Stories about Derek [Memoir]

Ive written eight separate pieces about an old boyfriend from the 1970s. They add up to about 7400 words total, just about the length of an average short story, so I thought Id gather em up and put em in order to see if they hang together. Or fall apart. 

Boys and Black Coffee

The last thing I wanted was a part time job that had anything to do with food. Or uniforms. Not after my stint in the employee cafeteria at my mom's work. Still, somehow I ended up hemming a turquoise uniform to work at the snack bar at the grocery store right across the street from our apartment. The snack bar at Vons— if it had any other name, I never knew it — served up mostly cheeseburgers, milk shakes made with scoops of real ice cream, and deep-fried chicken. Plus a whole lotta coffee, especially to the employees.

Id see the stock clerks coming, and after working there a couple of weeks, I learned to grab the pot ahead of time, bracing for the gang of them shoving their dimes across the counter, jostling for service like overgrown frat boys. While they shouldered each other about, Roger, the old man of the group at thirty something, would take his place at the far end of the snack bar. His back against the wall, as cool and assured as the lawyer he was prepping to be, he slid his coin toward the register, a wink in place of words. Niles, calling out Coffee, shweet-heart! long before he reached the lunch counter And make it snappy! in his best Humphrey Bogart, was the noisiest of the bunch. You could always tell when Niles was working a register, his line the lengthiest; everyone willing to wait just a little bit longer while Niles juggled your oranges or flipped your box of cereal high in the air before punching in the prices in those pre-scanner days. Calling out hey there, how ya doin’?  to every female who passed, both the pretty women and the tired old ladies and the giggling little girls too, Niles made the ordinary chore of grocery shopping just a little bit lighter. In his wake, came his awed followers, the younger guys wishing they had what Niles had, whatever that was. Not impossibly great looks or deep dimples. Not football hero muscles. Nothing but high-octane charisma. Armando, big and bashful, wincing at Nile's brashness, quietly asking for a cup of coffee, please? Black? I always poured his and Rogers first, Niles didnt notice, he was so busy twisting and shouting hey, how ya doins? as longtime favorite customers passed by.

Are those the same hot dogs I saw here last week? one of the guys might joke, or Ya have any that arent green? and if between the two of us we could find a frank that still looked smooth and plump, he might even say Yeah, okay, lets risk a chili-cheese dog. The occasional customer would order a dog smothered in sauerkraut but mostly the franks were left to wither and wrinkle, spinning all day on the rack in the glass case, only to be thrown away at the end of the night. 

We threw everything away. The mayonnaise grown crusty and yellow at the edges in its square metal tub. What was left from the pound of cheddar Id grated early in my shift. The onions Id sliced and diced as my eyes burned and teared, the stink of onions staining my fingers no matter how many times I washed my hands, until Lena taught me how to stop the tears by chewing on a piece of bread and to get rid of the smell with lemon juice. We threw everything away, everything but the fried chicken. Lena insisted we took the chicken home. 

Its güt chicken. I don't vant it go to vaste. 

Lena was the boss. Short and squat, she peppered her vocabulary with ya's like an Old Country cliche. She kept her hair, still vaguely reddish with a generous dusting of floury white, under a hair net, and insisted her employees did the same.

Except for Derek. Derek had the most beautiful silky hair in a pale shade of blond I coveted; it was the precise tone I labored to duplicate every month with a bottle of Clairol. When he wasnt working at the snack bar, Dereks hair swung just past his shoulders, so bouncy and shiny it could be in a shampoo commercial. But when he was working, he pulled his hair back in a ponytail and shoved it up under a short-haired mens wig. He looked ridiculous with his off-kilter black bow tie and white shirt, the tails of which were constantly slipping out of the too-big black pants that slid off his hips, and bad rug perched on his head. He must have tried to match his own natural shade but the platinum wig, devoid of shine, sat on his head like a patch of bleached out hay, his darker sideburns peeking out from beneath the bristly fake hair. Derek didn't care that he looked ridiculous. Unlike some of his friends who had to cut their long locks just to work at Sears or the corner gas station, he had an after school job and he still had both his long hair and his mandatory 70s mustache. 

Be good boy, Derek, bring up tray of chicken, ya? And don't take all day. Derek would smile all the way to the downstairs cooler where the chicken parts were kept, sneak in a quick smoke and a bathroom break.

Hed come back, taking much longer than he should, like always, and Lena would scold him good-naturedly, like always Derek, Derek, vat Im going to do vit you, eh? and shake her head. 

