Friday, February 18, 2011
I was a wise ass with my mother only once.
On an April spring-returns-to-winter afternoon, I am on my Philadelphia row-home front porch with the girl next door, my neighbor, Rose Marie Reagan. I am thirteen, she is fifteen, and together we are decorating my hand made, hand painted, wood milk carton roller-skate scooter with shiny Hires Root Beer bottle-caps in a triangular-shaped devil design of War of the Worlds origin. I kneel, she squats, steadying the scooter as I align each nail in the center of each cap. Despite the coming dusk chill in the air, I have removed my blue oxford cotton button-down shirt for reasons show-off-y and vain (I have been lifting weights the last few months) and with each arc of the hammer my right biceps does the hardball baseball flex below the short sleeve of my B.V.D. tee.
Rose takes note and, admiringly, asks to cup the firm roundish hard form of my muscle. Now I would never have considered the familiar Rose as anything more than friend and next-door-neighbor, but her slim fingers around my upper arm give rise to a stirring not heretofore engendered by a female touch, tentative, fond and fragile. I sense a percolation of my blood as the hair on the back of my neck rises, a suggestible subject under hypnosis, and for the first time, look deeply into the spell of another’s eyes, in this case robin egg blue, wondering if the electricity that pulses in my veins is circular or one sided, ac or direct. I note the perfectly even separation between each and every strawberry blonde eyelash of her lids and how close in color to them are the freckles that dapple the skin around the orbits of her eyes. She is caught as well in our exchange and we both blush. I look over at her mouth and wonder what her heart shaped lips might indicate about the heart of her anatomy, and I’m envisioning a shape I’d never seen, even thought to imagine, the mystery of Rose, the mystery of this girl. My first rush of testosterone infuses and confuses the intimacy of the moment, and Rose lets go my arm, only to insert her long thin fingers within the coils of my curly hair, thus exacerbating the enrapture of this sudden flush of emotional puzzlement, this brush with a hint of things to come outside the realm of my maturity. In the act of uncurling my hair, her skin from pinky to wrist busses the nape of my neck, and when she traces the outline of my ear with her index finger, more than my wonder rises, all attention focused, heart in perfect overdrive, a web of what-if’s between us, a fondle of confusion in this leap to trust another.
Just then, as if on cue in a Greek drama, my mother appears behind Rose, having just ascended
the steps from the street below where she has parked our ten year old 1952 navy blue Chevy Belair. She is returning early from work. In keeping with, almost as if to prove, the theory of minimal cues, she is subliminl-ly aware of what has just passed between me and Rose, and, always the attentive and protective mother, she is also very aware of the dropping temperature, of the coming inclement weather, of my change in attitude, and the inappropriateness of my being shirtless.
“Edwin,” she admonishes, “you’ll catch a chill. What are you doing without a shirt on? It’s not
nearly warm enough out here to be without a shirt.”
Reacting to the interruption of the chemistry between Rose and me, I am most foolishly immature
in my response.
“Oh Mom, I’m warm enough. In fact, I’m very very warm. Besides, I’ve got my skin to keep me warm, and my blood. And my sweat, and my muscles and my bones and my veins and my arteries and my heart.”
My effrontery and rudeness quickens my mother’s pulse. With her left hand she takes my shirt off of the wrought-iron railing where I’d hung it, and with her right she grabs the scruff of my neck _ an act so out of her character and one which allows no room for protest or dissent _ and guides me to rise up from my knees before herding me into the house, all without the benefit of Rose or me gaining an accurate understanding of what our glimmer of intimacy was all about. Rare is the mother not reluctant to postpone the end of childhood and innocence.
Once inside, she chides me, “Don’t you ever speak to me like that again.” With the thumb and forefinger of her right hand she clutches my chin and steers my face to return her gaze, her look into my eyes. I see she is not surprised by the after image sparkle of what Rose and I had glimpsed.
We are not Ghosts. Last time I see Rose Marie in Philadelphia, she is carrying a paper Acme bag of groceries up the steps of a Torresdale Avenue second story apartment, the one above Ricky’s, the candy, pin-ball and ice cream soda shop on the Loring Street corner.
A Pacific sun tanned muscular tattooed arm below a short sleeve US Navy regulation tee holds open a weathered and dull aluminum storm door for her to enter. In the other unseen hand I imagine an aluminum can of shore leave Ballantine beer - “Hey, get your cold beer. Get your cold, cold Ballantine beer“ went the radio and tv spots. A fleeting view, on a passing bus, the whole episode of my seeing Rose Marie, and then realizing who it is I spy, lasts but a dozen heartbeats.
It’s been three years since I married and left home. Nonetheless, all the times that I’ve come back to the old neighborhood to visit old pals or my mother, Rose Marie _ the proverbial girl next door _ and
I never crossed paths, even though our mother’s houses share a common set of steps. Actually, for reasons teenage, sundry and selfish, we saw little of each other all through high school and after. We both had full dance cards, if you know what I mean.
