graders danced; how different to the boys at our school dances in the gym, all gangly and stiff. These boys had style, they had personalities; at fourteen and fifteen they were already developing into the men they would become.
April was tall, already developed, with lustrous red hair and heavy bangs, just like Paul McCartney's girlfriend Jane Asher, and had been left back a year. She was the first girl in our eighth grade class to get her ears pierced. She painted on a row of lower eyelashes and dotted freckles across her nose with eyeliner like the Carnaby Street mods. The next year I would get my hair cut short just like Twiggy's and dot on my lashes too but this year April seemed more than just older. To me she was as magical and mysterious as any movie star. When she had everyone put aspirin in their Cokes to get high, I did it too. How bad could it be, I reasoned. I drank Coke all the time and aspirin seemed harmless enough. We sat in a circle on the floor, the lights low, waiting for the concoction to kick in.
And so, under the influence of the Coke and aspirin high—I think, therefore I am—and intoxicated by the boys' presence or Trixie's absence, I came to tell this story; it was the first time I thought to tell this or any other tale.
It was 1958, I was five years old and we were living in Tripoli, Libya just outside Wheelus Air Force Base. We weren't military, we weren't even American but my father, formerly with British Intelligence, had somehow been hired by AFEX to infiltrate the store as a manager and investigate the cause of the outstanding financial losses. He turned out to be a great manager too, in fact he ended up being the man responsible for bringing the hula hoop craze to North Africa, holding a big promotional party with hula hoop demonstrations, clowns, balloons and lemonade in the parking lot. And he found the embezzler too, a good friend of his, he was sorry to say.
The base boasted one of the largest airplane hangars in the world and one year we went to a huge Halloween party in it. I went as Minnie Mouse; my mother made me a tail out of tin foil that trailed behind me on the ground and eventually tore free. The older boys next door came dressed as women with great red lips and huge breasts fashioned from pillows. I think my brother was jealous because he'd played it safe and just done himself up as a hobo. He was a fine tramp though with his burnt corked face and sweet blue eyes gleaming.
All the houses had flat topped roofs and my parents used to throw parties on ours, Chinese lanterns blowing in the night breeze. My sister took her first steps running from our mothers' washing basket to me as the clothes whipped back and forth on the line in the strong desert sun.
My favorite place was a restaurant called The Mirage. It had an outdoor patio that was deserted in the daytime so I'd get up on the wooden stage on those hot afternoons and entertain my mother and the empty blue and yellow painted tables and chairs, while the sun blazed overhead. Afterwards we'd cool off in the dark of the air-conditioned bar sipping on sweet, syrupy Cokes. The bartenders always gave my drink an extra shot of flavoring. What I loved best were the family dinners we had there. The Mirage was famous with my brother and me for the mashed potatoes they served up in scoops of perfect roundness, with a pool of gravy dolloped in the middle. I'd traverse complex waterways through the potatoes with my fork, carving out miniature rivers and streams before finally savoring their sticky smoothness and the lukewarm gravy.
I loved the place so much, my parents hosted my fifth birthday party there. Browsing through the old shoebox of faded black and white snap shots, it's easy to pick me out from all the American girls. There they are, two long rows of five year old girls from the base with already perfect American smiles, their teeth perfect strands of polished pearls. And there I am, the only English girl. I was the one with a goofy grin and glasses; freckled and bespectacled, that grin gurgling up just a little too giddily. My eyes big with expectation as much as from the thick round magnification lenses slipping down my mouse-sized nose. Miss Mouse, my mother would come in time to call me. After the cake, all the perfect little American girls and I danced around the May Pole my mother decorated the patio with, pastel pink and yellow streamers cascading gaily down, sweet and musical.
Pausing to take a sip from my Coke, I could feel my face go pink and hot all over. I couldn't believe I'd spoken for so long, all at one time.
"Go on, tell us the rest. Go on."
Struggling to focus—without my glasses my vision had already begun to blur and double in the dark—I found the owner's face, the boy who wore glasses too, and while I wasn't sure, his eyes seemed to be smiling behind the wire rims. He looked, well, fascinated. I was flustered and flattered and thrilled. I went on.
On breezeless summer nights my dad might take us to the beach to see a movie projected on the huge outdoor screen, the waves competing grandly with the film's soundtrack. Leaning pillows up against cement benches sunk into the sand, we'd burrow our feet into the sand's cool softness, watch the show and the sky and the stars and sometimes drift off to sleep before the film's happy ending.
We lived off the base, in a house on a wide and dusty road, the sun bouncing back and forth between the street's powdered haze of sand, the brilliant whiteness of the buildings and the glaring brightness of the sky. This was our neighborhood and unless we were with the boy Mohammed, who wasn't a boy at all but a full grown man, we were forbidden to venture beyond the confines of its narrow square.
One day I rode on the back of Mohammed's bike into the village, my brother peddling alongside. We stopped in a shop, musky and shadow-filled where Russell and I sipped on Black Cat colas while Mohammed, drinking a chai; a tiny cup of tea as black and sweet and syrupy as the club's Coca Colas, spoke to other men in the gruff and secret language only they and my father seemed to understand. On the ride home, my ankle got caught in the bicycle spokes and I screamed until at last poor Mohammed pried it loose and after that I wasn't allowed to go anywhere at all with or without Mohammed, who I liked and didn't blame a bit. Mostly I didn't mind staying close to home, preferring the company of my eternally singing mother. What other mother could croon "Que Sera, Sera" just as sweetly as Doris Day or "Josephina please don leana on da bell, when you mush, please don pusha da bell" with as much verve as Eddie Cantor?
