Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lake of fire


There were tiny droplets of rain on the window screen my favorite time Luke and I made love. Little pinprick drops. They looked like diamonds. Sunday afternoon, Beatrice playing a song from a Jimi Hendrix record in the front room. I think she played it twice. This was when all three of us lived in Luke's bungalow outside Algonquin Park. This was when there was just woods and Luke's bungalow where a shopping mall is being built now. Beatrice was Luke's other woman. She was his wife.

1. How it began

I was 17-year-old jailbait with a tan and blue-jean cut-offs when Luke first pulled his faded Camaro up at my family's filling station. I skipped out to pump for him, as I did for all male patrons on those dull end-of-summer days. I was sucking on a lollipop and everything.
He was in his 30s and had long hair. I had hoped he was a hippy; I'd never met one before. I'd heard on the news that some of them came up here to dodge the draft. I had hoped to hear that he'd panhandled in Haight-Ashbury and dropped acid and been in a cult and participated in love-ins. But he was just a long-haired guy whose accent let me know he was born here.
At first all I got out of him was that he lived with his wife about ten kilometers down Route 450. When I offered to pump, he declined. His loose shirt was sleeveless. I stared at his sun-browned arm as he fed the nozzle to the tank. A bead of sweat rolled down his back arm muscle, which I'd learned in P.E. was a tricep.
I licked my sugar-sticky lips and leaned forward over the warm hood of his car. I was trying to look like a seductive girl in a movie. He didn't tell me not to. I looked right at him. I knew, from bored days spent in front of the mirror, that when I leaned forward like this, there was an umbra of cool, moist shadow in the hollow between my breasts, inside my T-shirt. He could see this if he looked up. Dizzy dragonflies skated and hummed in the parched grass across the road.
I made sure my parents were inside the shop when I said, "In some parts of Africa, men have more than one wife." It was a crazy thing to say, but he seemed like a guy I could mess with and get away with it. I was at an age when I thought I was a smartass, liked to be provocative, thought I knew everything. 
Also, my parents had a subscription to National Geographic, and they kept the back issues lying around in the lobby of the filling-station garage. 
"Hmm." He made this non-committal sound. 
"There's no rule that says we can't do that, too."
"There's the Bible."
"People had multiple wives in the Bible!"
"A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. Matthew 19."
"You can't become one flesh with more than one person?"
Half of his full, soft mouth smirked when I asked this. I think that if he hadn't sort of smiled, I would have just figured he was some religious nut and ended it there.
Instead I said, "They don't follow the Bible in Africa. They don't follow the Bible in China. Who says we have to follow it here?"
"Hmm." This time it sounded as if he were thinking it over. 
He kept his gaze on the nozzle. The tank was filling up. In a minute he would pay and leave.
I tucked the front hem of my T-shirt into the neckline and pulled it through, creating an instant "cropped top," something my friends and I had done in summer since elementary school. I walked to his side of the hood and leaned backwards onto it. The heat from the engine at my back was searing, but I liked it. It felt sort of like I was daring myself. 
He squinted in the sun. His gaze moved from the nozzle to the shadowed interior of the car, to my flat, tanned stomach, exposed to him between the tucked-up hem of my T-shirt and the waistband of my hip-hugger cut-offs. To my innie navel, to the hint of hipbone, to where my abdomen was concave just above my pelvis. His gaze stayed there, even after the click that told him his tank was now full. My heart beat so rapidly that I thought I might pass out.
"You need to go to church more," was his devastating remark before he handed me ten crumpled dollars and got into his sun-bleached car. At the edge of our lot I saw him look at me in his driver's-side mirror. It was a quick look and then he drove away fast. 

He came back a week later, even though there are other filling stations on our road to choose from. Something kept me inside this time, some childish fear, staying by the cash register and the candy bars, watching from the safe cover of shade. He didn't pump any gas. I saw him crane his neck around, searching, and frown almost imperceptibly before he got back in his car and drove down the road.

And again the next week. I waited to see if he would look for me inside, maybe pretending he only wanted a candy bar or some chips. My mom had been watering the pots of petunias out by the pumps, and she took his money. He always came on Sunday.

