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The Coast Was Always Clear November 4, 2009

Posted by monty in books.
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Part 4 of my original draft, coming right up.  As for my progress in National Novel Writing Month, I’m nearly 8,000 words in (on my way to a 50,000-word target).  Just a reminder that I’ll start posting sections of the new writing – which is a continuation of the draft you’re reading now – once I’ve posted all of the original, just so everyone who wants to get up to speed with the plot can do so.  The section I’m posting tonight is just about the halfway point, which means I’ll probably start posting new writing by the end of the weekend.  We all caught up?  Okay, then.

*****

As it turned out, it was actually more difficult for Garrett to convince his parents to let him borrow the car than it was to talk Steph into going out with him.  His parents were big on “good choices,” and every action Garrett made outside the home had to be filtered through the lens of its relative prudence, discretion, and potential impact on his future.  They were not over-protective parents, exactly; Garrett wasn’t confined to quarters, and it was seldom that a request to do something with his friends was denied.  But not only was he the first child, he was the only child, and his parents were perhaps a little over-occupied with the notion that Garrett understood the consequences of his actions.

It would be reasonable to think of it as a guilt trip.  As far as Garrett could tell (and he knew this was just amateur psychology on his part gussied up as a rationale for him to feel irritated at their protectiveness instead of grateful that they cared, which was totally unacceptable at his age), they didn’t want to be those parents – the ones who said no, who imposed unfair curfews, who got into screaming matches over car keys, loud music, and traces of what might be, but never was, cigarette smoke.  They wanted to trust their first, their only, so in an effort to be the kind of parents perhaps they themselves had wanted, they removed anger from the home, banished irrational judgments, and replaced them with a brand of sarcasm and guilt shaded just enough to pass as good-natured kidding.  Garrett knew it was definitely preferable to what some of his friends endured.  Bill Fahrbach had once come home five minutes after his 11 P.M. curfew and found himself grounded for six months – from hanging out with his friends, from the Speech & Debate Team, from Drama, from anything, basically, that didn’t fall between the hours of 8 A.M. and 3 P.M.  And there were always horror stories of what other kids had to suffer.  They were whispered like urban legends and always dealt with kids a few years older, who had conveniently graduated and were no longer around to confirm or deny the rumors.  But they persisted, these extreme stories of beatings and starvation and confinement, unverified but convincing.  Garrett suspected many of these tales were started by parents themselves, the stories designed to make the punished teenager think, “Well, I guess things could always be worse.”

Garrett knew he had it comparatively easy, but even so, guilt didn’t come without its price.  The most egregious example of this had happened two years earlier.  After much tortured deliberation, he had asked Rachel Arnett to go with him to the big year-end 8th grade dance at the YMCA.  For the hormonally frenzied attendees, Y dances were Christmas, Halloween, New Year’s Eve and six home football games rolled into one.  If there were chaperones in attendance, they didn’t make their presence felt in the poorly lighted room where the near-freshmen alternately swayed like stiff-legged, kneeless zombies, or furiously felt each other up in the darkened corners, their hands desperately seeking purchase on one another like mountain climbers about to slide off the face of Everest.  It was into this morality-free zone that Garrett led Rachel, and he knew, as tradition dictated it must, that he would finally experience a girl’s lips that evening.  All his past rejections would be avenged in one glorious moment – which he secretly imagined happening to the accompaniment of L.L. Cool J’s anthem of male sensitivity, “I Need Love” – and he would be, at long last, a man.  Or at least less of a boy than he had been mere hours earlier.

By the time the final song of the evening rolled around, the kiss still hadn’t happened.  Garrett and Rachel had slow-danced several times in the last three hours, and even though a kiss was practically written in the contract, Garrett was having trouble screwing up enough courage to take the plunge.  For one thing, timing was an issue.  More than once, he had found himself prepared, mentally and physically, for the kiss: his neck was a coiled spring, ready to strike, but equally ready to retract if she seemed at all resisting or reluctant (his other mental version of the kiss, this one without LL Cool J, involved her accusing him of rape).  But just as he was leaning in, “Nobody’s Fool” by Cinderella faded out and Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” came storming on, and another moment was lost.

