Kimberly Ford

Summer Without Parents

There were no par­ents the sum­mer I was fif­teen.

Each August after­noon: Mrs. McIntyre turned her sta­tion wag­on onto our oak-lined road. From the back­seat next to her daugh­ter I would say, “End of the driveway’s fine! Really!”

In leo­tard and ten­nis shoes, my hair in a neat pony­tail, chalk on my hands and hips and thighs, stand­ing in the dri­ve­way, I waved good­bye to my team­mate Christina.

Had her moth­er insist­ed on coast­ing down the long grav­el dri­ve past the lau­rels, had Mrs. McIntyre insist­ed on walk­ing me inside, she might have found Morris Ludwig at the kitchen table drink­ing orange juice.

Morris was a close friend of my old­er brother’s and a fam­i­ly favorite. If Andrew was sev­en­teen that August, Morris was twen­ty-two. He’d grad­u­at­ed from Stanford in June with an engi­neer­ing degree. He had a job lined up at Morgan Stanley in the fall. He was tall and long-limbed and part­ed his brown hair on the side when the rest of California had giv­en up on combs. Morris was the kind of guy who liked to pull any of our mot­ley dogs onto his lap and rub their hair­less bel­lies. He was a good lis­ten­er. He was a scratch golfer and a good cook and he had no prob­lem mem­o­riz­ing gym­nas­tics train­ing sched­ules and phone num­bers and codes for pool hous­es and alarm pan­els and garage door key­pads. On paper, he was the ide­al babysit­ter.

What we didn’t know until years lat­er was that Morris had, the week before com­ing to stay with us, free­based such a large amount of cocaine alone in a house in the Woodside hills that he’d land­ed in the Stanford Emergency Room. When he woke sob­bing, the doc­tor told him to “watch the hard stuff.”

The house ram­bled. It was a two-sto­ry crafts­man with brown shin­gle sid­ing and climb­ing ros­es fram­ing bal­conies and French doors. Its sev­en bed­rooms meant plen­ty of space for me and Andrew and our younger broth­er and sis­ter, who were stay­ing with our grand­par­ents those weeks in August. There was a large suite of rooms for our par­ents and a small­er one for the house­keep­er. There were four bed­rooms for the four of us with trun­dle beds and spare bunks and a pair of over­sized couch­es upstairs in the play­room, all for the friends we invit­ed to stay over.

When I walked up the dri­ve at noon, the house was silent. Everyone was sleep­ing. I pushed through the gate by the pool. I passed the trel­lis lead­ing to the ten­nis court where lat­er that after­noon, Morris, who’d played for Stanford, or Stan or Tommy Richter or Sean or some­times my broth­er himself—who was bet­ter look­ing than the others—might lob balls to a bounc­ing knot of fif­teen-year-old girls on the far side of the net.

After four hours of prac­tice, I was hun­gry. And my knee hurt. That April I’d placed fourth in the State of California. In May I tore my menis­cus. Dr. DeHovitz carved most of it out and I’d tak­en six weeks off, but even in mid-August it ached enough to wake me at night. I skirt­ed the lawn and entered through the dou­ble glass doors of the kitchen.

The lunch I liked best after prac­tice was Spaghetti-O’s, nev­er with meat­balls, heat­ed in the microwave. I ate alone, in my chalky leo­tard, at the large mar­ble table by the open French doors. Two or three dogs lay huff­ing on ter­ra cot­ta in rec­tan­gles of sun­light. When the ancient rot­tweil­er start­ed lick­ing her­self under the table, I nudged her with my toe.

Just as I was tip­ping the bowl for the last of the O’s, Amy would come through the open glass doors. Or Lauren. Or both. We’d have a Tab or a Sunkist. Amy would pick at the white nail pol­ish we’d glossed on the day before while Lauren paged through Seventeen. We stood at the sink with table knives cut­ting lemons to light­en hair that was already white-blond.

Only then would we walk, bare­foot, through the wide sky-lit spaces of the kitchen and the fam­i­ly room. We need­ed the aqua-striped beach tow­els from the linen clos­et upstairs. Or I need­ed the orange biki­ni from my bot­tom dress­er draw­er.

