Binghamton, February 1965
It was in the autumn after my first trip to California that awkward adjustments first became a specialty for me. Routines I’d enthusiastically thrown away now had be reestablished.
Going back to high school and the familiar jog of classes, for one, felt like being the only adult in a world full of children. My classmates concerns–popularity, dating, grades, college, etc.–were not mine, nor were my ruffled considerations theirs. I was probably a little too addicted to the kick of rebellion by the time I turned seventeen, but now, I was also learning that, for every wave of adventure, a backwash must swell. Experience ends; points of view change. I had to learn to live with what comes next.
So, how did I get here. The trail I took the last six months had been so rambling, I sometimes had to sit back myself to put it together.
One long night the previous winter, I’d found myself stuck out on the streets, so tired and cold I decided I had no choice but to make my way back to the one door I knew I’d never find locked.
After weeks away, I snuck inside and huddled for warmth in the dark on my family’s living room couch. The familiar stiffness of a front door cut from too green wood, the general creakiness of a building perpetually settling on its foundation, caused it to seem like a stranger’s space where I was somehow familiar with the surroundings. Dad had turned the thermostat down to almost nothing before going to bed, for economy, as he always had, and even after an hour or more inside, I was still shivering, although out of danger. I’d never slept on a couch overnight before.
I rested there, listening to the sounds of the house from a different perspective, the rattles from loose objects, the not quite identifiable shuffling of four people asleep, the muffled intrusions leaking in from outdoors. On the coffee table just in front of my knees, I could make out the outline of yesterday evening’s newspaper where it’d been discarded in sections. As a kid, I’d distributed newspapers all over our rural neighborhood after school. I read it every day, too, sports first, comics second, international news last. Now, it seemed to be incomprehensible information about someone else’s planet. The strangeness of being here combined with the bulkiness of my winter coat prevented any deep sleep. I cruised the surface, not quite in, but not a long slip away either.
The erratic details of my life of the moment kept knocking around in my head in a familiar search for resolution. After another confrontation with my father, who seemed to harbor a special distaste for me that was unlike any he had for my brothers, I’d proved my independence by walking out one evening and not coming back. Then, determined never to return, I’d found space with the family of a friend where they accepted giving me shelter as the only alternative to my sleeping on the streets in the dead of winter. I was not returning to Dad, that was for certain. I even took a job for a few days, making milk shakes and fries at a drive-in, before getting canned for a combination of incompetence and unauthorized snacking. Now, after a few weeks, the generosity of my friend’s family was becoming almost as thin as the excitement of having run away to nothing. Without school, I knocked around all day, killing time. After dinner, there was only television. I was neither reading nor writing. I was sixteen years old with nothing but girls and independence to grab my attention.
“The future’s a fucking farce,” I told my friend Denny, whose family I was temporarily living with, explaining my dilemma. “What’s out there that’s supposed to be so fucking interesting? College? Bullshit. Then, what?”
Denny and I were hanging out in his family’s small barn. The wood frame building provided shelter for two horses, both of which were now in their respective stalls, chewing absently after having had their feed.
Denny had a similar slant on things.
“As soon as I can, when I’m seventeen,” he asserted, “I’m going to sign up for the army or the navy and get the fuck out of here. They’ll take you, if your parents sign. Mine will because they think the military will keep you out of trouble and make you grow up. I fuckin’ hope not!”
He smiled. We both took pride in seeming juvenile delinquents.
“My father’d sign too, if we were speaking,” I agreed, “just to get me out of his life. That’s how my brother escaped. Vroom! Outa’ here! He comes home on leave talking about all the ports in Europe and Asia where he’s been onshore. Imagine getting the fuck away from here!”
Before arriving at the magical number, seventeen, however, I had to maneuver my way through four more months. At a minimum, I had to eat and sleep. Somewhere.
At the usual ungodly hour, before the middle of the night had given up its definition, my father’s alarm clock ripped the silence, and moments later, flipping on lights, he thudded past me on his race to the toilet. His brain not yet ignited by caffeine and tobacco, Dad never looked over his shoulder to see me. I’d shrunk a little into the darkness, uncertain how welcome I’d be without witnesses. In a black mood, he might as easily throw me out with a snarl as welcome me back in silence.
I sat up in bleary indecision for a moment, weighing uninspiring options. Then, before the flush of water announced his return, I reluctantly gathered my scattered self together and, still shivering, scrambled out into the liquid cold. I closed the front door as quietly as possible behind me. It made me laugh a little when I imagined Dad sitting on the toilet and wondering who was breaking into the house while he was immobile. It hadn’t been in my thoughts to invite a confrontation, only to feel less frozen, and now, even half-awake, it was the easiest thing to step aside.
