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.