November '05 -- guest edited by Claudia Smith
Bonnie was the type of girl about whom other girls said, “I don’t know what they see in her.” This meant simply that Bonnie was a mantrap envied, respected, and hated like poison. Specifically, the girls hated her navel, always sliding out above her waistband, drawing the eyes of males with a merciless, inexorable traction.
The girls also hated Bonnie’s hair: “Without her hair, she’d be nothing.” The hair was a wavy blonde tumult that plunged past Bonnie’s slinky, conniving waistline to brush the obtrusive navel. It wasn’t fair! In seventh grade, Bonnie had sported as short and frizzy a perm as the rest of them. And though all the girls had changed, some radically, Bonnie had changed more radically than the rest of them put together: the pout, the narrow blue eyes, the sinuous back somehow, they had all fallen into place, like the primordial earth they studied in science class, taking shape from its cosmic dust mass. So had Bonnie emerged, just as inevitably and about a million times more disturbingly.
What Bonnie had was so potent that Judy Morris, returning to math class for a forgotten book, had stopped short at the door, at the sight of angular, twitchy Mr. Dixon down on his doubleknit knees at Bonnie’s feet. Recounting the incident, words had failed Judy. Mr. Dixon’s face had been, she wanted to say, contorted, anguished. But she could only come up with “sad.” Bonnie had simply looked “fed up.”
Parents invariably uttered one word when they saw Bonnie: Lolita. Mothers did not trust their sons or their paunchy, balding husbands in her waiflike, flexible presence. “Wish in one hand and spit in the other,” had said Kevin Brownlow’s mom nastily to Mr. Brownlow when Bonnie dropped by to visit. “See which one fills up first.”
That summer, Bonnie and her friends spent most evenings hanging out at the Jack-In-the Box on Wilshire in Santa Monica. It was a good central location for starting the night, close to the beach, the freeway, and the notorious party row on Centinela. Eventually, most of the boys in the crowd came to work at the Jack-in-the-Box, lasting an average of three weeks. No sooner would one quit or get fired than another would take his place. The veterans proudly displayed their forearms, burn-scarred from french fry duty.
Each time she arrived, Judy Morris would look up at Jack’s smiling head, rotating on its high pole with moronic benignity. What have you seen? Judy would wonder. What secret wisdom did the painted grin conceal? Beneath Jack was the order window, and Mike Braithwaite leaning out on his elbow, a lank comma of dark hair falling across his eyes. Mike was barely eighteen, but he had two pregnant girlfriends, so he held on to his job while the others came and went. Mike’s parents were alcoholic, hardly unique in that crowd, but the Braithwaites’ disease was particularly virulent. To compensate him for his chaotic childhood, Mike’s parents had bequeathed him looks that Valentino would have envied. Mike spent most of his time trying to avoid trouble, but he was born for it.
The girls all worked hard on their tans and starved themselves with ferocity and dedication. Any caloric slips were quickly remedied by a finger down the throat. They pursued the boys with a single-mindedness that did not border on obsession, but crossed over and took up permanent residence. Although the girls declared fervently that they believed in virginity, sobriety and fidelity, most of them could be talked into just about anything.
Across from Jack’s was a tiny park, where the kids went to drink, make out, talk, fight, and throw up. And across Wilshire facing north stood the Lawrence Welk Building, four stories tall, beige and nondescript. Judy’s sister Angela called the building Lawrence Welk’s Last Erection, and some of the kids thought that was very funny. Others did not know who Lawrence Welk was. Since Judy and Angela came from Minnesota and had spent a whole semester just learning the polka, they well knew of Lawrence Welk.
Judy Morris was Bonnie’s best friend. She was a good candidate for this unenviable position, because Judy did not have a jealous bone in her body. Small, slim and sweet-faced, with round brown eyes, a slightly bulbous nose and long lashes, Judy seemed incapable of the cattiness and envy that came so naturally to other girls, including her own sister. Boys seldom made passes at her because of the lofty moral plane she seemed to inhabit, but they often confided their feelings about other girls, usually Bonnie.
Angela, older than Judy by a year, was tall, flamboyant and competitive. White-skinned and dark-eyed, with curling, confrontive black hair, Angela Morris resented Bonnie even more than the other girls did. The contrast between the two was almost elemental light and dark, yin and yang. Fair, languid Bonnie was seemingly unaware of her galvanic effect on men, while Angela was overreactive and alert to any opportunity or advantage. When Angela discovered that Bonnie wrote poetry, she had been frantic to read some and openly relieved that it was bad.