The country road I’d grown up walking and crossing was silent and still. A slash of dawn barely scarred the eastern hilltops. Gritty snow clogged the gutters, and the trees were hopelessly leafless against a star-splashed sky. Spring wasn’t coming for a long time. For me, this was home but not home, all at once. I’d never discard it, the frigidly beautiful edge of dawn, the familiar houses, the neighbors I knew must be sleeping nearby, but I’d also never belong here in the same way again. My connections frayed, they’d soon snap apart forever.
“It is fucking cold out here,” I said to some invisible companion. “Whew!”
Then, I shook myself to get the blood circulating in my limbs. The awkward couch time had stiffened my muscles.
Like some kind of uncommitted ghost, I walked on down the unlighted road past houses where I knew all the family names and lights were starting to come up. For a couple of years, after inheriting a route from my brothers, I’d delivered newspapers, door to door, after school, going around on Saturday mornings to collect on the subscriptions. I knew whose doors were open and when everyone came home. I also knew who was barely able or unwilling to pay. After a mile, my road ended at a divided highway where my brothers and I, years before, stood in awe watching crews and their machinery clear and cut the bed. Men in grimy, sweat-saturated, short-sleeved shirts and heavy boots laid it parallel to a soon to be marginalized two-lane that had connected old farms, country homes and settlements for decades. My memory of the work crews carving a road out the bare earth, pouring paving materials, remained vivid, cataloged as one of the dramatic transformations of the Fifties, linking rural America and powering a nation. Now, the busy, divided highway was lined with small businesses catering to travelers and truckers, all of their parking lots now lit up in a succession of pools against the stubborn night.
I found an empty seat on a stool at a truck stop and spent my last money on two slices of toast and a deliciously hot, invigorating mug of coffee. By what seemed like decades, at sixteen, I was the youngest, least seasoned veteran in the restaurant, but no one asked the obvious questions or seemed inclined to. In this place, in the still barely disturbed winter night, in a remote nook in the world, the unhooked citizens were likely to leave you alone. The dry heat felt like heaven. Relaxed finally, able to edge more easily back into the accommodating corners in my own skull, I sat there sipping from the mug an intensely frowning waitress kept filling and got comfortably back into the feeling that I could be anyone and go anywhere. Anything could happen at any time.
All I had to do was start walking, hitchhiking, bumming accommodations, finding girls, believing, taking on whatever circumstances I found in my singular adventure. I could easily become some modified kind of tramp, I thought. It was all there, although that vague, but exhilarating “it” was not destined to get much clearer for some time and never completely. I understood it more than I knew it in any concrete way, but I did begin to see the raw outlines of some thing. Maybe “it” was just the hole left behind by what I no longer saw–the inevitability of events in the future. Whether I’d stepped or been shoved out the door, I was fully out and not now feeling much like I wanted to go back in. This was the fantastic borderline of childhood, and here I stood looking forward, cold, flat-broke, homeless, hungry, a little bit boggled, and determined. I felt good. This first full blush of freedom was the right, irrational place to begin. All the other jerk-offs my age were dragging their asses out of bed to go off to be bored in one more day at school, I thought, amusing myself. I’d be doing something different. I stayed on that stool for quite a while, watching the mixing point of the universe go back and forth, in no hurry to decide anything. There was no place I needed to be. Daylight came up and filled the windows, traffic enlivened the new highway, car after car pulling up to the pumps out front, and I was Bob Dylan at dawn, sitting alone on some riverbank, watching the river flow.
Six adventurous months had passed since that cold, clear morning, and I’d concluded that I was too jaded, too Dylan-inflected, to be swept up anymore by uninformed enthusiasms. That phase was gone. In this one, I wanted to know. Already, 1965 had been my longest year, month after month after month of fending for myself. After surrendering to enough weeks at home to avoid the cold and to wait for the Navy to accept me, I’d taken to the roads in the spring to find my mother and California and saw places and did things I’d only guessed about before, opening up a new way to see the world and how to handle it.
Actually, somewhere in 1965, I’d crossed over to the idea that I’d handle the world at all, rather than be handled by it.