When he came the following week and my parents were nowhere in sight, I went out to him. I had been thinking of what I would say. 
"You can have this. It's from my school's library. I checked it out last year and never brought it back. It's about Africans and polygamy. There's also a part about Mormons."
He half-smiled. 
"Come to church with me next week," he said.
"You want me to be your date? What about your wife?"
"She doesn't believe in religion."
"Are you trying to convert her, too?"
He looked at the book I held out to him but he didn't take it. 
I had heard girls at my school flirt boldly by making crude jokes; the boys seemed to like this. I tried it.
"Do you think about me when you jerk off?"
"You need to have your mouth washed out with soap." He was still half-smiling when he said this. 
"I'll be here at ten next week." He left without the book.

The next Sunday we went to his church. It was a Church of God, one of the strict ones. The filling station was on his way to the church, which was why he had always stopped by on Sundays. My parents had never taken me to church. I assumed they were lax Protestants or possibly agnostic. I was wearing a short dress; my mom wasn't strict about my clothes. I sat next to Luke in a pew near the back. When he bowed his head to pray I saw his eyes open and looking at my legs. My thighs glistened with coconut-scented lotion.

Before he reached the filling station to drop me off, he said he wanted to talk about the sermon. Our pamphlets from that morning's service, which we'd fanned ourselves with as the preacher shouted in the late-summer heat, were strewn across the back seat. He pulled over near the turn to Route 450. He was wearing brown corduroy pants -- too hot for summer, which made me think they were the only pants besides blue jeans that he had for church, which made me realize he was poor. 
I said, "The pamphlets are back there -- I'll get them." I was thrilled at the possibilities for flirtation in this task: kneeling in the passenger seat to bend over, reaching into the back, stretching my body out before him, letting my hem rise in back, giving him the briefest glimpse of my panties. I started to turn.
"No," he said, catching my arm to stop me.
In his lap, hardness stretched brown corduroy taut. He closed his eyes tight as if fighting a demon. 
I said, "Let's take a walk."
The woods by where he'd pulled over were dense and primeval; we could have been in the Black Forest. I led the way, picking paths among fallen branches. We didn't talk about that morning's sermon. By then we had forgotten it completely.

***

I'm looking at those woods again now. They're flickering by fast through the window of the sedan I rented. It looks like an effect out of a movie. Luke called me last month to tell me that the bungalow is being bulldozed. He finally sold out to the developers. He found my number in Vancouver easily because I kept my maiden name when I married. Beatrice had split shortly after I did, he said. I'd wondered about that for almost thirty years.

***

When I met Luke, when I was 17, sex was a hurdle to be cleared, something that some of my friends had done or claimed they'd done, like smoking pot. It was a milestone, like getting your period. As we walked into the woods after church that day, I had no idea what game I'd been playing, or that it wasn't really a game at all. 
In the car afterward, I shook. I needed to take a bath; I had tears and blood on me. I couldn't move. He held me. We said nothing. We just sat there for a long time. 
The windows were rolled all the way down. No cars passed. 
The sun started to lower. We could hear crickets. My stomach was growling. "I need to take you home," he said. He started in the direction of my parents' house. 

As we got closer to the house -- passing the tiny historic post office that's been here since the Europeans arrived, that one house with all the decorative crap in the front yard, the sights of my everyday life for the past 17 years -- I felt the need to stay with Luke. 
My parents worked long days at the filling station. It wasn't just the hours that the shop was open; it was hours before that and even late some nights if some dumb shipment was late or the amount in the cash register didn't square with the total from the receipts. 
Unless I hung out there with them at the boring old shop, the evenings after school at home were long, making myself sloppy peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches or cheese on crackers for dinner, phantom noises in the house. On nights when my parents weren't home yet, I went to sleep beside a flashlight and our scariest kitchen knife.   
There was all of that, and now I was in love with Luke. 
On the way to my parents' house, I talked him into the arrangement. I told him that I wanted to live a larger life, something more bohemian and exciting than my parents' empty house and school and the filling station. He went along with the idea, not just because he was insatiable but because, I realize now, he was weaker than I was.
He changed direction and drove us to his bungalow.

2. Questions

When I imagine telling this story to someone, I think of the questions they would undoubtedly ask at this point.

"Your parents just let you go live with him?"
"What about school?"
"How long did you live there?"
"What about his wife?"

Yes, they did. I was obstinate.
I continued to go to school every day, and my grades were good.
One month.
Beatrice consented to the arrangement.

***

There are questions that some people might be too polite to ask.

