Time & Place
You’re young. You are standing in front of a shop window watching something on the black and white television inside. A woman grabs your hand and runs down the street, pulling you along…
It’s the eve of my sixteenth birthday, and I feel like a newborn, taking that first gasp of air deep into my lungs, the oxygen diffusing into my bloodstream and my eyes open for the first time, seeing, believing.
There he is on the big television set in McGinty’s shop window. In the sharp contrasts of black and white, guitar swinging from around his neck as hapless as a clumsy lover, hips gyrating like he’s wearing an invisible hoolahoop. His eyes so dark, his hair so slick, a silly smirk lighting his face, and I smile back, unable to resist him. And as he thrusts his pelvis, I feel a warmth in my own. This is what it has to feel like to be born. I can’t catch my breath.
“Julie!” my mother says, walking over to look in the window. “What are you watching?” She gasps, but she does not grab me and leave.
“It’s Elvis, mom, he’s on Ed Sullivan.” She steps in line with me toward the window, and all at once, I feel that we are not mother and daughter, constantly juxtaposed in our world views. Now we are two women, watching grayscale sex live on national television.
“Edith?” Dad calls from the corner. He’s eager to get to the car. January in Columbus is no time for window shopping. They’ve taken me out to the Tastee Freeze for my birthday, even though it’s not until tomorrow. I got a foot-long with onions, chili and cheese. My belly feels tight against my jumper. But it was yummy.
Tomorrow I’ll have no onions, because Will and I are going to the movies and to Baker’s Point. He tells me he has a special birthday present for me. Sue says it’s a locket with my initials on it, but I think Sue is just saying what she hopes it is. I don’t think she really has a clue.
Secretly, I hope it isn’t a locket. I hope it’s a promise ring. If it is, I’ll probably give Will what he’s been wanting for months, since his seventeenth birthday. Maybe I’ll give it to him. It’s a big decision, especially for a girl. I mean, for a woman.
“Just a minute, honey,” mom calls over to dad. “What is he doing?” She asks me, her head cocked at an angle toward the television screen, and even though I know she knows she’s supposed to be pulling me away from the foreplay on the TV, protecting my child eyes from the erotic exhibition on display, I suspect she feels warmth in her own pelvis as she watches with me.
“Dancing.” It’s all I can manage.
“Well, I’m going to the car,” dad says in a huff and crosses the street to where our car sits. We don’t really notice.
Other people gather at the window, teens and adults alike, but all of us are silent so that we can hear the faint sound of Elvis’ words through the window. “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog . . .” Elvis croons, his hips shaking in every direction–back and forth, side to side, diagonally–to the rhythm of the song. Mom is tapping her hand again against her thigh. I still can’t move.
But suddenly, I’m not moving, I’m running. But not of my own volition. Someone has grabbed my hand, and ripped me, like a bandaid, from the storefront window. And we’re racing around the corner, and suddenly I realize how cold it is, and the breath streams from my mouth and nostrils as visible, warm steam. Why am I running?
I stop and yank back on the hand that drags me. “Stop, wait a minute!” I say, breathing hard, the bite of the cold January air searing my nose, my mouth, my lungs. “What are you doing?” I’m suddenly irate, because not only has this person separated me from my parents, she has separated me from Elvis and his pelvis! Who is this person? For the first time, I think to look.
A girl, about my age, stands in front of me. Her hair, mousy brown and in a bun, projects a crazy halo of stray hairs around her face. She wears a dress, with all the shape of a burlap bag. It stops just below her knees, and over it is a blue pinafore. She has no coat, and she wears sneakers and knee socks. She is pretty but in a plain way. She breathes heavily, too, and her eyes are wide, but I can’t tell the color in the dark. With only the streetlamp to illuminate us, they just look like shiny, black orbs.
“I’m saving you.” The voice sounds familiar, with a slight accent from somewhere south of Ohio. Is it–
“Ruth? Ruth Howard?” I say. The eyes change shape, less wide than before, and I know I am right. Ruth goes to school with me, but she is one grade ahead, Will’s grade. She’s some kind of religion, always wearing plain clothes and never any makeup. I know her parents have a car, because they dropped me off at my house one day when my mom got stuck at a doctor’s appointment and couldn’t come and get me. Other than that I can’t think of any moment I’ve ever spent with her. We never talk, just an occasional “hi” in the hall. I’ve never really thought much about her, and for this reason I’m surprised she has abducted me in this bold way and even more surprised that her intent is to save me. Save me from what?
For one crazy moment I wonder if she has been talking to Will. Maybe she knows what he has planned, what I have planned. Maybe she knows of our plan to go to Baker’s Point to–
But there’s no way. Will would never talk to Ruth Howard. My own uncertainty about tomorrow night plays tricks on me. But still, I don’t know what to say.
“Come with me,” she says, and there is an urgency in her voice that makes me uneasy.
“Where?” is all I can think to ask. Her eyes are wide again, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go anywhere with Ruth Howard tonight or any night.
“Away from there. Away from the TV.”
What? Away from Elvis? What is she thinking? I say just that.
“Do you not see the dancing he does, the way he moves his, his . . .” Ruth is at a loss for words. Now I’m getting angry.
“His hips,” I say, emphasizing the second word. I jerk my hand from hers, and I pretend to play a guitar, gyrating my own hips as I sing, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog!” She steps back from me, her eyes look like slits now, they practically glow with her rage.
“I thought you were better than that,” she says quietly. I stop, and I feel guilty. I don’t know why. Maybe because I enjoyed watching Elvis. A lot. And I’m not even sure why. I’ve never seen anything like that before. And maybe I am feeling some reservations about my plans with Will tomorrow night. Maybe I’m not ready to be a woman. Maybe I really am still a girl. Maybe I need Ruth Howard to save me. But not from Elvis or Will. Maybe I need saving from myself.
“OK, OK.” I concede to her, though she probably doesn’t yet realize that she has won this battle of what will likely be a protracted war. I’m surprised myself. “But I’ve got to get back to my mother. She’s going to freak when she realizes I’m gone.” Even though we are but a couple hundred feet from McGinty’s, we’re around the corner and out of sight.
Ruth’s eyes soften. “You’re not going to watch that filth any more? It’s not good for you, Julie Snyder.” Hearing my first and last name make feel further chastised and further guilty. I don’t know how to be angry now.
“I promise,” I say, so quietly, I’m not sure she has even heard me.
Then as suddenly as she appeared, she is gone.
I walk hastily back to McGinty’s. Mom and a small crowd continue to watch as Elvis finishes his performance. “ . . . and you ain’t no friend of mine . . .” Mom suddenly realizes I’m not beside her, and on her face she wears a mixture of panic and guilt.
“Over here, mom,” I say as I approach her. Elvis has finished and the crowd dissipates, wandering back to whatever held it’s attention before the rock-n-roller grabbed it.
“Well,” she says, clearly breathless “that was different.” She’s not really saying this to me. It seems to be more for her own benefit. Or maybe for the benefit of some unseen guardian angel who stands nearby.
But I know my guardian angel runs down Chesterfield Boulevard, off to save another soul from the dangers of teen lust, just as she has attempted to save my own.
I do not yet know if she has succeeded.
- Inspired by Kellie Elmore’s FREE WRITE FRIDAY: “Mourning” (seriouslywritingwoman.wordpress.com)