As July stretched out and summer began to seem endless, I’d still been in California and aware that it was glaringly obvious that my original premise in coming here had been completely swept aside. I never talked about joining the Navy anymore, leaving me without an excuse for continuing to hang around, doing nothing, a seventeen-year-old dropout with no plans. Mom, who’d already saddled her third husband with the five kids she’d introduced into the world during the tenure of his alcoholic predecessor and who’d bestowed on me the nickname, Automatic, because I was shiftless, started asking routinely about my intentions, as if she imagined I must have some. Her husband, Sam, was a good guy who already worked two jobs, and another child was not in the budget. That was the unspoken, but certain, set of facts I had to keep aware of.
“I wish I knew what I was going to do,” I confessed, aware I was being urged to go back to New York.
Mom and I had committed much of the last few weeks to the somewhat lost cause of getting to know each other again, and I’m sure having recaptured one of her initial brood lightened her. I was equally certain that conversations about my status were being conducted behind closed doors and that they’d heated up after I walked out on my military physical and, then, stayed on. Realistically, there was only one place where I still belonged. I’d burned a lot of bridges, but not all completely to the ground.
“So, you think dear old Dad would welcome you back with open arms?” Mom asked, her sarcasm less acid now toward the man she claimed had campaigned to destroy her.
“I think he legally has to, don’t you?” I answered confidently, donning my tough guy persona.
I felt I should let her off the hook. I’d always loved her, and she had enough on her hands without me.
“I’m still a minor. He doesn’t have to like me, but he can’t just throw me out. He can’t.”
Mom laughed and shook her head. “Dear old Dad...” she sighed.
We were at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. We’d spent a lot of time on that, drinking coffee, gossiping.
“Do you think he’d send you any money, you know, to help you get home?”
“Only one way to find out. I’ll beg,” I said, and in that roundabout way, Mom and I acknowledged that our time out of time together was drawing to a close.
I’d never see her again with anything left of a child still in either of us, but I’d be permanently grateful I’d been able to do it now while she was still in her prime, raggedly gorgeous and full of optimism.
Almost immediately, Dad responded to a letter I wrote by mailing a bus ticket, firmly stamped “NON-REFUNDABLE” in red on the front, leaving the responsibility for traveling cash with Mom and Sam. In this way, they fired one more round at each other, me having placed myself squarely in the middle.
As soon as I could put my traveling gear back together, without seeming like I was rushing nor being pushed to the door, I got a ride from Sam to the bus station, Mom and my half-brothers and half-sisters jumbled in his station-wagon and yelling “Good-bye” and “Don’t forget us!” out the windows.
I climbed aboard and occupied the same seat on a Greyhound Scenicruiser for three days, finally transferring to a local in Buffalo, on my way back to Binghamton. I read J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories to pass the time and watched the country whiz effortlessly by. Drivers changed; other riders departed and joined. Briefly, in Nevada, I made friends with Australian newlyweds who had the seats across from me and were out to see America firsthand at ground level. We killed time during a stopover in Reno recklessly pulling the handles on one-armed bandits and even winning a little. I made no other friends, more accustomed than ever now to flying solo.
Back in New York, eight weeks lingered before I’d return to high school and chase the diploma I’d never learn to care much about. I slept late for the rest of the summer and, denied a tardy return to the baseball team where I’d once been a star, unobtrusively watched heat and sun enrich the hills and fields around me.
No one was ever more happily directionless. I parted ways with baseball’s dreamy green fields, rendering wasted all those days spent emulating and learning from Drysdale, Snider, Koufax and Stan Williams. I got involved for a while with Rosie, a pretty blonde Polish girl who lived in Johnson City. Rosie was tall, straight and lean and inclined to introversion, even to the point of sometimes seeming unreachable. We started out by taking long walks and holding hands on her hilly, neighborhood streets when I came by after dinner. The evening shadows extended and cooled around us. In this crepuscular time, the world pulled back. We talked and talked, mostly about the future and what we’d eventually make of it. Her outlook, once she began putting it into words, was far more conventional than mine (as was everyone else’s), and I suppose that was some of the attraction. She wanted a family of her own, preferably not far from where we stood, and I had some uncertain ideas about writing books and having no other commitments. Some girls really did dig a boy out on the edge, a rebel, a pusher into the future. I was far from an ordinary guy but, I was learning, drawn to people and situations where the doors everyone else seemed able to walk straight through might be open for me.
Eventually, as our evenings sunk into nights, I’d have Rosie pressed up against a brick wall in the backyard of a public school building, kissing her passionately with nowhere else realistically to go. There were many things to like about her, her gentle, soft-voiced presence, her long, thrilling strawberry blonde hair, so dense and rich when I ran my hands through it, her sweetly perfect face that induced boys and girls alike to take a breath when she walked into a room. With her eventual permission, we graduated to her parents’ living room couch, where we stretched out and repeatedly edged up to the precipice of sexual relations before falling back down the hill.