By the time the DJ called last song – Chris De Burgh’s “Lady in Red” – Garrett was beginning to despair.  But knowing this was the last song meant he could take his time.  He wouldn’t be interrupted at the end by Poison or AC/DC.  He was mildly disappointed that the kiss would happen to Chris de Burgh instead of LL Cool J, but he had taped “Lady in Red” off the radio a couple weeks ago and knew he had approximately four minutes and fifteen seconds to lean in and let the magic happen.

His hands were on her hips, her hands were around his neck, and they waddled in their tight circle, careful not to bump any of the other couples circumscribing their own awkward spheres on the tiled floor that alternated rhythmically between red, then yellow, then green, then blue, then back to red again.  The rate at which they danced bore no relation to the tempo of the music; from song to song, their turning was metronomic.  They shuffled slightly from foot to foot as they went through the motions of their clumsy pivot, and Garrett might have been embarrassed at his lack of grace, but it only took attendance at one dance to realize that no one was judging anyone else’s finesse.  At that age, especially among the boys, dancing was the great equalizer.  If you were there, and lucky enough to share four minutes on the floor with a girl’s arms around your neck, that was all that mattered.  So Garrett shuffled his way through half the song, and at what he guessed was roughly the two-minute mark, he ducked his head to the right to catch Rachel’s eye.  He wasn’t sure how this kissing business worked.  In the movies, you made eye contact, and the rest took care of itself, but Garrett was acutely aware that if he didn’t blink soon, it would look like he was crying.  He leaned in minutely, hoping it would get the ball rolling.  And it did.  Garrett watched Rachel’s eyes close, watched her lean in at a corresponding angle, and as the distance between them slowly contracted to an ever-diminishing point, he felt the gates of his future, in counterpoint, opening wide.

But then the strangest thing happened.  As the pursed lips and closed, blue-eyeshadowed lids of Rachel Arnett’s eyes drifted inexorably toward him, he heard a voice in his head, as unwelcoming as the whine of a mosquito or the mushy chomping of Dylan Funderburg eating a peanut butter sandwich with his mouth open.  It was the reproving voice of his father: “Make good choices, Garrett.”  While it didn’t possess quite the sepulchral gravitas of Darth Vader’s commands in the Star Wars movies, it still rumbled in the way only Garrett’s father’s voice could rumble, and it was rumbling the sentence he used as a sort of multi-purpose incantation any time Garrett left the house: don’t cheat on that test, don’t drink beer with your friends, don’t speed, don’t buy tapes you don’t need, and on this evening, don’t, whatever you do, kiss that girl to the strains of “The Lady in Red” in the darkened YMCA multi-purpose room surrounded by dozens of other rutting teenagers whose parents don’t know well enough to warn them of the dangers of precocious canoodling.  And so, as the distance between their lips shrank to a speck no larger than the tip of a pencil, Garrett’s face abruptly detoured, and he planted a clumsy peck on Rachel’s cheek.  The song ended, he shook her hand like they had just brokered an important business deal, and he walked outside to wait for his parents to pick him up.  Even though he guessed another date with Rachel would more than likely end with the kiss he had been waiting for, he knew deep down that, in much the same way a particularly unpleasant song on the soundtrack can ruin an otherwise good movie, every time he met Rachel’s lips with his own, the moment would be accompanied by his father’s voice.  Even in junior high, Garrett knew continuing on that path would surely lead him to serious psychological trauma.

He went his way, Rachel went hers, and the first kiss would actually come a year later, with Melanie Light, after Garrett had managed to convince himself that “Make good choices” was just another parental variation on “wash behind your ears” – well-meaning and generally sound advice, but not something to be followed with slavish rigor.  What he eventually realized is that most of the choices he found himself presented with were ambiguous in nature, and it wasn’t always easy to brand them as definitively good or bad.  Garrett’s parents subscribed to the idea that each individual decision was a rock tossed into a pond, and Garrett would eventually feel the ripples from where he stood on the shore.  But Garrett found he couldn’t buy into that.  His choices were small-scale, low-key, commonplace.  He wasn’t deciding, for instance, whether to rob a bank or mug a homeless guy.  Sneaking a peek at the Algebra test of the kid sitting next to him might not be the most honorable action in the world, but it wasn’t going to bring his world screeching to a halt, even if caught.  And, truth to tell, that was the riskiest behavior Garrett engaged in.