Lena had Derek show me how to keep the grill clean between orders, using the large metal spatula to scrape the grease, beef drippings and burnt cheese into the well at the base of the grill. He made sure I knew to save the left side of the grill to toast the buns and grilled cheese sandwiches and to cook the burgers and patty melts on the right so the flavors didn't get all mixed up.

I watched while he made me his top secret recipe vanilla shake; the muscles in his California-brown forearms tightening as he dove down into the cooler, scooping out the vanilla ice-cream from the large cardboard tub. The secret? Careful to make sure Lena didnt see, he used an extra scoop of ice-cream and not just one, but two extra-long squirts of vanilla syrup. 

He watched, arms folded, leaning back against the deli counter, while I drank it up.

Okay, okay, you two Lena admonished Get beck to verk. Derek, you go downstairs and do chicken, ya? 

Can I do it after my break? 

Lena checked the time. Oh sure, ya. You take your break now. 

Excellent. Can she come too? He nodded in my direction. I can show her where everything is. 

Where everyting is? Go on! Get out of here! You think Im shtoopit? She grabbed a clean spatula, and waved it like a weapon in his direction. A month already, shes verking here. She knows where everyting is. 

Oh my Gott she said to me, laughing as Derek backed away, pretending to fend off her pretend blows.

That boy? Vat Im going to do vit him? she laughed. Come on, lets make some fresh coffee, ya? You know the boys will be here soon, they dont have much time.” It was true. They didnt have much time. Me? I was having the time of my life. 

Waiting on a Friend

If I got down on my knees I could safely peek out my bedroom window and see the whole parking lot across the street, the last few employee cars illuminated in the moonlight. With the lights off, shielded by the leaves of the tree in front of the apartment building, I could watch Derek as he headed out to his GTO, whipping his wig off as he walked. 

He’d sit for a minute, one leg out the open door and I imagined him scratching the wig itch out of his head while he hunted around for a smoke or maybe an 8-track tape to pop in before peeling out of the lot. Leaving me sitting back on my bedroom’s green shag carpet, rubbing the wormy indentations from my kneecaps and wishing I was there with him, riding along in the passenger seat, singing along to Wild World or maybe the Stones. He’d probably like the Stones better than Cat Stevens. We could drive down to the beach, stop for a root beer at the A&W along the way. Or go up to Douglas Park and sit on the swings in the little kids’ playground. I imagined our shoulders touching as we swayed in slow circles, bare arms skimming bare arms, feet anchored in the sand, until we finally had to come together in a kiss. Our first kiss. 

We both worked at the snack bar at Vons but our schedules didn't always align and even when they did, Derek spent most of his time battering chicken down in the basement. He'd bring up a tray of breasts and wings, clomping into the snack bar in big rubber boots, and I’d find myself smiling at the ridiculous sight of his long white-blonde hair stuffed up under the cheap, short-haired wig he had to wear for work.

“Hey,” he’d offer.

“Hey,” I’d smile. 

Things weren’t exactly speeding along. 

He probably had a girlfriend. I knew he was going to Grad Night and I wondered if he’d be running through Disneyland holding hands with some pretty brunette, riding the Matterhorn with his arms around her. Someone like Melanie with the stick-straight glossy brown hair halfway down her back. Melanie who lived North of Wilshire like Derek did. Except Melanie didn’t just live north of Wilshire, she lived North of Montana where the streets became boulevards and three bedroom bungalows turned into rambling two story Spanish and Craftsman style homes and modern marvels half-hidden behind walls of trees, antique bricks and swirled iron gates.

In Home-Ec class the spring before, in my senior year at Samohi, we’d actually taken a field trip to Melanie’s house, the whole class shuffling through her huge kitchen with its hand-painted French country porcelain tiled backsplash behind the six burner stove, and our Home-Ec teacher Mrs. Connors pointing out the efficient work triangle as breathlessly as if it were DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man. 

We tromped up and down hallways and hardwood stairways through the den and the library and the bedrooms, and the bathrooms and a second story laundry room where a housekeeper was busy folding towels so fresh and bright they looked brand new. Like they tossed them out when they got the least bit dingy. We were making our own dresses as a final class project so we paused briefly in her mother’s sewing room, complete with a Melanie-sized mannequin and open shelving filled with Butterick patterns and bolts of fabric. A bulletin board was covered with fabric swatches and pictures of mini-skirts and maxi-dresses pulled from Seventeen magazine. The walls were papered in deep orange with thin yellow stripes alternating with brown and turquoise flowers, like a room straight out of Better Homes and Gardens. 