The playroom—large and open, high-ceilinged—was the cen­ter of the sec­ond floor. Our rooms radi­at­ed from it. When we were lit­tle, its wall-to-wall car­pet was print­ed with four-foot tic-tac-toe grids and giant hop­scotch frames onto which the four of us, with a friend or three, tossed bean­bags. During sum­mers, when it was final­ly dark and the bal­cony doors were open to the cool air, my mom would climb the stairs with bowls of ice cream on a tray. My dad would already be lying on his back on the play­time rug, elbows bent, hands under his head, all of us watch­ing Star Trek or Kojak or Planet of the Apes.

But if downstairs—that August—was sun­light and wide green lawns and the rhyth­mic thwap of sprin­klers, upstairs was dark­ness. Amy and Sarah and I climbed upward, wait­ing at the top of the steps—blackout shades drawn—for gray forms to resolve into stand­ing lamps and couch­es.

Single file, hushed, Christina and Amy and I made our way across the hard­wood that had replaced the old dog-stained hop­scotch car­pet. In the cen­ter of the room was the ottoman our great-great-grand­moth­er brought back from her mis­sion to Turkey in 1897. On the ottoman lay any one of sev­er­al framed black-and-white pho­tographs: my moth­er with me on her hip, five-year-old Andrew smil­ing up from the pool, our lit­tle broth­er and tod­dler sis­ter tum­bled on the lawn with a pup­py. The pic­ture would have been lift­ed from its play­room hook by the man now sleep­ing on the couch. His hairy leg and large bare foot—calloused, black hair on the toes—stuck out from the pushed-away com­forter that must have been too warm by noon. On top the pho­to­graph, we saw as we moved by, was a razor blade.

After we’d put on swim­suits and rubbed in baby oil and lain our­selves out on webbed lounges, we might have heard Sean and Jay and Tommy Richter—who would die of alco­hol poi­son­ing years later—climb out my sec­ond-sto­ry bath­room win­dow onto the pitched roof. When they made a run­ning start and hurled them­selves over us and into the pool, we shield­ed our­selves from the spray of cold water onto warm skin, that new feel­ing radi­at­ing upward through my body as the men stepped out of the water grin­ning.

But come ten o’clock I was in my room, lights out. My bed­room was pale pink. I’d recent­ly trad­ed a frilly canopy bed for a mat­tress on the floor, but an entire wall still hung with medals and rib­bons and a poster of Olga Korbut. I was in bed by ten because I had prac­tice the next morn­ing.

I was also in bed because dur­ing my six weeks off, I’d fall­en hard for a sev­en­teen-year-old future rock singer who was slight­ly old­er and even bet­ter look­ing than my broth­er. Pete had got­ten in the habit, that August, of show­ing up around eleven, when he got off work at the record store. He’d just been expelled from high school for van­dal­ism. He lived alone with his mom in a two-bed­room ranch so close to their neigh­bors that you could look out their kitchen win­dow right into Mrs. Li’s. Pete’s bed­room was secured with a pad­lock. It was home to roach clips with tiny sharp teeth and stolen keg taps and four dif­fer­ent bongs, one of which was translu­cent pink and made for two peo­ple and almost as tall as I was.

Amy and Lauren and Kathleen had spent their sopho­more spring at our all-girls’ prep school nurs­ing crush­es on my broth­er. I spent that spring with a boy who was smarter than me, but so dyslex­ic he’d nev­er learned to read. My friends spent lunch­es at the local cream­ery. I spent lunch­es bik­ing to Pete’s house in my school uni­form. There, I would watch him get high. I would peel off my uni­form, we had sex, and I rode back in time for Frau Niedermeyer’s Western Civ.

Andrew was away at board­ing school. He’d left when I was in sev­enth grade and he was in ninth. Before he left, we used to bike to 7-Eleven for Coke and cher­ry Slurpees. We used to build card hous­es on the kitchen table togeth­er. But then he snuck into the dri­ve-in, got caught, and got ground­ed. He stayed out past ten and got ground­ed again. He and Marc Sharon lit a bon­fire behind the pool house and when my dad saw smoke and came strid­ing out and asked what in God’s name was going on, they hid sooty hands behind their backs and swore they had noth­ing to do with it. Then he was gone.