"What was it like being part of a real-life ménage a trois, not one in a French movie?"
It wasn't as decadent or as sordid as it sounds, most of the time. We never had a sexual threesome, and Beatrice and I were never lovers--the thought of that is as laughable, bizarre, and even somehow embarrassing to me now as it would have been to us then. Some days were boring, and we'd each keep to ourselves, Beatrice listening to music in the front room, Luke reading the Bible outside, me trying on outfits and make-up in front of the full-length mirror in the back room. But there were moments that damaged all three of us for good.

"Did he favor one of you?"
For sex, he favored me. But he always slept in the bed he shared with her.

"Who was more beautiful, Beatrice or you?"
I'd say we were equally matched, in our own ways. She was far smarter.

"How did she react when you first moved in?"
At first it was just as if Luke had brought home a hobo or a hitch-hiker. I think she thought I was a teenage runaway and felt sorry for me, possibly even maternal. That first night, I quelled my growling stomach with Beatrice's pork chops, on sale at the grocery store that week, and the two of them argued in the bedroom, which was the back room of the tiny bungalow. I could hear every word. Beatrice had served me dinner on Luke's inherited china that they brought out for guests.
"You want her to live with us?!"
"In other cultures men have more than one wife." Luke's voice sounded so feeble, parroting what I'd told him at my parents' filling station all those weeks ago, and he quickly added, "And sometimes in other cultures women have more than one husband, too." 
"Bullshit. Since when do you care about other cultures? You just want to get to fuck two women. And one of them isn't even a woman yet!"
I forget all of what she said, because she yelled at Luke for a while. I remember thinking she sounded intimidating and educated, and that most of what she said was a rant against men. She said that marriage was "an antiquated and oppressive institution." She said some things about "the patriarchy," which was a word I had never heard anyone use in real life. Luke later described Beatrice as a "militant feminist." The reasons that he gave for using this label were that she didn't wear a bra or shave her legs or armpits.
During the month that I lived with them, Beatrice would occasionally say something about how our arrangement was "flagrantly misogynistic." I learned a lot of political words from her while I lived there. 
But she stayed. She didn't leave the bungalow until I did.

"If Luke was so religious, why was he with Beatrice, who didn't 'believe in religion'?"
They had met before Luke turned to religion, when he was turning to other things -- alcohol, drugs, lots of sex, radical political opinions, anything he could take to thrilling extreme, anything that made him feel more alive. 
They had been in the same class at the high school in our town. In the years after graduation, when Beatrice would come home from college for Christmas or summer break and Luke was still here, the two of them turned up at the same parties, in the same group of fifteen or so kids philosophizing in beanbag chairs in someone's attic in a cannabis haze. One hot summer night, at one of these gatherings, some of the guys played pool shirtless. Beatrice, the smartest girl in their class, with a tangle of dark frizzy hair and glasses, wiry and spunky, watched them for several minutes with a tension in her posture. Then she stood up, whipped off her T-shirt, picked up a cue, and she played topless, too. The variety of guy there was too "enlightened" and polite to whistle or joke, but they all snuck glances at her perky tits as she joined them in their game. Safely ensconced in his beanbag chair, Luke had grown hard. Later, as the party wrapped up, he'd told her: "What you did was so brave. If only more women took a stand like that." Luke was the sort of person who intended no lewd double meaning when he said this. His eyes had shone earnestly. Beatrice told me this story.

She tutored him, told him what to think about the world. Their marriage was the one religious thing she acquiesced to -- to hear her tell it, marrying Luke had been like giving a child a longed-for toy. She had him in her thrall, which is why he never left her for me. No matter how hard I tried, with my lacy hot-pink panties and frequent blow jobs, flaunting my youth (something I had more of than she did) and even pretending to believe in the Bible, he never spent an entire night beside me. He always returned to her.

3. Life at the bungalow

Things between Beatrice and me couldn't have been anything other than icy. But sometimes when Luke was out working on a house, she and I talked in a remarkably civil manner, and there were moments when I thought of her as a distant big sister, as someone to look up to.
One time she walked past the bathroom (it was not a real room, just a curtained-off toilet, sink, and bath tub in the back room) as I stood at the mirror putting on lip gloss and eye shadow. She stopped when she saw what I was doing, and she said that women shouldn't have to paint themselves up to attract men. Beatrice was twice my age and more intelligent, but I was precocious and tried to debate with her. I told her that men can't help what they like. I said that some men -- we rarely mentioned Luke by name to each other -- grew up seeing movies and magazine pictures with painted-up women in them. 
I said, "So that's what he thinks of as attractive. It's cultural. It can't be undone."
She said, "It will never be undone if we just give in."
With Beatrice, it was us-against-them; men needed to be taught, as if they were all a bunch of stupid schoolchildren. Meanwhile I thought of Luke and myself as playmates, liked to think of our time together as dress-up and games. 
I thought: "If she loved him, she would want to make him happy, whatever it took. What's the big deal?"
After I moved into the bungalow, I pretended to be religious, trying to impress him on a more spiritual level. Beatrice never did that. 
But it didn't really matter; eventually after I moved in, sex with me became all-consuming for Luke, and he forgot about everything else, even God.