Through the window there was a patch of matching turquoise, a glimpse of the swimming pool surrounded by banana trees and birds of paradise. I couldn't wait to get out of there, away from all of our oohs and aahs; my own gushing that made me want to throw up. If Derek lived in a house like that, if he was used to girls like Melanie, I didn’t stand a chance.

So instead I hid in my room, peeking through the window, a weird little watcher waiting to see what he would do.

E Ticket to Ride

I met him at the grocery store ... he turned around and smiled at me. In my first year at Santa Monica College, I was still living at home while I worked part-time at the snack bar at the Vons market across the street. Derek worked there too, after school, and I found myself scanning the store’s parking lot at 14th & Wilshire, seeking out his blue and white GTO more and more. There was something in the air that summer besides the delicious smell of the deep fried chicken he spent most of his working hours battering up in the basement. 

You know how it is. I couldn’t wait to get to work and it had nothing to do with wanting to make cheeseburgers and serve coffee at the snack bar all day long. It was him. All about him. Just the sight of him in the silly platinum wig he had to wear to keep his long blond hair from slipping into the food and I’d have to bite my lip to keep from smiling. I lived right across the street and when I wasn’t at school or work I couldn’t stop myself from spying on the parking lot from my bedroom window, wishing for just one more look at him. I had it bad.

“You must be psyched! Just a little bit longer and you’re done for good.” I kept my eyes on the grill I was cleaning, scraping the grease off, while I talked. “Are you excited for Grad night?” Did he have a girlfriend? Was he taking a date? That’s what I really wanted to know.

Every year Disneyland shut its doors to the general public; Grad Nights were for high school seniors and chaperones only. Usually when you went to Disneyland you bought a book of tickets that ran in denominations from A to E. The E tickets were for the primo rides like the Matterhorn, the first you ran out of. And you always came home with a couple of A or B tickets left dangling, unwanted, unused, in your book. How many times could your basically normal teenage girl go through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle? 

On Grad Night—E tickets, A tickets—none of it mattered. I’d graduated from Samohi the year before but I hadn’t gone. My best friend and I, dismissing the Grad Night outing as a field trip for losers the same way we’d turned up our noses at the prom—neither of us having actual prom date prospects anyway—hadn’t signed up to take the bus out to Anaheim. We’d gone to Westwood in our hot pants instead. Desperately looking for trouble we’d ended up at the movies. 

A year later, I teased Derek about being a high school boy but now that Derek was graduating and he was going to Grad Night, I wished I was back in high school too. Maybe we could have gone together. Disneyland was even better after dark, especially if you had someone to hold hands with when you ran from one ride to the other, from the Matterhorn to Autopia, from the Rockets in Tomorrowland to the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland. I thought about the way the boy slid into his seat on the Rockets and the Matterhorn first, the girl easing her way down, sliding between his legs, bodies just a blue jeans’ breath away, closer than any nice girl could usually come to that part of a guy’s anatomy. At times like that, Disneyland wasn’t just the happiest place on earth, it was the most romantic place on earth. 

Was Derek taking someone? Would he be slipping into his seat on the Rocket ride holding onto some high school girl’s hand as she settled in between his thighs, his arms pressed in close, his body straddling hers as they flew around and around? Was she someone on the girl’s volleyball team, fresh-faced and athletic or some stoner chick who hung out on 7th street, smoking doobies with the guys at lunch? I contrived to sound casual, like I was just curious, like an older sister might be. 

“You guys will have the place practically to yourself.”

“Yeah, it’s gonna be a blast. No lines for Pirates!” 

Which told me nothing. My mind was making me crazy, filling me up with the usual self-doubt but then I’d turn and catch him staring. He’d just beam at me, making my stomach flip like a cheeseburger on a hot grill, all melty and sizzling inside. Maybe he liked me too? I didn’t know what to think.

And then she showed up. Viviana. 

“Ah, you’re here!” Lena, the manager of the snack bar, practically squealed. “Come, come.” She beckoned the girl, about my age, to the end of the deli case, reaching over the counter and squeezing her hands. 

“Derek, Simone, I vant you to meet my niece, Viviana. She’s visiting me for summer.”

“Hi!” I flashed my brightest smile. Tried not to see Derek light up like the Disneyland fireworks.  