The sum­mer of no par­ents, though, he’d decid­ed not to take the job life­guard­ing down south. That August, he and his friends weren’t at the movies or even at a par­ty down the road. They were on the patio or in his bed­room, across the play­room from mine. At first, I liked the steady vibra­tion of their music through my walls. If Pete and I want­ed to swim at mid­night, no one stopped us. If Pete was at a par­ty up in the hills and I was alone at mid­night and felt like watch­ing TV, some­one watched with me. No one cared if my burnout boyfriend—they called him that: “your burnout boyfriend”—came through the house at eleven and slept in till noon. No one gave him a hard time when he pushed through the back gate and climbed the stairs and slipped into my room. Not at first.

I only went into Andrew’s bed­room once that August. His was larg­er than the rest of ours, with a peaked ceil­ing and tall win­dows. The night I went in, the win­dows were black and glossy. Three or four guys lounged on chairs and bean­bags, one lean­ing back against the head­board of the twin bed. Andrew sat hunched on a bench across the room. His hair was dyed flat black. He looked thin and pale even that late in the sum­mer. He wore a dark gray but­ton-down shirt.

The men stared at me but Andrew’s head was down, his hands busy with some­thing I couldn’t see. He didn’t notice me. Or any­one else.

Finally Jay or Morris or Sean said, “What’s up?”

My broth­er raised his head in my direc­tion. His mouth was open, his dark eyes unsee­ing. He went back to the pic­ture frame wedged between his legs.

Have you guys seen Sassy?” The rot­tweil­er. “She’s been gone all day.”

Jay or Morris or Stan shook his head. One of them said, “Nah.”

They stared, wait­ing for me to leave.

Andrew was wear­ing the same gray but­ton-down when I found him crouched, in the mid­dle of the night a few days lat­er, next to my mat­tress. I sat up. I felt around in the emp­ty bed for Pete.

Hey,” my broth­er whis­pered. “Want to have a par­ty?”

I heard the clink­ing of unopened beer bot­tles. I leaned for­ward in the dark­ness. I glanced to the clock radio, red num­bers glow­ing 4:21, then to the French doors to be sure that it was night­time, and that my boyfriend wasn’t on his way in.

Andrew moved across the mat­tress to lean against the wall. I pulled the blan­kets around myself and sat back.

We talked about drugs. He said they’d been doing a lot of cocaine that sum­mer. He said he didn’t like the way it made him feel. “What I real­ly like,” he said, “is hero­in.”

Friends at my all-girls’ prep school drank the occa­sion­al beer at the occa­sion­al pub­lic-school par­ty. Pete smoked a lot of dope, but nev­er asked me to. No one on the gym­nas­tics team stayed up past nine. “Heroin” meant noth­ing to me.

I’ve done it eleven times.”

You know the num­ber?”

It makes you feel real­ly good.”

You do it … with a nee­dle?”

He smiled like I should have known bet­ter. And I did. Because the February I was eight and Andrew was ten, his ski slid down the chalet wall and he tried to catch it and just about sliced his thumb off. The Tahoe Clinic couldn’t get the Novocain right and stitched him up any­way and since then he was more afraid of nee­dles than any kid we knew.

You don’t have to shoot up,” he said. “You can snort it.” He told me that smack wasn’t as hard to get as you’d think. He said alco­hol was nev­er real­ly his thing and that noth­ing made him feel as good. Andrew talked and I lis­tened. Until the sun came up. When he asked if I want­ed to go to the deli where he’d got­ten my par­ents to open an account, I would have said yes even if Mrs. McIntyre were due to pick me up at eight.

Together we walked out to the garage. Instead of the old Country Squire we were sup­posed to use, Andrew pulled open the driver’s side of the bright orange Porsche my dad bought the year they’d spent in Europe when Andrew was one and I was con­ceived. Our father’s car was rat­tly and low-slung. It smelled like gaso­line and leather and it was fast.

Behind the wheel, Andrew pushed in the clutch and gunned the engine. He turned to me, eye­brows raised. He shoved the gearshift into neu­tral and wag­gled it just like our dad did. Then he reached into the pock­et of his trench coat. He pulled out a cas­sette tape case and a rolled twen­ty. He leaned over the lit­tle plas­tic box, put the bill up his nose and inhaled.

I sat still.

His head fell back and he breathed deeply. He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. He snapped the tape box shut, slid it into the glove com­part­ment and slapped that closed. He smiled at me and I smiled back and he said, “Ready?”