Until Steph, that is, and the tape.  He knew his parents would look at is a bad choice, a deception, a lie, and it was, but Garrett chose instead to look at the big picture embodied in that decision: If Steph liked the tape enough to go out with him, and they really hit it off, and she fell in love with him – not the tape, and not the persona thrust upon him by the voice on the tape, but Garrett – then that seemed like a pretty good choice as far as bad choices go.  Both their lives would be enriched, and it seemed like splitting hairs to point out that the enrichment was enabled by deceit.  (If, on the other hand, Steph fell for him only for the tape, if she allowed herself to become involved with him based solely on the pretense that Garrett was a musician, if she didn’t actually like him at all, well, Garrett figured she had bigger issues to deal with than the fact that he had lied to her.)  By the time Steph said she could go out with him (on Saturday, and not Friday like Garrett had proposed, which meant more waiting) and he had to ask for the car, he knew to expect the upcoming gauntlet of guilt, but in the last year or so had developed the psychic armor necessary to emerge on the other side relatively unscathed.

Now, Garrett’s parents, Kathy and Steve, sat side by side on the family room sofa, and every time this scene repeated itself Garrett was reminded of the courtroom scene in the production of The Crucible he’d seen last year.  He’d loved the play and been fascinated when his parents explained Arthur Miller and the idea that the plot was an allegory for McCarthyism, but Garrett found its relevance to be far more personal in nature.  In the play, John Proctor was told his life would be spared if he admitted to being a witch, even though it was a lie.  Using the same tortured logic, Garrett often wondered if he could skip the usual interrogation by lying to his parents – citing a desire to go out, get roaring drunk, smoke as many varieties of cigarettes as he could get his hands on, have sex with the first carbon-based life form to cross his path, shoplift pornography, and run at least two red lights.  He would briefly entertain this course of action, hoping against hope that his parents might look on him as a teenaged Proctor and, appreciating his supposed honesty, grant him immediate amnesty from frivolous questioning.  It wasn’t realistic, he always concluded, and knew it would only end up getting him burned at the stake.

“Borrow the car?” his father asked, as though this were a completely novel request, the car having magically appeared in the garage overnight, planted there by elves or fairies, and he wasn’t yet used to its reality, its solidity.

“Yeah,” Garrett said, resisting the urge to shift nervously from foot to foot.  Even though he expected to be given the go-ahead, what would happen if they actually chose this time to deny his request?  Did he honestly think he’d stand a chance with Steph if his parents – or worse, hers – had to drive them around?

“You mean our car?”

“Yes, Dad. The one with the engine and the four wheels and the steering wheel.”

“Hm.  The one with the steering wheel.  Interesting.”  Steve stared off into the middle distance, apparently expecting to find exegetic runes suddenly blazing from the wood paneling, explaining to him with mythic precision how best to handle this demand from his recalcitrant son. “And you want to borrow it when?”

“Tomorrow.  Saturday.  April 25.  The day before Sunday.”

“And what are we planning on doing with this car, son?” His mom was fond of the royal we, as though the three of them were holding court in a cavernous throne room lined with suits of armor and imposingly serious portraits of Walkers from generations past.

“I’m just, you know, going out.”

“Gee, that doesn’t sound suspicious at all,” his father said with exaggerated sarcasm.  He was big on exaggerated sarcasm, all but nudging his listener in the ribs with a conspiratorial elbow.  “He’s going out, Kathy.  With the car.  And the steering wheel.”

“Are you going out by yourself?” Kathy Walker was kind and matronly, an effusive Midwestern mother, always a big hit with Garrett’s friends, and now she leaned forward expectantly on the couch, smiling broadly.  She already knew the answer to her question.  Garrett’s vague response to what he was going to do with the car let her know that something new was afoot.  If he were just hanging out with his friends, he would have said so.  This ambiguity was female in nature, and Kathy was tickled by her son’s linguistic contortions.