No makeup. Not a stitch. She had one of those Isabella Rossellini faces. Not a freckle, not a flaw. Just great big dewy brown eyes rimmed with dark thick lashes. A mouth that was a direct opposite of mine. Plumped up rosy lips that she curled into a small, shy smile, like she stepped out of a painting by one of the great Renaissance masters. Or Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

“Hello” she said. Hello. Nobody our age said hello. We said hi, we said hey. I half expected her to say “good afternoon” but she stopped at hello, that one little word dripping with the exotic sound of her mother tongue. I flipped out over guys with foreign accents. Give me a boy whose French accent made ‘do you know the time?’ sound like he was saying Je t’aime. I glanced at Derek, wondering if Viviana’s voice held the same appeal for him. 

“Hello” Derek echoed, nodding his head like one of those stupid bobble head toys people stuck to their dashboards, a big Dumbo smile on his face. “Welcome to Cali!” 

My stomach flipped again, that greasy cheeseburger feel churning inside.

In the cups

Derek was already there when I walked into Lenas place. Viviana was sitting in the corner of a love seat, Derek straddling a kitchen chair, facing her. He was making her laugh about something, her lips curved over flashing white teeth and I wished I could walk right back out the door. 

I could see he’d come straight from work. His idiotic wig was off but he was still wearing his white work shirt. Leaning forward, tails untucked, his pale blond hair and shirt were bright in the otherwise darkened room, caught by the light coming from the kitchen. The same light that lit up Viviana’s mouth. Lena, grinning from the kitchen door, beckoned me over.

Thanking me for coming, hugging me to her warm, soft body, she gave me a plate of little sausages wrapped in golden brown pastry to put on the coffee table. They looked like miniature versions of the sausage rolls my mum picked up from the English shop except, besides being a whole lot smaller, it was clear Lena had baked these herself.

She was positively delirious about the way things were going. I was positively not. After I put the appetizers on the coffee table, I tried to decide what to do next. I knew what I should do, go over and say hello to Viviana. But I couldn’t.

Lena’s apartment wasn’t much more than the one L-shaped room we were in; the living room with a green floral patterned couch facing a tv set, a matching love seat, a dining area where a group of older women were sitting at a dinette set, the small galley kitchen, a hallway, more like a small square than a hall, barely big enough to turn around in, with three doors. The doors on the left and right opened to bedrooms, the door in the middle, the closed door must be the bathroom. I could hit the bathroom, hide out in there for awhile. That was my usual modus operandi. Sit fully clothed on the toilet. Wait for the panic to subside. Except I couldn’t, the bathroom door was locked.

I knew I should force myself to walk over to where Viviana and Derek were sitting. It was just a few feet away. A glance away. Instead I sat on the corner of the couch, and looked everywhere else. I smiled at a couple of young women I knew by sight as checkers at the market. Derek must have seen me come in. Or was he so taken with her he really didn’t notice me at all? I feigned interest in the books and bric-a-brac Lena had on a small shelving unit against the wall. A couple of Hummel-like figurines on lace doilies, a fluted green vase, it’s narrow opening too small for even a single flower, an ornate bone china platter with flowers around the edges and a gold palace in the center. On the top shelf, framed photographs of Lena’s family back home. Wherever back home was. Germany? Holland? Belgium? I half-wanted to pick up the plate, look at the back, maybe that would give me a clue.

“Hey!” Derek was suddenly there, squatting in front of me. “I didn’t see you come in.” A long strand of hair fell over his glasses, silver aviators. I wanted to slip it back behind his ear. “Weren’t you even going to say hi?”

“I only just got here. I was, um, I just—” I just what? Lacked chutzpah? “I was just about to.” Sure I was. “Hi.” I looked over to where Derek had left Viviana, she was laughing with a couple of the employees who worked at the theater across the street. Sometimes we’d give them chicken and they let us in the theater for free. I wondered if Lena knew. “Viviana looks like she’s having a good time. It was nice of Lena to throw her a party.”

“Yeah. Lena’s cool. So how’d you get here? I looked for you after work. I promised Lena I’d give Viv a ride. You could have come with us.”

Viv. How long before it was Vivvie, I wondered.So that’s why he’d disappeared so quickly. Lately, even when he punched out before me, I’d run into him just outside the store. He’d be sitting at one of the concrete tables, smoking a cigarette. I’d thought maybe he was stalling, hoping to see me.