He drove to the mar­ket like a mad­man. He talked about how the new Sonic Youth was shit and about how the clutch was touchy and how a kid he knew was going to sell him a sil­ver Vespa. At the deli he said he wasn’t hun­gry and bought a small tub of fruit sal­ad. He pulled two car­tons of choco­late Quik from the cool­er, hand­ed one to me and paid for my donut. I fol­lowed him out slid­ing glass doors into warm sun­light. I waved across the park­ing lot to Mrs. Porter—whose eldest son would be killed by a drunk dri­ver three years later—knowing she would report back to my mom that she’d seen us at the mar­ket one morn­ing, and that we looked hap­py.

He unlocked my door first. We were chil­dren with good man­ners. He made a joke about Mario Andretti and went around to his side.

I didn’t worry—not yet—about Mrs. Porter, or John the butch­er, or the police, or Andrew him­self, when he pulled the cas­sette case out of the glove box and did anoth­er line of coke in the park­ing lot of our neigh­bor­hood mar­ket.

He revved the engine and we rolled down our win­dows. He peeled out of the mar­ket and drove us home.

I thought he might come back into my room in the mid­dle of anoth­er night. But Pete was there most of the time and Andrew didn’t.

At some point, there were few­er guys around, few­er hang­ers-on. Morris sat in the fam­i­ly room for hours with his elbows on his knees, lean­ing for­ward to hear the hushed voic­es of tele­vised golf. Stan came by a cou­ple of times but didn’t stay long, mak­ing a point once to tell me he’d come to bor­row a record, though he didn’t leave with any record.

Which was fine because the guys hang­ing around that sum­mer had start­ed to give my boyfriend a hard time. About his con­cert T-shirts and his neigh­bor­hood, his long hair and the rusty old beat­er he rode because he couldn’t afford a car. By late August, Laura and Amy and Sarah had stopped hang­ing out, too. They said Pete was a dick. They called to say they were going to the movies and I could meet them if I felt like it. They called to say they were going to Talley’s for piz­za but boys from St. Ignatius were going to be there. No one was play­ing ten­nis. No one was jump­ing off the roof, no one was swim­ming and Morris wasn’t grilling steaks on the bar­beque.

I was alone most after­noons, most evenings. I was get­ting around to my sum­mer read­ing, down­stairs, in my dad’s study. Still, there was a moment each day when I need­ed my sneak­ers or the nail pol­ish remover. I climbed the stairs and there, on the mid­dle of the couch across the room, was my broth­er. Both feet on the floor, he sat with his hands in his lap, head down, chin to chest. The space was muf­fled by August heat and new tan uphol­stery and I want­ed to open the win­dows or low­er the shades. But I stole for­ward. Nothing moved, which was good because I could pre­tend my broth­er was tak­ing an after­noon nap. But as I moved toward the pale yel­low bath­room I shared with my sis­ter, I had to pass close by.

His head came up slow­ly. Like some­one under­wa­ter. His mouth gaped. His eyes drift­ed halfway open, then closed, then strug­gled open again. Sometimes he sighed. Or he grunt­ed, which was ter­ri­ble because he sound­ed like the kid in grade school who drooled and moaned and dragged his right foot.

Once that sum­mer with­out par­ents, I woke in the mid­dle of the night to yelling out­side my win­dow. In Pete’s fad­ed Houses of the Holy shirt, I pushed out onto my bal­cony. In the grav­el dri­ve­way below, were my broth­er and my boyfriend. What seemed to both­er Andrew was that Pete smoked pot. And that he liked the heavy met­al bands Andrew used to love but now hat­ed. Pete was a dropout. He had no mon­ey and his par­ents were divorced and the record store he worked at sucked. Earlier that week they’d passed each oth­er in the hall. Andrew said, “Nice hair.” We weren’t halfway up the stairs before my boyfriend was telling me why my punk-ass prep-school broth­er was a fag­got and a pussy and that he didn’t know any­thing about “real fuck­ing life.” Pete had grabbed a bot­tle of vod­ka from the liv­ing room bar. He sat on my low mat­tress drink­ing steadi­ly enough to move from the fact that my broth­er was a homo to the fact that we—he and I—were doomed.

You’ll go to moth­er­fuck­ing Dartmouth like your dad and you’ll go out with some fag­got from the library named Chase.”