Rather, we were pushed back–by Rosie. Who could blame her, unless, of course, hormonal invaders were scrambling your brain cells? Her parents slept only twenty feet away or, at least, pretended to. Maybe they were wide awake, stretched out across their own established mattresses, remembering their days of high-geared fucking. I didn’t care. Twenty feet was twenty miles as far as I was concerned. Their house was most of the way up one of the North Side hills in Johnson City, the straight streets climbing over a rift valley that split the village in two, pinned against the topography by perfectly placed streetlights. This community had grown as immigrants settled in after obtaining jobs at Endicott–Johnson, IBM, General Electric and Public Works. Every family had members with close connections for remembering their flights from impoverished, war-torn Europe and the celebration of landing in America. The new arrivals helped redefine a modern country with a place in the world evolving as something more powerful than a beloved land of refuge. They produced beautiful, gentle daughters like Rosie who’d be the first in most families to attend college before starting careers likely to be aborted by marriage and who could be induced into turmoil by boys like me. It’s possible that she kept turning back my final advance because I never said I loved her, which was just honesty, or maybe, it was because she imagined her mother coming to the kitchen for water and seeing her daughter’s long, slender thighs turned deliciously outward or her embracing ankles crossed tightly against my bare ass. My common sense obliterated, I kept making high drama out of this push and pull, until finally, Rosie let me walk out the door after one more climactic, nearly wordless face-off. Out on the sidewalk by myself, separated by my own bad judgment from the middle class, the after midnight world was warm and still, shades drawn across all the windows, and I was returned to being a jackass. I imagined beautiful Rosie still sitting on the couch, jeans unzipped, turned to watch me leave, a perplexed look surfacing. Humidity held the after midnight heat in place. I’d overplayed my hand and lost the girl. I tucked myself in and started out again on the long, middle of the night trip home, walking down into the valley by Johnson Field and back up to Main Street where I could thumb for rides with other guys also returning from more or less successful dates. Rosie shot down every invitation to reengage I tossed her way, until I finally stopped trying, having successfully proved myself an idiot. It was the middle of the summer, and there still was nothing I wanted to do.
I sort of lapsed, then, into my surprising friendship with Joyce, which lasted until September after which both of us segued into new personas in new places with all new sets of faces.
Returning east from California, I’d rode into town after passing the Finger Lakes, those long, placid pools of water tucked under verdant farmland in Western New York, in the back of the Greyhound local, bleary from a three day, around the clock journey, but too excited by the sights of home–the rolling hills and rectangular farms, now effloresced in summer–to sleep, on a broad, bright afternoon. The foothills, rippling like distant, frozen waves generated by the Appalachians, rocky uplifts separating the continent from the sea, were almost balletic, rounded off by arctic glaciers, gliding up to meet a deep blue sky, puffy white clouds scudding under the surface.
Our bus stopped alongside the peaceful, shady square in every little town and hamlet. Residents sat on benches or strolled through uneven successions of sun and shade. Our driver left his seat to go out and lift the metal door on the side of the bus to take on or offload baggage, then forcefully slammed it down again before turning the latch. Outside, village life moved slowly, unruffled. Then, finally we rolled down the final stretch along the shallow, slow-rolling Chenango River as settlements grew thicker, buildings taller, and everything came together to make up my hometown. Binghamton spread out flat across an accommodating gap in the hills where the Chenango met the powerful Susquehanna, just now starting to climb more of the embracing hills as its population grew.
Alone, like a tramp, almost completely broke, I carried my belongings down the steps of the bus in a single bag, which I immediately stowed for safekeeping in a rental locker inside the terminal. Then, I walked out onto sunny Chenango Street to see my hometown with fresh eyes after the longest sixty days of my life. The dried out dustiness of July rose up from unpaved parking lots and was scattered by endless traffic. A few blocks up Chenango, I ran into Joyce, a girl I knew who had what we then called “a bad reputation.” It was one of the oddest coincidences of my life that she’d also been the last friend I saw when I left town. I’d talked her into skipping school to see me off and share a breakfast. Now, it was as if I’d been on a revolving platform. It took me through a door behind which hid California, Mom and the rest of the world. When it delivered me back, two months later, my home waited unchanged, simply slipping back into gear upon my arrival. Even a fantasized girlfriend idled in place while I turned.
“Hey, when did you get home?” Joyce smiled with surprise when she spotted me on the sidewalk in front of The Little Venice. “You said you were going away forever. What happened to the navy?”
