Thoughts and dreams of Marissa have plagued me since I was nine. In elementary grades we took turns beating each other up in the coral rock playground with palm trees, and in middle school we continued the ritual. But for me, by then, it was a cover up. I didn’t want anyone to know I liked her. Sometimes someone else would beat her up, and I wanted to save her. That’s what I really longed to do, but Sam Walters just wasn’t brave enough back then.
Things changed in ninth grade when she showed up the first day of school in my all male auto-mechanics class.
At Key West High in 1964, girls studied Home Economics. Learned how to sew and cook. They didn’t enroll in shop class. She took the leers and jock jokes in stride, mostly ignoring them.
Then one day, one of the guys took apart and put back together a 1955 Chevy Bel Air engine, but couldn’t get it started. The teacher was in the hall talking to a coach as we witnessed Marissa lift up the hood, and make adjustments. She slammed the hood, and slid into the front seat behind the steering wheel. The engine backfired a billowing black exhaust, then roared to resurrection. United, we stood, awed.
After that, I started following her home after school. I just waited by the flagpole with other kids until I saw her heading home. We lived walking distance to school and across from each other on Staples Avenue so it was easy to lag behind, far enough she didn’t notice me, close enough to check her out. Black waves in a high pony tail swung shoulder to shoulder in rhythm with her hips. Occasionally, she paused and shifted the weight of her books and notebook to the opposite arm. With each pause, my heart throttled with fear she’d turn around. She never did though.
Watching her at night was easier. Our second-story bedrooms faced the street lamps and she never drew the curtains even to sleep. If her room was lighted, I shrouded my face in the heavy folds of drawn drapery to spy through an opening large enough only for my eyes. Hours passed. In the mornings, my body ached, stiff from standing in that position so long.
Mornings, days, months passed this way into December. Everyone at school was looking forward to Christmas break. Excitement stung the cool air that blushed our cheeks and sped up our expectation of life without classes. On the last day of school, as I waited by the flag pole, Marissa, instead of heading home, locked eyes with mine like a nautical captain sure of the right course into the horizon and headed straight for me.
“Sam,” she said, her mouth flashing uniform, pure white teeth.
I hugged the flagpole like a ship’s mast, my heart its sails. The sand under my sneakers started to sink. Does she know? Is she mad? Is she going to slap me?
“Will you walk me home?”
I was still trying to read her.
Then she laughed - plaintive organ notes resonating through the air between us. My heart lifted. I thought of World Literature class – Odysseus, sirens – and knew I was lost.
“You’d think I asked you to walk me to Miami. We do walk the same way, you know.” Her eyes, dark sapphires, revealed nothing, but the eyebrows above them, arched with knowledge. Here it comes I thought.
Then she handed me her books and I fell into step beside her, literally. I walked right out of one of my sneakers. We both laughed, and then she bent down on one knee to tie the sneaker lace. Other students stared - girls with raised brows, pursed mouths, and guys smirking macho-stud approval. Shame and exhilaration coursed through me. I felt like a child with my mother and a man with a lover all at the same time. Marissa rose from the ground toward me, brushing her hands together.
“Thank you,” I stammered with the urge to kiss her.
“De nada.” She smiled at me.
“Spanish. For, it’s nothing.”
As the school grew smaller behind us, the sun sank larger ahead of us. It didn’t feel like nothing to me. We walked. I listened. She talked. Every once in a while, she swung her head sideways, looked up at me and asked, “What did I just say?” Most of the time I could tell her, but sometimes she caught me and must have known I was just a happy fish netted in the sound of her voice.
“You want to come in?” she asked as we stopped in front of her house.
“Is that Jeff under the car hood?” I motioned to the side yard where underneath the Chevy’s chassis appeared two legs in dark trousers.
“Yep, that’s my brother.” She started up the steps. “Taught me everything I know about cars.”
The inside was an architectural mirror of my house and others along the street. I felt at home and disoriented at the same time. Both our houses had dark wood floors, but everything was reversed with different furnishings and wall colors. The light was brighter, the colors bolder there.
In the white kitchen, her mother beat ingredients into a pie mold. “This is Sam, Mama. From across the street. Sam – you can call her Mama Dolores. I’m her tiger cub.” Marissa motioned me to a stool and then leaned across me, grazing my face with her hair and my arm with a breast. The gesture was noted by Mama Dalores who nodded at me and handed the bowl to her daughter.