The only part of Luke's born-again Christianity -- his one deviation from what she told him to believe or disbelieve of the world -- that Beatrice approved of was its discouragement of lust. Luke said she had a low libido, or that maybe she felt her progressive views were incompatible with the feeling of wanting and needing a man. Luke told me that after sex, even before I was in the picture, Beatrice seemed sullen, bruised, as if she had suffered a defeat or compromised herself.

It hurt him to do that to her.

Some nights, during the month that I lived with them, he would climb into their bed after making love to me and find Beatrice curled up tight, far on her side of the bed. He would reach for her. One time, he even whispered to Beatrice (I could always hear them through the wall), "I'll ask her to leave if you tell me to." I heard Beatrice scoot away from him and say, "No, you need some stupid pussy to keep you occupied while I'm doing important things." Beatrice worked at a homeless shelter in the city. She got home late most evenings and worked some weekends. Her salary wasn't high, but she made about three times as much as Luke. It was her work in the city that paid the bills, not Luke's sporadic carpentry jobs.

She supported him, but her resentment festered. One night, years before I moved in, after a trying day integrating a new, large, hopeless family with a lot of kids into the shelter, Beatrice had put on a gray oversize sweatshirt and collapsed into bed. Her hairy leg had accidentally brushed against Luke's. He'd cringed and said, tentatively, "So, you're never going to shave again?" She'd bolted up in bed and glared at him hard in the dark. This was how she was. So she wasn't a smooth plastic Barbie doll. He could learn to live with that or he could carry on without her. The sex between them dried up to nothing. Luke bought issues of Penthouse in other towns where cashiers didn't know him, then he threw them all away when he got the notion that religion might tame the inferno of his desires.

And then there I was, a kid at a filling station sucking on a lollipop and showing my belly to him on a sultry afternoon. It had been a game to me at first -- Can I get this adult man to lust after me? Can I wear down his resolve? Can he make me more experienced so that I can be the one telling the good stories at my friends' parties? He was old to me at the time, but better-looking than any of the guys at my school. He didn't seem to know how good-looking he was. His skin and long hair were the color of honey, and his lips were lush, almost like a girl's mouth. His chest had the symmetrical musculature of a Ken doll. He smelled like sawdust, like manly hard work.

* * * 

When I told my parents I was going to live with him, that Luke was waiting in the car and I was only there to pack some things -- I expected them to shut me up in my room, bar the windows, bolt the front door, hire an armed guard. Secretly I wanted them to. My mom, who had been sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of receipts from the shop, had said, "You're going to do what you're going to do." I wonder now if she was maybe trying to get me to stay through a kind of reverse psychology. But she didn't protest or plead; I thought I'd even detected hostility, or a deeply tired annoyance, in her voice. So I did what I was going to do. She helped me pack.

At school that month, the first month of my senior year, my story was notorious. I loved it. There were girls who wanted juicy details, and there were girls who wanted to take me to church to save my soul (which was what Luke had claimed he'd wanted at first). One day, high on all the attention I was getting and feeling the need to entertain, I gave my friends a blow-job demonstration with a banana that one of the girls' moms had packed in her lunch.
Guys at school were uniformly impressed. Everyone stared. Word spread to the teachers, and it was a guidance counselor who told me that I had to return to my parents' house or she would call the police, and Luke could be arrested for statutory rape.

That's how it ended. The day of the guidance counselor's threat, I stuffed my clothes and bath products into my duffel bag, and called home. I was glad it was my dad who answered. I asked if he could pick me up the bungalow, and he just said "OK." I was numb, but I told myself that I was being noble, that I was saving Luke, that we were Romeo and Juliet. For about an hour before I left, I sat on his lap in a rocking chair. Beatrice was at her job, and for one more hour, it was our house. We clung to each other. He pressed his face to my heartbeat through my blouse, and we both wept. This was more than lust, I thought. On the drive home, I saw that my father was now old and sad. I felt unknowable to him.