“I had to go home and change.” Get away from the onion smell that insisted on clinging to my clothes. Feverishly try to scrub away all traces of the smell that seeped into my skin, digging its way deep under my nails. I’d put on new bellbottom jeans, bleached light blue in the kitchen sink, an embroidered Mexican peasant blouse I’d bought in Olvera Street. A pair of wedge sandals.

“You look nice.”

Nice. “Anyways, I better say hi to Viviana.” I saw her sneaking peeks at Derek and me when she thought I wasn’t looking. I smiled over to where she was standing with her new friends in the kitchen doorway. Waved my fingers. “Then I think I’m going to get going.”  

“Going?! You just got here.”

“Yeah, I know but—”

But what? But I didn’t want to stick around and see him and Viviana—Viv, Vivvie—get together?

“How’d you get here?”

“Walked.” I was such a lame-o, I was 19 and I didn’t drive. It would be another year or so until I got my own car, in the meantime, even though Santa Monica is an acolyte of L.A., I did without wheels. I took the bus, walked, begged rides from my parents. “It’s just a couple of blocks.”

“Stay a little while and I can give you a ride home.”

“Oh, you don’t have to—”

“Please? I want to. But I should stay a little while longer, okay?”

“Sure, okay.”

He went to the kitchen and came back with a couple of sodas—there wasn’t any alcohol, it wasn’t that kind of party—and we shared a plate of Lena’s sausage rolls.

Viviana came over and sat on the edge of the coffee table and showed us some pictures of her family, her boyfriend that she already missed so much. She didn’t know how she was going to bear being without him for the whole summer. When Derek got up to see if he could find some decent music on Lena’s radio, something other than the Carpenters, Viviana nudged me.

“Nice boy, right?”

“Derek?” I said through a grin I couldn’t keep down, “Yeah, he’s a nice boy.”

“He likes you very much. You know this, right?”

“He does?!”

“Shhh.” I looked up as Derek sat back down, a paper plate full of cookies in one hand, in the other, three fresh sodas in red cups gripped by the fingers like holes in a bowling ball. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t any alcohol in the cups, I felt dizzily off kilter, happy, and drinking nothing but soda, more than just a little bit drunk. 

A guy, a girl, and a GTO

We were such a cliché. We sat in Dereks car for hours that night. Just talking. His dark blue and white GTO parked in front of my apartment building, everything quiet, the street dark, the grocery store parking lot across the road, empty. Once I noticed a shaft of yellow shine down from our 2nd story living room window; someone, my sister, my parents maybe, pulling back the curtain to peek down and check on me. I looked away quickly, like a kid covering her eyes—if I cant see you, you cant see me—praying no one came down and made a scene. The way my parents had when I didnt get home from Disneyland until after 2 oclock in the morning.

Songs must have played on Dereks tape deck. Or maybe it was the radio. It could have been the Stones, it could have been the long version of American Pie. Like a soundtrack to a movie it was just background music. The audience might notice it but to the actors, wrapped up in their scene, it isn’t really there.

We sat in his car, on his dark leather seats, facing each other but leaning away from each other as far as we could, our backs pushed up against the faux leather doors of the car, oblivious to the door handle pushing into our skin, taking each other in.The gear shift in the center console between us was like a bundling board, our faces stuck in that absurd state of suspended disbelief when you just can’t get over the inane fact that you are the object of affection for the object of your affection. Every move they make becomes a tell. Every motion an overture. The fingertip trailing the top stitch on the leather seam of the upholstery. Back and forth, back and forth. The scratching of the chin with the back of the hand. The shake of the head, sending hair tumbling forward. The hand, skimming over it, smoothing it back into place. The fingers turning the metal knob on the AM radio dial, between thumb and forefinger, gently, gently, to the right.

Later, months later, I would make him take me to the The Brown Derby and we’d sit in a dark leather booth and I’d sneer at him over the menu of the famous high-priced restaurant I knew he couldn’t afford. I’d sit, straight-faced, defiantly voicing the most expensive menu choices aloud, raising my eyebrows disdainfully if he mentioned money. Punishing him for loving me, disgusted he could allow me to be so cruel, I did everything I could to make him break up with me.

But that was later, months later. First would come sit-com happy days that went on forever. Days that started with that night, sitting in his car, stupid smiles on our faces. Stupefied by our imagined moments to come, savoring the sensation, ignorant of what was to be. Me, aching to reach across the divide and touch the woven strip of leather circling his wrist. Him, telling me he liked me the very first time he saw me. The very first time.