At Danny Wilson’s funeral mass a couple of years ago, I remember one of the McGuckin twins speaking judgmental-ly and condescendingly of Rose Marie, of Rose having moved to Florida, to live off base with her boyfriend, who had, under threat of the draft, enlisted in the navy. Without the benefit of a perfectly Catholic wedding - no matter the fact that Rose Marie’s beau, one Donnie DiDonatto, was on his way to Viet Nam as a Navy Seal - such an arrangement as Rose Marie’s and Donnie’s would forever be judged and condemned as living in mortal sin by any and all ten McGuckin siblings, especially the twins, one of whom’s a nun.
Rose Marie’s tall, thin frame, bounding two steps at a time on her way from the street-side sidewalk to the front porch of the walk-up, expresses a delight, an art to entrance, a dance of fluid, agile motion. Below a cascade, indeed, a cataract of insanely curly red hair, she wears high, to-the-hem of her cashmere blue sweater-coat, mod British high heeled boots of white patent leather. A red white and blue motion picture whirl of movie-time, co-incidental time and space, she is, a gift to these sore eyes, amidst the oppressive winter expanse of these white-light depressed Delaware River boroughs - Tacony, Holmesburg, Mayfair - and the miserably bleak, week old January soot-ed snow outside the road debris dirty transparency that is the window of this public accommodation I ride, this bus, the Y.
I’m on my way to rendezvous with my wife, Liz, who is driving in from Jersey with our dog, Wenona, for dinner with Bob and Johanna Dubuc; nonetheless, I the pull cord to notify the bus driver that I’d like to exit the bus at the next stop. I get off the bus a good mile premature of my destination, at Shelmire Sreet, the hub of my old hood, location of Martin’s Pharmacy, the ACME, the Five and Dime, and Kohler’s Saloon, and wander back two more blocks to the walk-up where I’d seen Rose Marie go in.
I have no keen understanding of what I am up to. What have I to gain by this reconnaissance? I wonder: What is it, what drives this hope to a get another glimpse of Rose Marie? To conjure a ghost of what ifs? To see her at her window, looking out, maybe gazing at a memory, a day dream image from her past, to our eyes lost in the wonder of each other that moment years ago on the porch when she took such pleasure in admiring my physique.
As it turns out, the best, unobtrusive vantage point for watching the front of Rose Marie’s apartment is just east of the bus stop at Bleigh Avenue, under the awning on the bench in front of Dan’s Barber Shop. Through the glass of Rose Marie’s front bay window. I can see into the inner sanctum of a recurring fantasy. A brass tree stand of soft conical lights casts assorted color on the walls of what must be a bedroom. A taste for modern decor and design most modern is apparent in the sunbeam spray of the burnished copper headboard that now reflects the amber, late low angled light of dusk. The glow for a moment is otherworldly, like that of a dawn sky blessed with God’s fingers or a Catholic holy card halo, before a somewhat translucent shade is drawn on which Rose and Donnie appear in a silhouetted embrace.
Unexpectedly, I am distracted from the ghosts on the window by the sudden appearance of a man whom I remember to be the father of an elementary school classmate of mine. Mr McDonnelly is the proprietor of the Family TV Repair shop just west of the electric trolley turn around at Cottman Street. I gather Mr McDonnelly has just crossed over from behind the slope top hedges on the north side of Tacony Park; otherwise, I would have noticed his approach. He pays me no mind as he studies the east for sight of an approaching bus. I look back at the back lit shape of Rose and Donnie entwined on the curtain; their silhouette disappears, however, when the interior lights of the bedroom go off.
I catalogue a fantasy of the particulars of Rose’s actions: her moans, her groans, her half giddy laugh, the strength with which she pulls her man hard against the clitoris of her lust, the licked lips of her smile, her bliss. I close my eyes and remember that moment, the tentative tips of her fingers feeling my biceps, the long throat of Rose within reach of my lips. I imagine my hands cupping her ass, my being mesmerized by her body’s embrace.
When I open my eyes to the startling whish, whoosh of air brakes, it’s a blurred yellow and green SEPTA bus logo I see, on the side of the next Y heading downtown as it draws curbside. Mr Family TV doesn’t get on; rather a blonde, some ten years younger than him, all bundled in fake fur and suede, gets off. Between the two, it’s a hug and his quick kiss, his lips to her proffered powdered cheek, and then it’s an arm in arm light step walk east to Shelmire Street and Kohler’s Saloon. Miss Fake Fur who I guess to be Swedish - not that it matters - looks nothing like the raven haired woman, with a Latin temper, I remember to be my schoolmate’s mother. But, far be it for me to judge, for here I sit, a young married man, hoping to get a glimpse of a child-hood friend, smitten with a fantasy of chances missed, of what might have been, calling to mind a litany of opportunities gone, of roads not taken. I wonder what Rose must do for a living, given the glamour boots she wears. Something professional and fashionable I imagine. Something to occupy a life when her husband Donnie is not on leave, is not home from the war in Viet Nam. I imagine Donnie and Rose further. It is perfect porn, the storm of their passion, the hungers satisfied and tenderness returned, the magic of requited love.
Still I wonder: does she ever ponder our moment on the porch?