4. Afterward

My parents asked my aunt and uncle in Vancouver if I could live with them while I finished my last year of high school. They never asked me if that was what I wanted to do, and I never said that it wasn't. I think they wanted it, though. I think they didn't want to have to think about how they had failed. I think they didn't want to think about how, when a person needs something, they will find a way.

I started school out West at the end of the fall. I was an ordinary girl there. In my hometown, talk moved on to other things, and my parents saw no dip in sales at their shop. I got a degree in anthropology and spent a year living with indigenous people on a jungle-crested island of Papua New Guinea, studying their mores and taboos. I came back to Vancouver and married an accountant who plays the piano. I teach at a community college. My daughter will be 17 in two years.

***

I saw my parents once a year on Christmas when they flew to Vancouver. I didn't ever go back to visit my hometown. It wasn't my parents I was staying away from. It wasn't my former neighbors and classmates either, the ones who'd stuck around and might still remember what all had happened. I was staying away from him.

***

"I think she can hear us," I whispered to him once.
"Shh."
It was my first night in the bungalow. He had come to me in the front room, dark, no starlight coming through the thick layers of leaves outside. Beatrice had given me mothball-smelling quilts and a pillow from a wooden chest at the foot of their bed. The couch had a wayward spring deep inside that poked into my back. I would feel that spring in my back many times that month, and would learn how to twist myself into a shape that let me avoid it.
I choked back a cry. "I think she can hear us," I said again, futile.
"Shh. You feel so good, so good."
I was still sore from the first time, earlier that day in the woods. I gave in to it. I thought, "My life is extraordinary. I love him."
My eyes adjusted to the darkness in the room. Soon I could see the outlines of furniture, then the patterns of their fabrics. As Luke made love to me, the darkness became something familiar and everyday.

***

When she knew that Luke I were making love, there was a song that Beatrice would play for herself: "May This Be Love" by Jimi Hendrix. "Waterfall, nothing can harm me at all, my worries seem so very small, with my waterfall." She'd been playing it that time Luke and I made love in the back room as it rained, my favorite time, the time I felt the closest to him. I had noticed it only as much as any other detail. It wasn't until years later when I heard it again, on the radio driving home from work, that I even really tried to understand how it was for her. 

Luke had tried to reach both of us when it was time to sell the land to the mall developers, but Beatrice was nowhere to be found after the last of their divorce papers were signed.
On the phone, I said, "You'd think she'd be easy to find." Beatrice had an unusual and hard-to-spell last name. "Even if she got married, she never would have taken her husband's name."
Luke said, "But if she did, she's disappeared."

I met Luke at the bungalow, which I saw was empty inside now. He had built it, years before I met him, with only two rooms. I saw now that Luke had become, in his 60s, the hippy I had hoped he was back when I first met him. He was still a carpenter and he sometimes taught yoga at the community center. After Beatrice and I were gone, Luke told me, he didn't have any other women living with him in the bungalow. Other than a few one-night stands right after Beatrice left, he'd been celibate. He had finally managed to channel his intensity into a relationship with God.

We walked through the woods to say good-bye before the bulldozers arrived. This was his idea, and I indulged him. As we walked, he carried flowers. They were cheap carnations, browning at the edges, probably one day from being thrown away by the florist; he was still poor. In my LL Bean-catalog clothes, my hair professionally cut and the grays covered, the keys to a maroon Volvo on a promotional key ring with the name of my husband's firm on it inside my Coach purse -- I was in a different social stratum than Luke now. We wouldn't have sat at the same high-school cafeteria table.

This time he led the way. I watched him, stooped and skinny from an ascetic vegan diet, his long hair graying like wisps of spiderweb. I dimly remembered how I'd felt walking into the woods with him that first time, as if my life had been about to begin. I wondered when it had changed -- when he had stopped being a conquerable older guy and had been transformed into someone I had thought I was in love with, someone worth wrecking homes for. I felt no love for him now, or even hate. I felt only pity and a distant shame.

It was Sunday, eve of the bulldozing. The sun was setting, the leaves were searing. We walked through the ones that had fallen. I felt every color keenly: topaz, sawdust, honey, rust. We breathed ghostly puffs of cold air. It had rained recently. Luke stopped in front of a small dirty pond anointed by the sun, a lake of fire. He sprinkled the carnations onto the water. Their heads bobbed on the surface, death-tinged blossoms whose long stems grew tangled in the water and parted as the bouquet became twelve separate flowers.

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