“For you and your friend, Sam.”
Marissa pushed the bowl in front of me, then plopped onto my lap to feed me.
“Careful young lady, someone might get the wrong idea.” Embarrassed, I laughed, hoping Mama Dolores would see my respect for her daughter.
Mama Dolores looked at me strangely. “Don’t you worry none bout Missy Mae. She’s fifteen last week. I’ve schooled her. Ain’t no double standard for her. She can take what she wants. Be anything she wants. Same as any man can.”
I glanced surreptitiously at the mother in between the spoon dripping lemon-coconut I dutifully swallowed like a chick in a nest, except the school yard conflict of mother-lover was back, but this time hardened uncomfortably between my legs. I excused myself to the toilet and applied a solution to the problem. When I came out I spied a tale-tell wet spot. I was too embarrassed to go back into the kitchen, so I yelled through the hall that I had to leave - my mother’s expecting me. Mama Dolores padded patiently down the hall.
“Missy Mae’s in her room. Upstairs. Go on up. She’s expectin you.”
“I can’t. Could you just tell her I said goodbye?”
Her eyes found the wet spot then shot back up at me. “I’ll tell her.”
I rushed through chores and supper to get back to Marissa. In the bathroom upstairs I shaved what few blond whiskers had sprouted since the last mow and slathered my dad’s Old Spice across my neck and shoulders. I ran to my room and changed the guilty pants to clean ones. I raised my hand to catch the fan light string and glanced out my window. My body froze. All the hair on my arms and back tingled, rose. I jerked the string down; blackness flooded the room until there was no doubt of what I saw. Someone stood just beyond Marissa’s bedroom window, back arched, pulling her against him. Her hands embraced his face, then her fingers raked through his hair as his mouth covered hers, her pelvis thrust forward until she bent gracefully back like a vine. I was fluid. Sweat crept across and down my body. Water pooled in my eyes – a blessed blur. When it cleared, I refocused and saw her bedroom curtains closed for the first time.
I tried not to watch for the closing of those curtains during the rest of Christmas break. I failed. They closed with alarming regularity that bounced me back and forth between despair, jealousy and rage. In January, when we returned to school I switched from auto mechanics to shop class and avoided any hall, locker, or cafeteria area where I might run into her. On a few occasions, a glimpse of her – head back in laughter, shy promising smile offered to anyone but me - invaded my walled vision, but I quickly averted my eyes, moved out of view, a breathless swimmer fighting deep, swift currents of memory.
In the spring, I tried out for Junior Varsity football and made the team. The rest of the year was a jock dream that kept me from thinking too much about her. At least until summer practice. Coach worked us so hard we started turning on each other like snakes, spitting our venom for him upon each other.
I guess what happened was inevitable, perhaps even odd it didn’t happen sooner. During summer, to save money, the school turned off the hot water heater for locker room showers. The water whipped our bodies, a cold burn, ice sticking to skin. We howled the injustice. One lone howl shifted to a moan followed by a second answering moan, mimicking a girl’s orgasm. One after another, the remaining howls patterned into a group chant.
“Missy Mae. Missy Mae, Missy Mae…”
The concrete maze of showers concealed identities, but I knew my team mates’ voices. Primal instinct fulminated in four words.
“Stop, god damn it!” I slammed my faucet shut.
All sound trailed to silence interspersed with faucet drip. Whispers. Ghosts. Advance to low voices. I opened my faucet, plunged my head and mind into the ice flow.
“Jesus, Walters. What the fuck’s up with you?”
I kept my head up, eyes closed, bracing the cold stream off my chin.
“She’s not like that,” I said.
Tim Albury laughed. “Get yer head out of the ice, Walters. We don’t usually call her Missy Mae, cuz we know damn well she will.” Laughter ricocheted around me. In seconds, I was on top of him, slamming his head against the concrete floor. Jagged nails clawed my skin, hundreds of fingers shuffled across my body, gripped, pushed, pulled me from him. To help even the score, they let him have one punch at me.
The ring of confederate jasmine flowers in her hair wilted by the time I found her sitting on my front porch floor. Wisps wafted amidst long twirls of dark hair. A white peasant top draped toast-colored skin, and dangled bare her shoulder serving as head rest. Tiers of sky-blue Batik circled then flowed along the curve of her knees hiked above bare feet, red toenails. Her eyes, like the ocean, revealed only a surface of the world within. I was grateful to smell Jasmine along with the blood crusted in my nose.