“I just got home ten minutes ago,” I said, a little astonished to see her. I gestured behind me toward the station.
“I just got off a Greyhound. I was lucky. I got to ride all the way back. It was a lot easier than hitchhiking.”
“Well, did you get homesick or what?” she teased. “Oh, this is Hobbs.”
She nodded toward a puffy, blonde, silent partner I recognized from somewhere.
Hobbs smiled sweetly.
I never got to know Hobbs very well, but there might not have been much there to know. She always seemed sort of absent, an unassertive sidekick to contrast boisterous Joyce. If there was any real stuff to Hobbs, it went on far behind the placid mask she showed.
“How long were you riding the bus?” Joyce wanted to know.
“Wow, three days! I can’t believe I’m actually on the street.”
My legs were still getting used to supporting weight, and I hadn’t adjusted yet to Chenango Street’s seeming like a stage set. I wasn’t yet embedded, and the coincidence of meeting up with Joyce increased the unreality.
“Hey, do want to come with us?” Joyce asked.
“Depends on where you’re going?” I dodged, but only slightly.
I was eager for an unscheduled detour.
“We’re hanging out at Hobbs’s house. Her mother’s on a trip, and we have it all to ourselves for a few days.”
The one thing I’d been dreading, all the way across the country, was walking into my family’s house again and dealing with whoever happened to be there when I opened the always unlocked door. I took for granted that what I’d done, bugging out to go see Mom, had been taken as a betrayal toward our father. The prevailing opinion that he’d made heroic sacrifices in keeping us together had hardened in the decade after she was gone, a critical time during which we’d all become something more complicated than children. I didn’t see it as simply as that, good guy versus bad guy, black against white, especially now that I’d had time to dabble in being a momma’s boy again, but as the proven weakest member in the house, I didn’t want to argue against it either. There were battles I’d never win.
“Good idea, me hanging out with two girls,” I agreed, before embarking with them on a return trip down Route 11, the road along which I’d just come home by bus, to Hobbs’s place in Castle Creek.
Most girls, even loose girls, which Joyce and Hobbs most certainly were, refused to hitchhike. Instead we walked in the summer sun, listening to a transistor Hobbs brought along. We weren’t in any hurry.
Maybe Joyce had an intuition about what would happen between us in the coming weeks. I didn’t. I saw nothing of the road through intimacy and friendship to bitter, confusing separation. So far, I saw this only as a chance to extend my string of sexual conquests, escalating the count all the way up to two.
I’d seen and remembered miles upon miles of America, east to west, then west to east, bumming rides outbound from strangers, then sleeping and reading J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories on the smooth rolling Greyhound as it cut through the corn and the wheat fields and stockyards of the midsection like a travelers' rocket. I’d previously known places like Michigan, the Mississippi River and butte country only mythically, through pictures and school books that left them too fantastic to be real–but real, I now knew, they were.
It was no secret to me or anyone else that my life seemed to take the odder path, the one less traveled for completely practical reasons, but glancing back at a six month jumble, it could seem even odder. Crossing the astonishing prairies of Nebraska in the middle of one night, I woke up suddenly as the sour odor of gristmills soaked the bus and we swept through the darkest night with just the lights from isolated farms interrupting. When I reached Oakland, riding down out of the Sierras from Nevada, I'd wrapped my arms around my mother for the first time after a decade of absence. She and Sam, husband #3, stood grinning and relieved in their leather jackets, having come down from Richmond to meet each westbound bus, all afternoon, until I finally stepped off. Mom was younger, prettied and funkier than I expected, her baggy, Old South inflected telephone voice having betrayed her at a distance. One afternoon in the East Bay, just short of my seventeenth birthday, I’d been the lucky beneficiary of a gift from one of Mom's sweetly amoral friends, a generous redhead who swung open the sexual door I’d been pushing so feverishly against. In this amazing run of weeks, which proved forever what amazing things following your impulses can bring, the world grew smaller, the plane of time foreshortened. My intuitions about opportunity went vast. My experiences stretched me in a way that had me feeling I'd never pause or stop again. I was in no way eager to see the illusions end.
Returned after a couple of months from a trip intended, ostensibly, to start a new life Out West, signing up with the Navy, I knocked off a summer without goals. My recent adventure, locally unapproved and viewed now as something akin to jumping off into space and being dragged back by gravity, left me an outsider even in my own family, with no job and, generally, chasing girls or otherwise killing time until getting back into high school.