I sat on the curb outside Dereks house, legs bare, stretched out in front of me in a pair of denim cut-offs, arms freckling in an embroidered Mexican peasant blouse I’d picked up in Olvera Street. Just catching some rays in the hazy sunshine of a predictably sunny summer day in Santa Monica. Never too hot. Never too cold. Just ... right. Derek’s head safely under the hood of his GTO, futzing around with the dipstick, I took a quick swig of Coke, bringing the bottle up to my mouth, suddenly embarrassed at the phallic shape, wishing it was a can instead. Derek popped his head over the hood, mustache twitching up in a smile, holding his hand in the air expectantly like a baseball pitcher standing on the mound, waiting for a ball. I obliged, tossing him the dirty old rag from where it lay next to the can of Penzoil on the road at my feet. In a minute we’d know if he needed to top off the oil or change it all together.  If we were lucky, the dipstick would be slick with deep amber. Then we could go for a drive somewhere. Go somewhere.

We spent a lot of time in that GTO that summer. Washing and waxing the car until the metallic blue shimmered in the sun. Armour-Alling the dash. Scrubbing the white of his wheels. Hosing off the floor mats, vacuuming the interior. And driving. Driving everywhere. Cruising down Sunset, music blaring from his 8-trak, just as I’d imagined. Baby baby, it’s a wild world. American Pie. Joy to the World. A Horse with No Name. Heart of Gold. Singing along right out loud. Hard to get by just upon a smile, girl.” Neither of us able to carry a tune but not caring. Laughing and loving the way he looked in his aviator sunglasses when we flew down the California Incline and hit PCH, the Pacific often as bright a blue as Derek’s car.

At night we’d prowl up and down the dark side streets north of Montana Avenue, where the homes lay far back from the street, often behind walls, hunting for a private place to park  before the police chased us off, their high beams blaring into the car. Once we’d had barely enough time to stop making out and to straighten my t-shirt before a cop was shining his light in our faces like we were common criminals. I looked down at Derek’s impeccable floor mats while the policeman lectured us on the advisability of parking in cars on dark streets at night. 

We both lived at home. I shared a room with my sister in our family’s two bedroom apartment. Derek lived in a nice middle class house on the better side of Wilshire. 

Our apartment was out of the question. My mother would be at work all day at the phone company but my dad, an insurance salesman, was home almost all the time. Derek’s dad worked for Douglas aircraft, his mother was an executive secretary who wore business-like skirts and dusky cardigans over pastel blouses. His house was always empty in the middle of the day, he promised. His parents both at work, his brother at school. 

We’d parked in the street, gone in the side door through the yellow kitchen with the Colonial American maple cabinets. He’d led me silently down the gold shag carpeted hallway to his room, where the cocoa brown corduroy coverlet on his neatly made twin bed exactly matched the brown of the beige and brown plaid wallpaper on his bedroom wall. We’d just sat down on the end of the bed when we heard the back door open; Derek’s mother home unexpectedly from work. We’d bounced up from the bed instantly, trying to get as far away as possible from that mattress before she appeared in the doorway. Wed barely made a dent in the corduroy spread.

“Hey Mom,” Derek sounded perfectly normal as he grabbed a can of Penzoil from his closet floor. 

She smiled at me over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses, her eyes an exact match for Derek’s pale blue. 

“We’re just gonna check my oil. I might need an oil change.” He headed down the hall to the kitchen, his mom and me trailing after him. “Did you pick up soda?”   

So now, there we were, back to our place, Derek’s car. Home sweet home.

On Sunset

When you say Sunset, you think of the Strip, the section of the boulevard that curves along the northern ridge of West Hollywood, snaking its way down Sunset from the Chateau Marmont at La Cienega to Doheny, past the clubs that in 1973, I’m still a year too young to get into and I’m too chicken to have a fake ID: the Comedy Store, the Rainbow Room, Gazarri’s, the Whiskey A Go Go. But Sunset doesn’t stop at the Strip. Sunset straightens up and leaves the Strip behind when it comes to Beverly Hills with its mansions and maids waiting for the eastbound bus that takes them home at days end. The road winds westward past the pink Beverly Hills Hotel where stars in convertibles turn in for drinks at the Polo Lounge, slides past the edge of the UCLA campus that I’ll transfer to in another year, swooping over the 405, beyond Bel Air and finally deep into the comfortably upscale neighborhood of Brentwood before it twists and curls its way to the ocean. That’s the Sunset I know best, the portion south of the 405, driving round the bends on warm summer nights in Derek’s GTO.

