Saturday, July 17, 2004

PART 13 - Laying Our Cards on the Table

He was always Donna's favorite. I never really understood what she found so attractive about him, but nonetheless, today's post is accompanied by Mr. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Well yeah I might have chased a couple of women around
All it ever got me was down
Then there were those that made me feel good
But never as good as I feel right now
Baby you’re the only one that’s ever known how
To make me wanna live like I wanna live now

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Suffice it to say that my little ruse was put to the test almost immediately. Donna was relentless - she wanted details and she wanted them NOW. I confessed to her his real age. She was my best friend, my confidante, and I can't deny that I experienced a selfish pleasure in telling her that I was dating a MAN with his own place. No way to trump that. She seemed to develop a different level of respect for me. Besides, I knew I had enough dirt on her to count on her loyalty.

This little affair was seriously affecting my perspective. If I had felt surrounded by children before, this tryst only added fuel to the fire. I took absolutely no joy from high school or anything remotely associated with it. I exerted enough effort to maintain A's and B's, but didn't go out of my way to participate in any other way. My allegiance was elsewhere, and when I wasn't with him, I was just counting the hours until I could see him again. Football games, pep rallies, after-game pizza parties . . . those were the amusements of mere kids, and I was well beyond that now. The friends that had grown used to my presence began to wonder where I was, and made it known that they didn't particularly like being pushed aside. It all went in one ear and out the other . . . I was a woman in love.

After a month of slipping out of the house, I made the decision to let my family in on the news. Well, most of my family. It was pretty low-key. I had him come over on a Wednesday evening. He met my mom, my sister and GB (Neither my sister or GB had gone back to Univ of GA after the summer; they had both transferred to Georgia State downtown and were living back at home to save money.) My mother was kind and polite. She had enough patience to sit and talk with both of us about inconsequential things. My sister was . . . less polite. In the kitchen, she cornered us both. "Come on, how many years are between you two?" she asked, with a cynical look in her eye.

Without blinking, I said "He is a little older than me; he is 19." She looked at him for affirmation, and he smiled at her. She walked out of the kitchen, shaking her head. "Wait 'til Daddy hears about it," she tossed over her shoulder. Yeah, that was one bridge I wasn't willing to cross yet. I knew that he would hear about it from my mother, which was fine. Letting him implode in another state seemed like a valid approach. GB, ever the kind one, extended a friendly hand and welcomed him to the house. All in all, it went pretty well.

As he stood to leave, he gave my mother a warm hug and thanked her for having him over. "I look forward to meeting your husband," he said with a smile. "Well, that's nice of you to say," offered my mother, and it nearly drowned out my sister's comment "Oh no, you don't."

Once outside, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. As he kissed me goodbye, he said, "I still don't know what you were worried about. Parents love me!" As an afterthought, he said, "Oh, do you think you can go to my mom's with me on Saturday? I need to work on her car, it shouldn't take too long, then I can show you around the big town!" I smiled, secretly pleased that he would offer to take me around his family this soon. For me, it was a necessity of course, but for him, I could have been kept a secret quite easily.

Saturday morning came and I nervously picked out something conservative to wear. I was panicky at the prospects of meeting his folks - I had never had to meet anyone's folks before, and I felt sure that I would fall short somehow, some way. We were on our way north by 10:00 that morning, and as we drove further and further away from Atlanta, it seemed that I was entering a whole different place. Georgia was my home state; I had lived just outside of Atlanta my whole life. I had no concept of what life was like just a scant hour north.

After about 45 minutes, his chipper demeanor seemed to give way to a nervousness. "We'll be at my mom's house pretty soon. I hope you aren't expecting the kind of neighborhood that your folks live in, this is the country." he said, with a hint of a quiver in his voice. Did he think that I was a snob? Surely he couldn't think that. "I'm just looking forward to meeting them and spending the day with you," I said. The rest of the ride was in silence.

As we exited the highway and drove past the initial cluster of roadside gas stations and fast food places, we began to enter a much more rural area. Small clapboard houses dotted the roadside, many of them accompanied by vast stretches of pasture. It was beautiful, tranquil. I was admiring the scenery as the van slowed and turned onto an unpaved road. Great clouds of red dust from the dried and caked Georgia red clay swelled around and behind the van; the crunch of the gravel under the tires sounded like we were running over ice cubes. We slowed to a stop. Through a thicket of overgrowth, I spotted a tinroofed tarpaper shack with a sagging front porch and a tendril of gray smoke wafting out of a roof pipe. This was IT?! My God, this WAS it.

I made an extraordinary effort to hide my shock. I was completely unprepared for the sheer destitution that his family lived in. I stepped carefully onto the porch, dodging the holes and gaps from boards long rotted away. I steeled myself; what in the hell was I walking into?

