In the backseat of that car I felt naked before I even took off my shirt. The night was as black as the mascara that was sitting on my bathroom counter back at my dad’s house. I had lied to my dad and said I had the closing shift that night at the Souplantation so Robert and I could have an hour to steam up those windows of his 1981 Toyota Corolla.
I hated getting in the backseat to make out. It was a hatchback with seats that folded down, so it wasn’t cramped, but I really wanted the time to just sit in the front seat playing DJ for each other on the tape deck or his brand-new CD Walkman with the cassette adapter. But we always ended up in the backseat, usually with Metallica’s Fuel playing just loud enough to be heard, but low enough to not wake the local residents.
Each and every pair of headlights headed toward us made my heart beat faster—but in the opposite direction that Robert’s attractiveness pulled my heart. No matter how many times I requested we not go park and make out, he’d always insist. He’d insist just as strongly to suck on my earlobe no matter how many times I told him I hated it. Any boy who dared to kiss my ear got the same growl from me.
It was actually my dad who’d first kissed my ears. When I was as young as my long-term memory started recording—four, maybe five—Dad would kiss my ears. I asked him to stop. I begged him to stop. He always claimed that he had forgotten my latest request, and just kept kissing my ears. So finally I banned both my parents from goodnight kisses. Instead they stand in the doorjamb of my bedroom singing “Goodnight Sweetheart” while I cried in protest. That song would assault my ears as badly as my dad’s whistling, but not quite as badly as his kiss on my ear.
In the backseat of Robert’s car I let him kiss my earlobes. They throbbed and coiled toward my head as if Robert’s lips were made of stinging nettle. A cop drove by. Usually that would freak me out, but at this particular moment it brought relief. Robert dove into the front seat of the car. I ducked under the tarp he always kept in the back of his hatch. Robert maintained his illusion of calm as I rubbed my ears hard, trying desperately to erase that feeling, that memory, and most of all that sound.
One Day with Caleb
Caleb was one of the most sought-after register attendants turned managers. Every girl thought he was hot. I felt special because he would have lunch with me from time to time, and talk to me like I was a real person, unlike some of the girls he would talk to like they were just dumb but hot.
When Caleb’s grandmother was on her last legs, he actually took me to Pasadena to visit her. I met him at his house that morning. For as cool and sleek and great he seemed at the Souplantation, his home was awfully dingy, full of clutter, and he just seemed so poor. We hopped into his 1971 Chevy Camaro and headed north.
The visit with his grandmother was touching. My great-grandparents had just recently gone into a nursing home full-time. Colon cancer had attacked my great-grandfather, then attached itself to his spine and was killing his organs one by one. He opted for every single surgery to try to save his life. I was fully convinced this was not because he wasn’t ready to go. He had lived a full life, he had made his peace with God; he was ready to meet his maker. But my great-grandmother was dying one memory at a time. My family hadn’t even known she was showing signs of Alzheimer’s until we had to take my great-grandparents to the nursing home. My great-grandfather was taking such good care of my great-grandmother we just didn’t know. My great-grandparents had both been widowed in their sixties and met in their early seventies, so they were like newlyweds to the days they died.
The day I accompanied Caleb to see his grandmother, I didn’t know that my great-grandfather would die so soon. He would be the first family member I would lose. And my great-grandmother would search for him, walking in circles at the nursing home until her body finally gave up, years later.
But for that day I only cared about Caleb and his grandmother. Their love filled the room like the warm sunlight filtering through the translucent curtains in her nursing home windows. They held hands and pretended they weren’t crying.
On the way home, Caleb treated me to a hamburger at Tom’s Farms. Though I was still dating Robert, Caleb and I shared one brief, almost involuntary kiss. It was one of the scenes at the end of a romantic movie. One of those movies like Casablanca where the characters know they can’t be together, but in one short-lived moment, all is right with the world.
Later, Caleb would go on to open other Souplantation locations alongside Robert and never mention the kiss. Maybe it didn’t mean as much to Caleb as it did to me. I would eventually reflect and be glad that I did not end up with Caleb. He ended up impregnating two young women during his time as a Souplantation trainer in out-of-state cities. I would ponder that kiss in my heart for years, but remain grateful that that moment was indeed bittersweet.
Robert and I connected for many reasons. Or, for the time we were together, it felt that way. In retrospect, perhaps the strongest reason for our connection was that we both had broken homes. He shuttled from one parent’s home to the other. I stayed with my mom except for the one semester that she moved to Texas. It was odd to me that Robert’s dad had a roommate. Odder still that this roommate was a dad with two sons: Tyler and Tyler’s little brother. Tyler was about the same age as Robert and me. He also worked at the Souplantation.
The one time I visited Robert’s dad’s house was when we were on our way to Robert’s homecoming dance. We had attended the football game the night before. It was the only school sporting event I would ever attend (including middle school, high school, and college). I was bored out of my mind. But, Robert wanted to go, and, because I loved him, or thought I did, I went. The dance was for me, and I don’t know if he enjoyed it or not, but if he hated it, I couldn’t tell.
In any case, Robert had picked me up from my mother’s house. I was wearing one of her old evening gowns. It was peach with delicate beige lace. All I did was pin some of the old lace down on the bodice to give it a sleeker look and tie the sash a little tighter due to my tiny frame at sixteen. Robert helped me out of his dad’s 1996 Mazda 626 Sedan with the Hunter Green exterior and black interior. The car was only three years old, so we felt like royalty in our fancy clothes and newish car.
Robert’s dad invited us in. Tyler was there, along with his dad and both his and Robert’s little brothers. The house was too small for two grown men and four boys in middle and high school. It was obvious no women lived there. The carpet was a dingy brown, and the place was decorated too sparsely with furniture that was too big for the baby-boom style track home. Family photos of the four boys and their respective dads adorned the walls in frames that weren’t the right size for the photos and weren’t the right color for the walls. I think I remember a photo of all six of them together, but I may have invented that memory.
Robert’s dad took far too many photos of us as everyone looked on giggling and teasing. I was all smiles that evening. Robert’s dad was so sweet to me and he looked so proud of Robert. I felt a tinge of sadness looking in the rearview mirror as the remainder of the unconventional modern-day Brady Bunch shrunk in the distance waving as we drove toward the dance. From appearances, Robert’s and Tyler’s dads had so little. From appearances, my family had so much. It wasn’t my family that was finding happiness in unexpected places, though.
CLS Ferguson, PhD, speaks, signs, acts, publishes, sings, performs, writes, paints, teaches and rarely relaxes. She and her husband, Rich, are raising their daughter, Evelyn, and their Bernese Mountain Border Collie Mutt, Sadie, in Alhambra, CA. She has a forthcoming collection called Soup Stories being published by Portage Press. http://clsferguson.wix.com/clsferguson