I'd always listened to hours of top forty music, but that summer I listened more. Even truncated, the innovative blend of rock and folk powering Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone changed AM radio forever. The Kinks and Stones turned the British Invasion more visceral, closer to the teenage bone. Popular music wasn’t just an adolescent soundtrack anymore. For once, I gained some of the insight from music, with its quick, pungent, literate tattoos, I'd always gotten from books. The critical, sarcastic, sometimes funny take on current themes reached me and made me feel less alone. Dylan’s lyrics especially had me feeling there were greater spirits on the road with and ahead of me.
As my dream of escaping to California moved closer to reality, I’d managed to avoid the routine monotony of high school as winter edged into spring because, after running away from home during the annual emotional turmoil of winter, I’d stayed out of classes long enough that resuming where I’d already been far behind was hopeless. And boring. They weren't teaching me much I wanted to learn, and, a middle child, I'd grown habituated to stubborn resistance whenever my inner guidance told me I was on solid ground, disregarding common sense. Public schooling amounted to container jamming, filling students up with facts, select, tainted facts positioned in strategic context, to be rattled back on demand. Being sculpted into a productive citizen felt to me like eating and shitting bad, superannuated ideas all day. It put me to sleep. Besides, since I was about to turn seventeen, I could quit with immunity, and my announcement that I’d be following my oldest and oddest brother into the Navy bought me a pass at home. Returning now, however, the luxury of a teenage summer infecting me, I knew wasn't ready for the long snooze of adulthood. Nothing about high school would become less boring by September, of course, but at seventeen, I saw little else I could reasonably do — except join the military and that idea, of course, had already collapsed in failure one gray morning at an induction center in Oakland.
Most of that summer, after striking out with Rosie, I ended up hanging out with Joyce, the girl with the bad reputation benevolent fate had put back in my path when I got off the bus from California, right where she’d been when I left. We lounged in hammocks in her back yard, drinking iced tea and coffee and sharing serious, rookie conversations about life, searching the broad, enticing future, surrounded by the intense green of August and feeling stimulated by so much we didn’t know and assumed the adults would never tell us. Joyce had graduated from high school, educationally as far as she ever intended to go, and was conflicted, faced with a decision of whether to stay behind or follow her mother on a planned family move to Saginaw. Her Mom wanted her stuff packed in the traveling van with theirs, but Joyce was an adult now, legally, and no one could force her to physically disconnect from all the friends and experiences she’d accumulated or from a hometown she considered vibrant enough to keep her happy. Joyce dreamed small, but intense.
“You know how I am,” she confided, shrugging with a sly, slightly frightened little smirk.
Her brown hair, cut just above her shoulders, emphasized a certain Irish impishness, small chin and expressive mouth, straight nose, twinkling eyes.
“I’ll just be wild if I stay here,” she surmised. “There won’t be anyone left to tie me down.”
This wasn’t the playful talk it may have sounded to an outsider, especially when spoken with that too wise little curl turning her lips up on one side. Joyce had demons–or, at least, what we then thought of as demons. Both of us were aware of them, and neither of us believed in our hearts that they were 100% bad in a practical way, maybe not in any way. But, they were more dangerous for girls and escorted her into some risky situations, ones in which neither of us had enough experience to identify the hazards or benefits.
The Sixties, although opening in a rough and rude kind of a way, had not yet exploded, and for the most part, the adults in conspiracy were still training us to be idiots. If we were going to discover anything, it had to happen in our own quirky labs. Joyce was more fearless than any girl I’d known, and this spicy sense of the times enlivened her.
We’d surprised ourselves by becoming close friends, even what you might call buddies, sharing intimate knowledge of each other and implicit communications.
“What the hell are we doing together, you and me?” I got used to saying, shaking my head in wonder.
Joyce was a discovery.
“...unless someone wants to stick around and be my protector,” she added, half-joking, reaching.
This last comment introduced a door and, then, opened it wide for me to think about walking through. I’ll be honest. I seriously considered it, which should tell you everything you need to know about how shaky my judgment was at seventeen.
The challenge of our friendship, as we stood at a crossroads, was singular. We were roughly equals. I could tell her anything. She appreciated me in a discerning way no one else ever had. She got it, however nebulous my personal “it” remained. And, if she was a slut before the rest of the world, even fractionally true to her reputation, she never was to me. We’d held back from sexual contact. Crossing that ever-present line, like drawing a single impressive brush stroke, could change the tone and color of everything else between us and, maybe, not for the best. As we adjusted our views in each other’s eyes, trying to see one another as whole characters for the first time, we both abandoned whoever we always were and just became Joyce and Pete. We'd spent plenty of time holding hands and kissing and walking out in the dreamlike darkness of summer nights, and God only knows how much we talked, but we’d never laid down naked together. Sex, it seemed, without saying so, could derail this enticing mystery train of friendship. Strange to think, hormonally speaking, it didn't seem worth the gamble.