I will not. That’s not true,” I said. As Pete start­ed smack­ing the back of his head against my wall. His dark hair, his fea­tures were the kind that Metal Edge and Rolling Stone would love half a decade lat­er. He closed his eyes. “Fucking phase.” His head thumped the wall. “I am noth­ing more than a fuck­ing phase.” Again his head. Hard enough that I wor­ried his skull would go right through my pale pink sheetrock.

So I strad­dled him. I kissed his mouth. I took off my shorts and my bathing suit. I laid my hands on the sides of his face and swore he wasn’t a phase. When we were done I kissed him again and lied and said he was wrong, that there was no way we were doomed.

Now, days lat­er, he stood below me in the dri­ve­way with my broth­er. He’d let his bike fall to the grav­el. In the drawn-out voice that meant he’d been drink­ing too much, he yelled, “What the fuck did you just say?”

Pete lunged for­ward. Andrew shoved him with both hands. My boyfriend fell back­ward onto his ass.

You fuck­er!” Pete came onto all fours on the grav­el. He stum­bled, then stood.

My brother’s voice sound­ed high to me, insub­stan­tial. “Get off my prop­er­ty!” he shout­ed. “Right now!”

But Pete didn’t leave. Pete wouldn’t lis­ten to my broth­er any more than he would’ve lis­tened to my father if my dad caught him scal­ing the trel­lis to my room at mid­night. Pete wouldn’t lis­ten to my dad any more than he’d lis­ten to his own father, who’d left when Pete was nine with his son’s entire paper route earnings—ninety-six dol­lars. Pete’s dad was an ass­hole. His mom was a bitch who didn’t get him. I had a mat­tress on the floor in a big house dur­ing the sum­mer with no par­ents and I’d told him I liked it when he called me pret­ty girl and it made me hap­py when he slept over and he was the first boy I’d had sex with and because of that—he told me dur­ing those weeks—I would nev­er for­get him.

In the dri­ve­way, he stood with his chest thrust for­ward, hands in fists. He moved so close to my broth­er that I wor­ried their faces would touch. Then he turned. With a slow rolling gait, shoul­ders back and hands loose, he moved toward the front door.

Fuck you!” my broth­er cried. “Fuck you, you moth­er­fuck­ing ston­er burnout los­er.”

Soon Pete was on my bed, lean­ing against the wall. “Asshole.” Was he talk­ing about my broth­er? He’d just lost his job at the record store. He reached across me for the jeans wadded on the hard­wood floor. From the pock­et he pulled a hard pack of Camels even though I’d asked him not to smoke in my room.

My brow fur­rowed. “Don’t do that.”

He blew smoke in a stream up toward the ceil­ing. “No one in this house knows a fuck­ing thing about hold­ing down a job.”

I asked you not to smoke in here.”

He took a long drag on the cig­a­rette. I got up out of bed and he grabbed my wrist. I pulled away, toward the sound of the TV in the play­room.

You know?” I stood, one hand the door­knob. “You need to stop get­ting drunk and com­ing over late-night just to fuck me.” I shook my head. “If you want to see me, some­times you need to come over in the mid­dle of the day. Even if that means say­ing hey to my pussy-ass coke-fiend broth­er.”

A few nights lat­er, I pushed out into the play­room. Andrew was sit­ting on the couch across the room. My back to the enor­mous pull-down tele­vi­sion screen where a man with a gun ran across a street, I stood star­ing at my broth­er.

Jesus!” My voice strug­gled against the roar of vol­ume. “Do you know what time it is?”

Chin nod­ding to chest, he stared through me.

Over gun­fire and explo­sions I said, “Do you need it so loud?”

With no change in expres­sion, with­out a word, he lift­ed the remote. He point­ed it at the blink­ing, flash­ing con­sole but then his hand fell back into his lap.

Over the blare, I said, “It’s almost three in the morn­ing. I’m right on the oth­er side of that wall. I can’t fall asleep if you have the TV this loud.” I wait­ed. “Are you even lis­ten­ing to me?”

The next morn­ing I reached to the back of the cab­i­net in the yel­low bath­room I shared with my five-year-old sis­ter. Behind the Sea Breeze and Tickle and the Baby Soft and Bonnie Belle, was the box of Tampax. Empty.