Bonnie’s mother provoked as much pity as her daughter did animus. Short and shockingly obese, poor Mrs. Chadwick walked with the rocking gait of a penguin. She labored away in a stifling little insurance office and spoiled Bonnie shamelessly. Bonnie had been born out of wedlock, her father a high school football player who had caddishly denied paternity. Judy could not help imagining that plump little hen of a mother, probably a library monitor, conceiving Bonnie during one gloriously sinful moment in a back seat no, against a locker pinioned by the brutal, golden quarterback, his helmet dangling from his arm. One episode of abandon, for which she would pay eternally.
“I’m a mess,” Mike Braithwaite said to Judy. The crowd had gone to a beach party in Topanga, but Judy had waited to give Mike a ride home after he got off work at eleven. One of Mike’s pregnant girlfriends had moved back with her parents. The other had disappeared in Mike’s dilapidated Ford.
“It won’t take you a minute to clean up,” said Judy. “I’ll wait.”
“I said I’m a mess.” Judy searched Mike’s hazel eyes, not knowing what to say.
“I might as well join up,” said Mike.
“But that won’t solve anything. And what if they send you... away?” Mike shrugged.
“At least it’ll feed my kids. The way it is now, I’m worthless.”
“I don’t think so,” said Judy glumly, rendered inarticulate by the nearness of him. The truth was, she loved Mike. She had seen him surfing one chilly evening in his baggy Hawaiian trunks, silhouetted against an incandescent autumn sunset. He had plunged down the face of a blue wave, his hair blowing off his forehead, pantherine eyes crinkled up against the water’s reflective glare. When he lost his balance momentarily, he had thrown his head back and laughed as he tottered on the board. Judy, the earnest midwestern transplant, had never seen a human being so astoundingly, unattainably beautiful, so gracefully fashioned.
So she loved Mike with a hopeless, humble love. For Judy, the triangular world bounded by the rotating Jack head, the last erection of Lawrence Welk, and the park, became a microcosm of secret joy and pain.
Judy and Angela had moved to Santa Monica from Minnesota following the collapse of their father’s contracting business. Their home, heavily mortgaged, had been foreclosed early one morning by apologetic but unyielding repo men with faint Norwegian accents. The family was ushered out into the street with the clothes on their backs and a few keepsakes. That was how they did things in Minnesota; if you couldn’t pay, you had to go.
The Morrises had driven to Los Angeles and descended on Mr. Morris’s younger brother, Zack, who tried to find Mr. Morris a job. But by this time, Mr. Morris had no spirit left and had begun to drink. He stuck it out for a few months, then headed back to Minnesota. Mrs. Morris took a job working stock in a department store.
The balmy southern California air, the proximity of the beach, and the infinitely distant horizon of ocean and sky soon seduced the uprooted sisters. Their high school in Minnesota had been three stories of solid brick, with small, barred windows and a grim hall monitor at every door. If you were caught chewing gum in class, you might have to cut that gum out of your hair at night. But Santa Monica High was an “open campus” of many buildings, whose boundaries leaked students. You could see and smell the ocean from the classrooms. Teachers answered to their first names.
“I’m right where I fucking belong,” said Mike Braithwaite. He was standing at the back door of the Jack-in-the Box, amid overflowing aluminum garbage cans, a sea of used wrappers and cartons at his feet. But Judy might have been standing on the cliffs of Monte Carlo overlooking the blue Mediterranean, she was that happy just to be near him. From experience, though, she knew that self-deprecation was often the prelude to a confidence. Her heart began to quiver with apprehension, because most male confidences had to do with Bonnie. Asking Mike what was wrong would be risky, but she had to say something.
“But what… is the most wrong?” She held her breath.
“I knew it,” Judy couldn’t help blurting.
“You do? That makes it a little easier for me,” said Mike. “I’ve held it all inside till I thought I’d go nuts.” He sighed and flipped his dingy counter rag over his shoulder. “I know I’ve got no right.” No, you haven’t, thought Judy, but she would never say such a thing to him.
“Have you told her… yet?” Judy asked, dreading his reply. In her experience, boys seldom suffered in silence or loved from afar for long. They wanted to confess, confront, prevail. They wanted an answer, which, with Bonnie, was usually no. Once a boy declared his love, Bonnie seemed only to want to put distance between them.
“She doesn’t trust guys very much,” said Judy “after what happened to her mother.”
“And I would be her worst nightmare,” said Mike. Judy could not think of Mike being anybody’s worst nightmare. Nevertheless, it was true.
“What about Heather and Eileen? And the babies?”
“That’s why I think I ought to just join up,” said Mike. “Put it all behind me. I have to tell you something.” Uh-oh, thought Judy. Here it comes. She braced herself. He leaned close to her, and she tried to take in all his beauty and intensity, secretly pretending they were meant for her.
“I love Bonnie more than I’ve ever loved anybody in my life. I would devote myself to her forever. I would never, ever leave her.” This, Judy knew, was for her to pass along. She tried it on. It was almost too much to bear. Her eyes stung.