If I took her lead here, everything might change, including the future. The same could be true, if I didn’t, but I hadn’t gotten there yet.
“How would we live, Joyce?” I argued. “Neither one of us has ever had a full-time job…”
Impatient, she interrupted me.
“We could find a cheap apartment. We could find jobs. We’re not stupid. I have friends who only pay…”
“Yeah, they pay something,” I reminded her firmly. “Rent always costs something, and our total income is zero." I emphasized with a circular hand gesture. "And, what about food? Clothing? All those annoying little extras?”
“You’re my friend, Pete,” Joyce answered sadly.
She knew where the conversation was going.
“You’re the nicest guy I know, the way you treat me–we could work it out.”
“Thanks. I like you too. I don’t want to lose you, ever, but…”
Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet learned that practicalities were meaningless little hodgepodges set up to restrict momentum. They were furniture, and they took care of themselves. I wasn’t going to learn it for a long, long time, for decades, until well after it was too late to help Joyce.
Joyce held her face in her hands, hair scattered in uneven ribbons between slender fingers, and started to cry.
“I could find a job,” she insisted in a whisper, determined.
She was confident but aware that she’d never convince me.
“What are you so afraid of? Are you afraid of me?” she asked.
In fact, I was–afraid of her. Younger and less experienced, I sensed another Joyce idling inside who’d toss me away for another, more capable guy in a second. With people, I was beginning to see the shadows.
We'd paused, at this strategic point in our endless conversation, while carrying packed, corrugated boxes down a set of wooden stairs that led into their cool, dry basement. She'd simply dropped slowly onto the step behind her. Basements share light differently than anywhere else in a house. In the unusual silence, it seemed to run in like a cool fluid through the ground level windows. Her long slender legs, bare and tanned below raggedly cut off jeans, were tucked back and leaned sideways against mine. Summer was ending, and soon, she'd be forced to decide.
“I can’t, Joyce,” I answered with conviction, absolutely, spreading my fingers out in front of my knees in a gesture she didn't see. She was my friend, and there was going to be no beating around the bush. “Christ, man, I haven’t even finished high school. I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t even know what the hell I’m going to do with my life. You couldn’t count on me for help. I'm more erratic even than you are.”
Then, I added: “How well do we really know each other, Joyce–or even ourselves?”
How much had either of us seen of the other’s shadows or even our own?
Generously silent in the back of my thoughts, was the knowledge that, when things got dull, as they inevitably would, I’d probably be unable to count on her either. We both understood the potential for her turning native, “going wild,” as she called the spontaneous succession of antics she sometimes launched. She hadn’t earned her reputation, after all, sitting home knitting scarves. The first night we met, she’d stood joyfully in the middle of the front seat of Sam Kitchen’s speeding convertible, her feet braced under his and my thighs where we sat below her. Sam, clearly expecting to fuck her before the night was out, reveled in her wildness. A hot wind whipped her hair back and pressed the thin fabric of her black blouse firmly against her small breasts. Laughing, she finally sat down between us as Sam pulled up in front of my house. She jumped out, gave me a long deep kiss, declared, “I really like you! You’re cute,” then jumped back in beside Sam. I could hear her laughing as I stood at the top of my driveway and watched them speed off into the privacy of the night and, in effect, almost as clearly now as we sat on her basement steps, my arm around her shoulders, perched though she was on a completely different physical outcropping in her visceral world.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed her mother, a nice lady who sincerely wanted to help and who, I believe, had no idea what a maniac her daughter could be, watching silently from the top of the stairs.
“What do you want me to do?” Joyce sobbed, in the undertones an accusation. “Do you think I should go to Michigan, too?”
Turning the question to what I wanted put us in a whole new place. She seemed to have ceded the most crucial decision in her life. It startled me. I’d sure as hell never been there before.
“Really, what else are you going to do?”
I wasn't backing down. I generally didn’t melt for tears, even then.
“Come back to Binghamton, if it's awful. Neither one of us is ready for anything else. Honestly. We'll write, and if you feel like it, you can come back after a while, when you’ve saved some money and things are more settled.”
“What ‘things?’” she hissed back at my evasive cliché.