I should have been relieved. My peri­od explained why my back had been aching the night before. I was a woman. And I wasn’t preg­nant. I should have been hap­py.

The Petal Soft Slender-Regulars were all gone. The guys who’d been hang­ing around were all gone and Pete was too. I was fif­teen. I couldn’t dri­ve myself to the store. Amy and Lauren and Sydney weren’t there to dig in a purse or an overnight bag to lend me one. I was not about to ask Morris to dri­ve me to 7-Eleven for tam­pons.

Kathleen Albright had shown me how to use them. I was a late bloomer. I’d had gym­nas­tics prac­tice one February after­noon of our sopho­more year and you can’t go to gym­nas­tics prac­tice with a pad stuck in your leo­tard. In the upper school bath­room she spoke through the stall door. “Point it back,” she said. “Not up. Back!” It wasn’t going very well. There was Kathleen’s face, upside down, below the brown stall door, her blond hair hang­ing to the tiled floor. She laughed. “I’ll come in. I’ll show you how.” I laughed and said, “I’ll fig­ure it out.”

Somehow my mom had known, the first time, that it was going to hap­pen. We were at the Tahoe house for Christmas when it did. She took me to the Lucky’s at the bot­tom of the hill and we bought maxi-pads and mini-pads and panty-lin­ers and Midol and Pamprin. Then we came home and had tea.

I didn’t know, that sum­mer, where my mom kept her stuff. The three draw­ers on her side of the bath­room were neat­ly orga­nized: rolled stock­ings, cream and tan and white silk slips, lacy bras that looked huge com­pared to mine because it turned out my moth­er was a 36D. Under the sink was a plunger and neat­ly stacked toi­let paper and a dish of nev­er-used guest soaps that had got­ten dusty. In her cab­i­nets? No tam­pons or pads, not even panty-lin­ers.

I closed the lid of the toi­let and sat. Sassy wan­dered into the door­way and I called her but she lum­bered away. I sat a while longer. Then I unspooled a long length of toi­let paper. I fold­ed it square over square, then in half. I unbut­toned the fly of my jeans shorts and pulled them down. I was wear­ing my favorite under­wear: light blue with “Tuesday” across the front in loopy script. The set had been a Christmas present from my mom the year before, but the oth­er days of the week had dis­ap­peared. Now, at the crotch of Tuesday, was a dark stain.

They were com­ing home four days lat­er.

They’d gone to the Virgin Islands. My father sat on the Board of Directors of a large cor­po­ra­tion, and the annu­al meet­ing was in St. John.

The dri­ver would drop them off around noon. They would be tan and I would sit in their room, on their bed, while my mom unpacked bathing suits and pas­tel cov­er-ups. She would ask about Pete, because she loved Pete. She would want to know if I’d land­ed my new beam dis­mount and how Amy and Lauren and Sydney and Christina were. From a silk pock­et of her suit­case she would take the small box hold­ing the sand dol­lar charm she’d bought for my bracelet. From the main com­part­ment would come thick bathrobes in the company’s dark blue, its name embroi­dered in white, so that when my lit­tle broth­er and sis­ter arrived lat­er in my grand­par­ents’ sta­tion wag­on, they could wear the robes, drag­ging, around the house while drink­ing orange juice from dark blue cof­fee mugs dec­o­rat­ed with a sil­ver trio of stars.

I might have stayed with my grand­par­ents for those weeks in August. I could have cho­sen to go with my younger broth­er and sis­ter. My dad might have made the deci­sion: “Argue all you want! Make life mis­er­able for Nona and Grandad! You have no choice!” But he hadn’t.

I couldn’t have gone to stay with my grand­par­ents. I was fourth in the State of California and though I’d decid­ed to quit when school start­ed, my coach­es were expect­ing big things. I couldn’t have stayed with my grand­par­ents that sum­mer because Andrew was home. He was leav­ing again after Labor Day. Early in August, Pete had promised he would bor­row a car and dri­ve me to the beach every day.

We stayed alone, with Morris, because we were good kids with good grades and good man­ners. There were dogs to keep com­pa­ny. We were prac­ti­cal­ly adults. It may have felt like all sum­mer, but it was only two weeks. And the day Mrs. Porter saw me and Andrew togeth­er at the mar­ket, we looked hap­py.