“No.”

“With friends?”

“Kind of.”  Garrett knew hedging like this would be as successful as the time he scrawled a large G on his bedsheet in permanent marker, safety-pinned it around his neck, and attempted to fly from their roof, but he clung to a fading hope that today he would be granted some conversational leeway.

“A kind-of friend,” she said, bemused.  “The plot thickens.  Will there be more than one kind-of friend in attendance?”

“No.  Just one.”

With the rough details of the transaction sketched, the interrogational ball bounced back to Garrett’s father: “If you were to describe this kind-of friend’s appearance in one word, what would it be?”

“Dad …”

“Would it be … handsome?”

All Garrett could do was sigh.

“How about manly?”

Dad.

“Neither handsome nor manly, then.  What are we left with, Kathy?”

“Butch?”

This was the part of the whole ordeal that Garrett never fully understood.  He knew why they subjected him to this, but he remained fuzzy on the methodology.  Watching them at work was like watching a bad stand-up routine, as they bounced lines off one another, entertaining no one more than themselves.  And Garrett, by virtue of being the lone son, was relegated to the role of the poor sucker in the audience singled out for abuse.  It was time to bring this portion of the show to a close, fast-forward to the inevitable lesson, and get on with his life.

“Okay.  Fine.  It’s a girl.  Okay?  Can I borrow the car?”

“Not so fast,” his father said.  “More details, please.  Does this girl have a name?”

“Steph.”

“Steph.” As though he were trying it on for size, dragging the letters out in contemplation, like he could divine her character though the phonetics of her name.  “Short for, what?  Stephanie?”

“Oh, God,” Garrett muttered in exasperation.

“No, I don’t think that’s it.  That would be some unusual abbreviation, right?”

Back to his mom, to hash out the fine print.  “What are you planning on doing with Stephanie and the car?”

“We’re just going to a movie,” Garret said.  “That’s it.  I’m picking her up, we’re going to a movie and then I’m taking her home.  We’re not stopping for cigarettes or alcohol or cocaine.  I’ll leave at 6, I’ll be back by 11, and I promise you won’t see my picture on the evening news.”

“Garrett, we just want to make sure you’re not going to get in trouble.”

“I know, Mom.  I really know.  You have no idea how much I know.”

Steve again. “We just want you to make good choices, Garrett.  You’ll be out there, just you and Steph and the car, and it’s tempting to let certain things happen …”

Once upon a time, Garrett would have interrupted his dad to protest, to defend his honor, to make the case that he did have some semblance of control.  Experience had taught him, though, that it was better to just suffer in silence and plan on sending his father the therapy bills he was sure to incur later in life.

“… but you have to understand that you’ve got a bright future, and even though it might seem like it’s the present that matters, you can’t lose sight of the future.  Right?”  And here he turned to Garrett’s mom for the tag team.

“Your father’s absolutely right, Garrett.  It’s okay to want to have fun and let loose with your friends or your girlfriend – “

“She’s not my girlfriend, Mom.”

“That’s all the more reason to be careful, Garrett.  You don’t want to jeopardize all the fantastic things you could do with your life by getting in trouble with a passing fancy.”

“Okay, okay.”

“Are we being too hard on you?” Kathy asked.  This was another one of the stops on the usual itinerary, the rest area labeled Victimization, located directly between Shame and Permission. “We just want what’s best for you.”

“No, it’s fine.  I appreciate your concern.” He’d been reading from the same script for so long that he sold the line with Oscar-worthy aplomb.

“Okay.  But have a good time.  You and Steph.” And here his dad, amazingly, as though oblivious to the rest of the conversation, winked at him. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“You can take my car, Garrett.” She was referring to the burgundy Pontiac Bonneville, the one Garrett hated. “There’s plenty of gas in it.”

“Okay.  Thanks, guys.  I’ll be careful.”

As Garrett retreated to his room, he marveled again at the process.  He loved his parents, but they were unlike any other parents he knew.  He was past the point of wondering if he had been adopted; now he was willing to accept a full-blown alien abduction.

*****

Current listening:

Aztec dreamland

Aztec Camera – Dreamland

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