“Why?” was all she asked.
I just looked at her and blinked back the boy in me.
She took my hand and led me across the street, onto her porch, through the screen door, up the stairs, into her bedroom that was like mine, yet hers. She motioned me to sit on the bed, then stepped back out and shut the door. Not much differed from the nocturnal spy view from my bedroom window.
Except for a vanity with three mirrors and upturned feet. It flanked her window so I’d never seen it. Curiosity pulled me to it. My eyes, hands embraced every object – silvered comb, brush, hand-mirror, glass-stopper bottles filled with gold or white liquid (each one a scent of her remembered from auto mechanics), two books – Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a book of poems by Adrienne Rich - and a school library copy of Atlantic Monthly. When I picked up the magazine it opened to a dog-eared page titled, “Whatever Happened to Women’s Rights?” I closed it to replace it in the exact spot, then paused at what rested there, unlocked, waiting, a red velvet diary.
I heard a toilet flush somewhere and pipes rumbled, whistled me to hurry. Nausea roller coasted my belly as my fingers shook through pages of guys’ names and notes. A floor board groaned outside – my insides pounded like the Tell-Tale Heart - the doorknob turned. Football practice paid off. I tackled the bed from ten feet. Poking his head and an outstretched hand through the door was Jeff.
“Missy Mae asked me to give you this.”
“Thanks.” Shaking, I took two white aspirin from his hand. He opened the door wider and with his other hand offered a glass of water.
I took it, swallowed the pills, drained the glass, and gave it back to him.
“Yeah, well, it should help the soreness.” He shrugged and looked down at the floor.
“How’re you doing?” I asked.
He looked up then, grinned at me, saying, “Better than you probably.”
When he’d closed the door, I turned to make sure the diary and magazine were in their place, but the room played tricks. The sun was setting, casting rays of gauzy, iridescent light into the room, perfume bottles became prisms and when the door opened again, I looked up, and all of the light stored up in the room flew toward her.
I gaped as she came toward me, light shimmering against her white satin kimono, its sleeves wide and long on her arms stretched out to me, sapphire eyes both a plea and a promise. But then she turned to the window, raised both arms toward the sky and closed the ivory curtains.
They came together like the pages in her diary flooding the room and my heart with darkness. All those names.
By the time her body lay next to mine, I was shaking uncontrollably. Her voice and hands tried to soothe me.
“It’s okay. I know how you feel. I’ve always known.”
“You’ve always known?” I asked. Her nose and mouth nuzzled into my neck. My body and mind raged against each other.
“How you felt about me. It’s why I picked you.”
“Picked me?” In a flash, I knew I could forgive her. Forget. Put all those names behind us. My shaking stopped and I stroked her face, her hair. I drew the glossy, perfumed length of curls across my face, then gathered the ends like a bouquet and kissed it with the greatest tenderness I’d ever known.
“To be the first,” she whispered.
I lifted my head, foggy with desire.
“You should have been the first,” she cooed.
“First” plunged me back into the ice flow of water in the locker room today.
“Why not the only?” I asked. “From here on out.”
Her giggle reminded me of the guys’ laughter in the locker room. Only I felt much more foolish now. Angrier.
“Like you would be with only me forever? Sam, we’re so young. We’ve got our whole lives in front of us.”
Suddenly I realized that I could never be more than a name on her list. That some unknown man in the distant future would marry the only girl I’ve ever loved. I hated him. And I hated her for using me until he comes along.
I pushed her away and stood up. “I can’t do this, be this…nothing to you.”
I crossed to the door as she sat up, her mouth open as if to say something, her eyes large, but not with surprise.
“I thought my whole life was in front of me, with you.” I opened the door slowly, wishing she would stop me. Say I was her whole life too. But then I finally had to close the door.
In truth, after all these years, I was curious. Curious about Marissa and the man she finally married.
Recently widowed, I’d returned home, hoping to find Marissa at our class reunion. She wasn’t there. That’s why I said yes to my mother’s invitation to come for lunch with Dolores.