Something isn’t right. We’re deep into that comfortably upscale neighborhood of Brentwood, on our way to a party at a friend of Derek’s but he looks away when I ask him ‘what friend?’ ‘whose place?’

“You’ll see.” Like the location of the party is suddenly a surprise, a secret he’s guiltily guarding.

We sit at the light at Sunset & Kenter, it’s so quiet along this stretch of Sunset—except for one understated motel on the corner there’s nothing but houses and trees all around—that the clicking of Derek’s left hand turn signal is like the ticking of a cartoon time bomb. It’s so loud it blocks out ‘Nights in White Satin’ playing in the background on Derek’s 8-track tape player. Derek slowly makes the turn then pulls over to the side of Kenter and parks.

“Are we here?” I don’t see or hear a thing. No lines of parked cars indicating a party, no house alive with music and raucous laughter. Just darkness and a hush. “So where’s the party?”

“Shhh.” Derek takes my hand. “It’s here but we have to be quiet.” He leads me past some bushes down a driveway.

Looking around, I see where the party is. It’s a motel. Derek is taking me to a motel and the party is us.

He takes a motel key out of his pocket, a blue plastic diamond shape with the number on it in white and makes sure we’re in the right spot. All the rooms look like little cabins, the kind of place I stayed at with my parents when we drove up the coast of California, through Oregon and Washington, to Canada. I’ve never been inside a motel room with anyone but my parents and my brother and sister in my entire life.

Derek pushes open the door and steps aside to let me in first. I half expect him to pick me up and carry me over the threshold but he doesn’t. Inside is an ordinary room, a double bed, a dark red spread. On the pillow a matching red rose. One gently glowing lamp on the bureau lights up the motel’s plastic ice bucket with a bottle of champagne in it. It’s cheap stuff, Andre, the champagne we drink at my house every holiday, laughing that it tastes like a fart, but drinking it anyway. A couple of plastic click-together champagne glasses are set out next to it. 

“When did you do this?!”

I find I’m as blown away as if he’d strewn a thousand red rose petals in a path from the car to the bed, or hired a pilot to write my name in the sky.

“Is it okay?”

“It’s more than okay,” and I close the door behind him.

Behind Closed Doors

It’s natural, isn’t it, when you’re young, to think about sex all the time. Didn’t you?

Before our first time at the Brentwood Motel, that’s all we both thought about. We couldn’t keep our hands to ourselves. Wondering. Endlessly curious about its earth-shattering nature.

There was a shift after that. Once, in the middle of the day, Derek had parked his GTO at a turnout in the road off Temescal Canyon, and treading past overgrown bushes, we’d found a patch of ground semi-surrounded by brush and bramble. Just 50 feet from the busy street, we laid a blanket on the ground, doing it under the sun, surrounded by green. If life had been caught on camera in 1972 the way it is now, that day, with every flashing sunbeam peeking through the trees, would look like a forerunner to all those MTV music videos yet to come, Derek playing the part of the lead singer, with me cast as the girl in the song. Behind the scenes, in real life, my heart was speeding, the sound as loud in my ears as the whoosh of the cars speeding by, more from the fear of discovery than any all-consuming desire I might have.

Another time we’d driven the twenty minutes down PCH to check into a motel in Malibu. There were cheap motels closer, I suppose he was trying to be romantic. For me, Malibu had exuded a special brand of magic ever since I’d watched Malibu U back in Canada when I was just fourteen. The notion of being in Malibu stirred my imagination but the reality did nothing to stir my desire. The motel itself, small, charmless, high on the bluff, just off PCH, far back from the beach, was disappointingly viewless. But why did I even care about the view? Why was I so hard to please?

Our first real overnighter was in a motel on Mission Bay in San Diego. Decades before anyone thought twice about the wrong or right of keeping whales in captivity, we took a trip to Sea World. The theme park was still young back then, its reputation untarnished. We’d come down the evening before, Derek going into the motel office while I waited in the car, too embarrassed to show my face to the desk clerk, feeling guilty about lying to my parents. I’d made up some stupid story about going to San Diego with a group of friends, anything to avoid admitting I was having what my mother would later describe as ‘a dirty weekend.’ Leaving the Mission Bay motel in the morning, I felt the eyes of the maids, looking me over, seeing right through me, labeling me ‘puta’.