I didn't love Joyce, not in any magical way, which was how we all still believed it to be. Neither of us had said the words. Strange, then, to find ourselves even obliquely considering a place together, shacking up, as a solution to the uncertainties in one of our semi-adult lives. But, we were intrinsically linked in some other way for which neither of us had an expression. Both of us seemed to know it, and it was odd that, without a publicly recognized word, nothing tangible emerged. Sometimes, we joked that we were “in like” for lack of anything else. Our link was strong and mysterious and intimate. There were quiet moments when I felt certain we had a chance to make something I couldn't put into words from it, something new and great and never before done. I sensed this without the burden of any logic. I just never saw how it fit in or grasped it well enough to get up the nerve to take any serious action. As the clock ran down that summer, I just sort of looked at our unusual friendship from every angle and marveled. The strange, new feeling impressed me. I was learning. Real insight remained incipient.
In perspective, looking back, this turning point–when Joyce finally got back on her feet and resumed folding her clothes, loading them into boxes for the truck to Michigan–stands out as far more critical than I then imagined, at a time when I had scant awareness of turning points. My acknowledged dramas were still more conventional. Sometimes, I look back on it as an early critical misstep in the creation of my life. Ultimately, then, I selected love over intimacy, romance over soulful commitment, sense over intuition. You think you’re making a choice for one day, for that sequence of events presently buffeting you on Earth, ready to get on with everything else, but any decision lasts forever and influences everything else for the same duration. It’s like that overworked image of a rock thrown into still water, the waves sprawling out into infinity, although seldom does reality sustain so much symmetry. You believe the effect diminishes. It doesn’t. It just grows broader. The world around you, no matter in which direction you travel, will always be changed and changing because of what you did. I hadn't learned yet how important it was not to underestimate anything. We'd finally just whipped Mariner 4 past Mars, but in the long run, my abandonment of this girl mattered more.
Abruptly, Joyce leaned forward, gathering a deep, quavering breath and, wiping the tears from her cheeks, ran the backs of her hands across her face, tucking her hair temporarily behind her ears in one, conclusive motion.
The back of her neck was very pretty with wisps of hair like silk exposed only at such unintended moments. She laughed a little to gather herself and vaporize the drama.
“Well, that settles it,” she concluded in a general way. It was both rhetorical and accusing.
She’d made a decision too. She’d decided to stop pushing where she had so little chance of getting up the constantly dissolving hill. She leaned forward and brought herself up straight, a little too erect at first, and continued into the basement to resume stacking.
I looked behind us. Her mother no longer waited silently at the top of the stairs. I can’t say I didn’t feel a little relieved. The remaining days until their departure whizzed by, faster than I wanted, like grain down a silo, accelerating once a direction took hold.
Enough commitment and interest carried over that, as Joyce settled into Saginaw, we wrote long letters to each other at least once a week–at least once a week for a while, anyway. She wrote interesting, jokey observations about life in a Great Lakes town and her successful adventures in job hunting. She quickly landed an office job and started going out in the crowds near the water on still mild weekend nights. She described a carnival on the lake, cruising the crowds, with color and detail:
“Everybody comes out to the lake on Friday, after work. It’s like the county fair, except it never shuts down. Some guy tried to impress me by winning a Teddy Bear. Can you imagine me with a Teddy Bear? Nobody knows anything about me here. You can see that.
“So, what’s going on back in old Binghamton? It miss it––you! Nobody to talk to here. I’ll be back some day. I hope everything always stays the same.”
Neither of us had ever lived in a waterfront city.
I told her about my somnambulistic return to high school and that it still felt so odd, that all I wanted to do was hang out in my room and write, write, write fiction and poetry.
It wasn’t long before our letters became weekly and the stack of pages fewer. The frequency with which she mentioned that she was coming back when she saved some money and got more confidence diminished. At first, her long letters detailed all the facts and incidents about finding her way in a new place, many of them funny, and mine reassured her that things back home hadn’t changed. There weren’t many interesting stories for me to tell. Never evolving, our disjointed correspondence spun off in other directions. In the immediacy of seventeen, four hundred miles seemed farther than the moon.
Although the lapse was mutual, I believe my letters tapered off in volume and intensity first. Plenty of times on downer days, especially Mondays, I eagerly opened the metal flap door on our roadside mailbox and got no reinforcing affection from her curly handwriting on an envelope. I learned that absence does not make my heart grow any fonder; it makes it frumpy.
Once I fell in love with Ginny, I abruptly discontinued writing altogether and barely skimmed Joyce's letters when they did come, glancing over the contents as I walked down our driveway. I took only passing notice when she wrote: “What’s going on? Did you forget about me?” I never answered, coolly deciding indifference to be expression enough.