Some months ago, while I browsed the book shelves of a used book store in the theatre district, I discovered a copy of Rich's Diamond Cutters and Other Poems. When I opened it, I was stunned to read Marissa’s name on the inside cover. Then I remembered it as one of the items I’d seen on her vanity. I leafed through it, then scanned the table of contents. One poem’s title struck a chord of memory with me. “Aunt Jennifer's Tigers.” I remembered Marissa saying she was her mother’s tiger. The last stanza jumped out at me because of the ink pen marks. I wondered at its meaning for Marissa if she was the one who had circled and underlined the lines.
“When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud, and unafraid.”
I wondered if the Aunt represented Marissa’s mom. If Marissa, by being her mom’s tiger, was supposed to live life prancing, proud, and unafraid, whatever that meant. I also wondered at how this book had traveled all the way from Key West to a used book store in New York, to me. Of course, I bought the book that day, then brought it back with me this summer to Key West.
The book was in my hand, a gift for Mama Dolores. I thought a memento from the past might be meaningful for her. She had stopped driving after the doctor diagnosed her with a touch of dementia. Since then, her son, Jeff, and my mom have taken turns looking in on her every day. Jeff’s wife does Dolores’s shopping and cleaning while Jeff, a shrimp boat captain, gives my mom fresh seafood for cooking Dolores’s meals and cleaning up afterwards.
I arrived early. My three light knocks bounced the unlocked screen door. It whined slightly as I opened it, but the parlor appeared empty. I paused in the hall before walking inside, all the while listening to kitchen sounds of lids clanged back on pots and pans, water running and the opening and closing of a refrigerator, all the while searching, hoping to find something. I didn’t know what. Pictures maybe. I knew Marissa had no children, but she’d married a Brazilian poet and they lived in Rio de Janeiro. The bold colors had faded or peeled and the brightness was defeated by dark green pull down window shades. Mold and dust reigned. From a dark corner of the room a rocker creaked.
Her voice hissed low and pierced the air causing me to flinch. “I know you.” Dolores teetered toward me. “I know who you are – you and my momma. I remember. She said an American sailor would love me special cause I was a virgin. But you didn’t. You ran around with every girl in Havana, then promised me a different life in Key West. But you got tired of coming home to babies, so you left. You used me up and went on your merry way. You get on outta here. Get!” She shook her cane at me.
Within moments, a sliding glass door of memory exchanged thresholds of time in her eyes. Their gloss hardened to disinterest.
“I tole you no double standards for Missy Mae. Didn’t I?”
Gooseflesh quivered across my chest, arms and belly. Heat flushed my torso and face.
“She got the same right as any man. Her own power. Same as you. Now go on.”
I dropped the book and gasped for air in a space that suddenly seemed a sealed vault of time. I fled. I left my mother there without saying goodbye or why I was leaving. How could I explain? How could anyone explain my discovery of such bitter understanding of Marissa in Dolores’s confusion of me with her ex-husband? I bolted back through the screen door, from damp darkness into a sauna of sun. My lungs ballooned. My sprint slowed to a brisk walk.
A red convertible whizzed past. Sandy dust whirled an image in front of me on the sidewalk. Black waves of a high pony tail swinging shoulder to shoulder in rhythm with her hips. She paused and shifted her red diary to the opposite arm. My body seemed to lift from the ground, reaching, stretching, straining to catch up. To convince her that not all men break vows. To give me the chance to prove it to her. I remembered the velvet cadence of her voice – its promise, the silk of her hair teasing my skin, her eyes fluttering wide with acceptance. And then she disappeared. A statue, I stared in disbelief at my outstretched hands, cupped as in prayer, spilling over with nothing.
Retired high school teacher, Vicki Riley is working on a collection of short stories and a screenplay set in Key West.
Vicki lives with her husband and Yorkie, Garbo (for Greta Garbo) in St Cloud and Cape Malabar, Florida embracing small town life that resembles what she remembers of her youth.
“Writers are a blend of loves. Vocabulary, sentences, maybe grammar, the written word always, but then personality shapes our writing subjects: politics to gardening. My personality gravitates to the heart, to people and to Key West where I lived thirty years and which remains the haunting “home” of my soul. Much of what I write is somehow embedded with a tribute to the past and hope for the future. Minority or women’s struggles ride the arcs of my stories. Characters abound in Key West, so mine reflect that unconventional, singular spirit of the island.”