A small, grey, rotund woman with thick glasses came to the door, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. "Hey hun, ya'll come on in," she offered in a raspy voice as she opened the creaky door. I gingerly stepped over the threshold; I had the feeling that the floor could give at anytime. We had stepped into a makeshift kitchen, and through a doorway on the left, I saw a man rise from an old recliner, reinforced here and there with silver duct tape. He, too had a cigarette dangling from his lips, and I was barely able to decipher his greeting. He was toothless, and combined with a thick Appalachian twang, I was just clueless.

The ceilings were quite low, stained and sagging. The "house" appeared to have been built in pieces, with whatever kind of wall or floor materials they could find or afford. A crazy quilt of linoleum patterns stretched from the kitchen into the living area, covering a floor with peaks and valleys so severe that the linoleum had developed long faultline cracks along the most severe inclines. A bare bulb hung from the living room ceiling, and the paltry bit of light it gave only made the whole room just that much more pathetic. After a brief exchange of words and keys, I was left in his paren't company while he attended the ailing car.

His mother arranged herself on an ancient naugahide chair with several splits that revealed its foam and wooden frame. The chair was surrounded with books of all kinds. Hardbacks, paperbacks, coffee table books, fiction and non. She took a long drag on her cigarette. "Books are 'bout the only thang I give a sheeit abowt," she drawled with an exhale of smoke and a laugh. "I go to the liebrey twiced a week, and I've pert near run out of books to chick out." She and I had a fairly friendly exchange and when the room got quiet again, his dad excused himself to go outside. He was only gone a minute; he returned with two soot-covered buckets of coal lumps. He disappeared into a dark room behind the living area, and I could hear him tending a fire. "Noel, is the warter hawt chyet?" she asked. He grunted an affirmation. "Brang that pawt of warter to the kichen sank, I gotta do thuh deeshus." Jesus, they didn't have hot water in this house.

She invited me into the kitchen while she added soap and cool water to the boiling water in her sink. While she busied herself, I looked along her shabby walls lined with rows and rows of Mason jars filled with beautifully colored vegetables and fruits. She quickly finished washing the few dishes while she chatted about her kids (she had 7) and grandchildren. She turned her attention to assembling an array of supplies on her delapidated kitchen table: lard, white flour, buttermilk and a huge wooden bowl. As we talked, she effortlessly created a mountain of flour in the wooden bowl, followed by a moat of buttermilk, a nearly unbelieveable glob of lard, and I watched, fasinated, as she deftly patted out 2 dozen biscuits. I had spent my childhood watching my mother cook, but I had never been around someone that cooked from scratch. She laughed at my admiration, "Hunney, the dazzle wars off a'ter you make as menney as I've a'made. That's biskits AND kids!" she said gleefully. I began to see past the squalor.

Well, news travels fast. Before the biscuits came out of the oven, 2 of his older brothers had showed up. Boisterous and funny, they were a much rougher, cruder version of him, but they had the same twinkle in their eyes. They were delighted with my reaction to their mother's homemade biscuits with butter and homemade pear preserves. His dad flashed a shy, toothless, silent grin and patted his wife's shoulder in response to the flood of praise that exited my mouth between luscious bites. They WERE perfection; I had never had anything so delicious in my life.

Before I realized it, an hour had passed and I was being retrieved. "You haven't told her all the bad things about me, have you?" he kidded as he hugged his mother. She slapped at him with a dishrag, "You're too rotten for this sweet gal." We said our goodbyes, and his mother hugged me warmly.

We drove around his town, sightseeing. We drove past his highschool, and the historic town square. He drove me past rows and rows of milltown houses and the carpet and textile mills that employed most of the poor townspeople. We ended our tour standing at the edge of the Etowah river, watching the water rush through the greenery growing along the bank. "Thank you for coming up here with me," he said, and when I looked at him, I felt my heart lurch in my chest. Tears were running down his cheeks, faster than he could wipe them away. "You are something else. I thought this trip would be the end of us. I thought that when you saw that I was nothing but trash, you wouldn't be able to get out of here fast enough. That happened to me before, and I just expected that to happen again. I thought better now than later. I'm sorry I thought that about you." He embraced me as he lost his battle with the emotions that were coming to the surface.

And on the bank of that river, it was me that held and comforted him as he let go of the pain and shame with silent convulsions of sobs. "I love you . . ." he whispered into my hair after the painful tears had left him. He told me he loved me. In all of my life history, I had never been told that ANYONE loved me. I had never told another living soul that I loved them. I looked up at him, meeting his gaze, smiling through tear-filled eyes, whispering "I love you, too."

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