There were times though when I got restless and bored and I'd slip off to Debbie's. She lived in the road behind us, her veranda cool and dusky in the shade of an ancient palm. This veranda was our fortress, its thick walls covered with lush Persian rugs. Like the knights my brother was always drawing from his boy's books about King Arthur and Robin Hood, we balanced those castle walls and jousted with broomsticks, apron-capes flying from thin girlish shoulders. "On guard!" I would cry in Russell's voice, "Right makes might".
For Debbie, who was six and more experienced, or so she said, this excitement paled with time and one day she wanted to go hunting for adventure further afield. Shamed into following, I wandered slowly behind her towards the forbidden village and its beckoning blue mosque. Nearing the town wall, we saw a group of Arab children playing outside the gate; kicking an old ball around, sending the sand swarming with every step. In some unformed notion of panic we turned to run back home and almost ran headlong into two young village boys. Faces greyed with grime and sweat, the four of us stood, transfixed, staring. I had never been so close to an Arab boy before, certainly not the kind that probably followed you, running after your car, banging its hood, holding palms out for money. They were both older, at least eight or nine and one was taller than the other and thinner underneath his gallabayo. I wondered why these boys and men wore what looked like the striped nightshirts my brother had not so long ago refused to wear anymore. Now that he was almost eight and practically American, he wanted pyjamas with cowboy stuff on them like the boys next door wore to movie nights at the beach, the kind with the red wagon trains on them like the ones they sold down at the PX.
The smaller boy started talking in Arabic to the taller one. Jutting his chin at me, he kept muttering in a shrill little voice. Like those tiny yelping dogs with the sharp biting barks he kept on and on. The taller one held my terrified eyes in his. Brown and luminous they were speckled with gold in the midday sun. I didn't know what the smaller boy was saying to the taller boy but I knew it was me he was saying it about.
But my friend Debbie knew. "It's your glasses. Better hand 'em over"
I wasn't so sure. They were my glasses, my hated British National Health glasses with the round lenses thick as Black Cat cola bottle bottoms, the elasticized metal rims that wound too tightly around my ears, pressing into my skin, itching in the heat, we were talking about. The glasses that stopped my left eye from straying too far afield as though I was looking for my imaginary friend Nancy. The glasses that stopped the world from moving too fast for me to see it. The glasses that took two weird and wobbly faces and made them into one.
I was terrified but I was also mad. "No! They're mine"
A moment of silence passed, breath noisy in all our throats and then the gibbering began again.
A fly traipsed across the tall one's lip, making my mouth twitch but he remained unflinching, listening, looking at me sideways while the little one yammered away. Bobbing his head rhythmically, staying silent, the taller boy leaned in closer, eyes locking into mine. I couldn't take my eyes off his face. Bringing his hand slowly up between us, his fingers found his cheek and creeping upwards, reached right into his own skull and drew out his eye; a slimy, milky, throbbing ball, pupil bulging. Popping it onto the palm of his dust covered hand, he offered it to me with what could only be called a grin. An eye for an eye. And I stood still, too scared to scream at this sight more terrible and true than any gory frigh-night horror movie watched on that huge and wondrous outdoor movie screen. I was too scared to try to stop the smaller one as he snatched the glasses from my face. Too scared to do anything but tremble in terror, I watched as the boys ran off, their two shrinking silhouettes becoming four as they wavered and then disappeared mirage-like behind the village gates shimmering in the suns.
It was awful. Worse because I was really starting to see double, two of everything.
That evening I went with my father, his friend Bakir, and Mohammed, on a search party behind those village walls. Hunting for the culprits we went from house to house, while I tried to hide behind my father's pant legs. I didn't want to see too far beyond those curtained doorways and dusky rooms where gruff voices shouted and young brown-eyed boys strained to see me in the fading halflight.
"No Daddy, that's not him. No Daddy. No" I barely whispered, squinting to stop the shadows dancing in the dark until these three men would finally give up and we could go home.
"Not to worry" my father said, tucking me in at bedtime, his ghost bobbing by his side. "We'll get you a new pair from the PX right away".
"With baby blue frames" my mother said kissing my forehead with four ruby red lips. "Close your eyes now and sweet dreams"
But sweet dreams of baby blue frames were not in sight and I fell asleep, my eyes squeezed shut tight, terrified that in the night when I forgot to concentrate, my lids would slip slowly open and my eyeball, slimy, milky, throbbing, its bulging pupil darting here and there, would slither out and fall into the blackness, leaving me screaming, blinded forever, crying in the dark.
Finished with my story, I found my pea coat and fumbled through its pockets, felt the familiar rims, the heavy rounds of glass smooth beneath my fingertips, before I braved a look around the room and saw them all; April, the dancer and the tall slouching boy, their grins multiplied in the darkness.
I never saw the boys again, and April and I drifted apart. She was too fast for me and I think I missed counting on Trixie to get the attention while I stayed comfortably in the background. But that night I was the golden girl with the honeyed hair. The teller of the tale. The girl who glowed as she shared her story. I went home to sweet new dreams and possibilities; visions doubling in my head. I think I've wanted to be a writer ever since.
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