“Mornin’, ” Derek, unhindered by the double standard, nodded cheerfully to a man and his wife, their three excited looking little kids skipping across the parking lot to their car, pulling on the door handles, while I slipped into Derek’s GTO wordlessly, averting my eyes.

I loved Derek. I’m sure I did. I loved his cheerfulness. His easy guilt-free satisfaction. I loved the drives we took in his GTO, music blasting, stopping for a Mama burger and a root beer at the A&W. I loved having a real boyfriend to hold hands with, to skooch in close to at the drive-in movie. I loved not having to worry, was he going to call?

While we mostly just hung out, the places we went together stud my memories.

Places like the almost new Magic Mountain with its pristine pathways leading from attraction to attraction, the grounds still bare, almost virginal, newly planted shrubbery and trees yet to take hold. Bobby Vinton, a 1950’s throwback even then, had been playing a free concert. Derek swore he’d been singing Blue on Blue directly to me.

Back then you could take a tour of the Busch factory in Van Nuys where neither of us was old enough to legally drink. We’d taken the monorail circling over the tanks in the factory, and afterwards in the company sponsored Busch Gardens, been served not just beer, but free beer in the tropical beer garden and watched the bird show. Driving home the 20 miles from Van Nuys to Santa Monica on the freeway, the notion of the advisability of drinking and driving, not even entering our heads.

We mostly went for burgers and pizza but he took me out to real restaurants like the Broken Drum too. A quiet, very grown up restaurant on Wilshire and 6th in Santa Monica. Deep red leather booths, little lamps glowing above the tables, a fireplace. Their catch phrase, The Broken Drum, You Can’t Beat It. But you could. The Broken Drum closed years ago.

Derek and I closed too, lasting about 8 or 9 months. We’d planned on taking a trip to Europe together the summer of '73 but early in the year he told me his best friend Gary had won a trip for two to Europe on some radio contest. And was taking him.

I wanted to believe him but it all seemed so unbelievably convenient that I just couldn’t. What kind of radio station gave away trips to Europe? Not KLOS, not KHJ, not any kind of radio station a young guy would listen to. I was sure there wasn’t any free trip, he’d just rather go with Gary. Instead of confronting him I held my resentment inside, finding fault after fault, picking and picking him apart, reducing him to a crumb, a fleck, something I could brush off the linen table cloth of the Brown Derby where we ate what would be our last supper.

Somewhere over the years I came to believe that I punished Derek cruelly with my coolness simply for loving me. For always being there, suffocating me with his constant presence and boring consistent good cheer. I know now that I didn’t punish Derek for loving me. I didn’t punish him for not being enough for me. I punished him for not loving me, for showing me I wasn’t enough, for him, maybe not even for myself.

We ran into each other on the Santa Monica College campus the following year. Chatting like our history was just something that happened, we discovered we were both taking astronomy classes and decided to drive out to the high desert together to see the comet Kehoutek our Astronomy teachers were touting as the Comet of the Century. We leaned back on an old blanket searching the sky and shared carefully edited stories of our European trips. I’d ended up going by myself, but I didn’t tell him I’d been so miserable and lonely, my parents had to fly my sister over.

The comet sighting was a dud and we left without seeing a thing but at least we’d earned some extra credit. Just as we were about to pack up, Derek pressed himself against me, his tongue slopping at my neck. We hadn’t said a word about getting back together and I pushed him away, wanting to know what was going on.

“Are you trying to get back together” I asked him outright.

“No, no.” He looked stricken. “I just thought—”

“You thought what?”

“I just thought ... we’d always have that.”

I got in the car, slammed the door shut but he struck me as being pretty pathetic at that moment, thinking that whatever that was—a simple release, without love or emotion—could suffice. We rode home silently. Our time together very much gone.

Like Derek and me and the Broken Drum, The Brown Derby and Busch Gardens are long gone too. Even Sea World is finally changing, likely on its way to oblivion. These days people flinch at seeing whales perform in tight quarters. But the Brentwood Motor Inn and that viewless motel in Malibu remain, very much a part of my Southern California landscape. I think of Derek in passing, every time I pass.

It’s odd. I remember so much about him, from the first moment we met at the snack bar, the silly way he looked in the wig he had to wear to work, the sizzle of that first attraction, the fondness for those happy summer months of tooling around, just hanging out, going here and there in his GTO, but for the life of me I can’t remember what really went on behind the closed doors of those motel rooms.

And whether we ever really had that.

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