Apr/May 2006 Nonfiction

The Lens of Memory

by Leslie A. Wolter

At least the past is safe--
though we didn't know it at the time.
We know it now. Because it's in the past;
because we have survived.

          --Susan Sontag

There are so many moments in a person's life that fade into obscurity as time passes. An era is defined by certain characteristics--the big hair phase, the abusive boyfriend phase, the punk rock phase--but the moments lose their focus and blend. Occasionally, I am compelled to cast my mind back to the phases and hook moments to turn the microscope on. Remembering where I have been helps me to appreciate the evolution of my story, and to take note of the changes that define who I am. Lens on, fine tuned for detail.

It is summertime. I live in a small town about an hour away from Los Angeles. I am eighteen. I live with a friend in his studio apartment, because I don't have enough money to rent a place of my own. He's gay, so it's okay that we share his bed. I don't have to give him any money or my ass, but he does require that I keep my friends away from the place, and that I not give out his phone number. Even these meager requests are hard for me to honor. My parents live in a corn-laden state that I have never been to. They might as well be on another planet. I am depressed and lonely, but also totally manic and freer than I have ever been.

I work at a theater, which is a great job but doesn't come close to paying enough for me to live on. I also manage somehow to make it to community college for classes a few days a week. I never seem to have enough money for gas to get my van up there, so I am usually on a wing and a prayer. When I eat, it is leftovers grabbed from my friend's fridge, which I hope he won't notice, or candy from the theater. Sometimes I can scrape together enough for a bean burrito at Ed's, which is in the Mexican part of town and has the best burritos ever made.

My friends are punks and skinheads and hippies and homeless men... essentially anyone who doesn't fit in this clean, suburban middle class town. We are bored and disaffected, all the clichés. We try to stir things up, but we are harmless. We pimp beer in front of the Quikmart and take it up on the roof of the theater where I work to look down at the passing cars and get drunk. My boss is mad because someone keeps stealing the letters "o" and "i" off the "Rainbow" sign, and he knows it is my skinhead friends. I tell him I will talk to them about it. Oi is not a lovesong... oi,oi,oi. We hang out at the square in town, which is a small public park with a fountain and gazebo. So quaint. It is bordered by yuppie specialty clothing shops and little sidewalk cafes. I worked at the one right across the street from the square when it first opened up, but the owners were these sexist middle-eastern dudes who addressed me as "girl" the whole time I worked there, so that didn't last.

The cops often come to sweep us from the square. It seems we are a blemish on the pristine face of their town. They say we are "loitering." In a park. HAHAHA. I have a big mouth and some big opinions, so I don't go quietly. I work with a guy who has connections on the local newspaper staff, and I do an interview about how there is nothing for the youth of the town to do. I also say lots about the police and their policies... which doesn't make it to the final piece, surprisingly.

One of my friends who is a particular eyesore is Leroy. He is about forty or so. I don't know for sure how old he is, because anyone over like twenty-two seems really ancient to me. He has really long, dreadlocked hair and a dirty face. His blue eyes kind of twinkle out from all the dirt. His clothes are nondescript. They are dark colors and dirty. He likes to walk around town and dumpster goodies. He likes to hang out with us and smoke pot. He strikes me as a Zen, anomalous adult in this materialistic sinkhole we are growing up in.

There are stories circulating about how he was this successful businessman who drove a Mercedes and made lots of money, and he just got fed up with it. They say he just parked the car, took off the suit, and said goodbye to his wife and four kids. We have seen him talking to an older woman and some kids in the park, so we believe it. He doesn't talk much. One of my friends, Matt, doesn't have much respect for Leroy. "When I'm his age, I hope I'm not fucking sitting around with a bunch of kids smoking pot." He is a skinhead, notorious for being a vicious and unpredictable fighter. Ironic that he has such bourgeois notions of the appropriate behavior for adults. The cops are always interested in Leroy's movements. When he is asleep in the park or in a dumpster, they will pick him up and drive him to the outskirts of town. They always tell him not to come back. When he goes into the library, they tell him he is staying too long, "loitering," they call it. Anywhere Leroy parks his ass for two minutes together in this town, he is loitering. They have him scared to take a dump.

Sean, Mike, and Alex are the little skater punks who hang out with us all the time. They are like fifteen or sixteen, and they have run away from home complaining of various dysfunctions that they just can't take anymore. They have Mohawks (they call themselves the last of the Mohicans) and listen to bands like Crass and Bad Religion and The Dead Kennedys. I have a slight crush on Alex, because he has a sweet face and brings out the maternal in me. Whenever I am able to score some food, I share with them. They are like my babies. Or my pets.

Let's go back to one night randomly chosen and focus in. The moon was clear and round like a pupil-less eye. The sky was ink. I felt so itchy and lost and desperate for something to happen. Everyone was over at the apartment. My boyfriend Jim was in jail and my other roommates had already bailed back to their parents... so it was me and my quaint little crash pad. I had been given my thirty days notice... so we had thirty days to FUCK that place up as much as we could. Who was there, and what were they doing: Amber and Kristin were looking through these big cardboard boxes of my clothes for items they wanted. They didn't have my permission, but I figured it would be less for me to carry when I had to move. They both had the skinhead chick 'do that was popular at the time. Shaved head with bangs and a fringe left in the back. Amber had barbed wire tattooed around her wrists. Kristin was about seventeen at the time, I think, and already had a little girl from her ex-boyfriend. Her parents were obliging watching this little bit of sunshine for her while she rifled through my personal belongings and filled her body with every chemical substance she could lay hands on.

Danny was there, looking mean. About all he ever did was sit around glowering. He was so beautiful, though. He had these huge clear blue eyes and skin that was so smooth and pristine... almost an angelic face. He was definitely compensating. His head was shaved down to the skin and he had a big drooling bulldog tattooed on the left side of his skull. He always wore a clean white wife beater, blue work pants, and boots. All of the girls wanted him, and he shared his time with Amber and Kristin, and sometimes Lisa. He was like the football hero for the punk rockers. Funny how the same patterns take root and spread even in "alternative" forms.

Candy had the biggest breasts you will ever see and bleached blonde hair with dark roots. She wore it in sort of a pageboy with these long dark braid things hanging down. She had big glossy lips and pale skin. She was actually kind of a looker in a bombshell kind of way, but she was one of those girls that the guys treat so badly they might as well just pull their pants down and take a dump right on her... it's that humiliating. There was a story about Wendell and how she lost her virginity to him; there were a bunch of people downstairs when they did it and he took her skirt and panties which were bloodstained down to show everyone and hoot and holler while she just quietly laid there. I dated Wendell after that incident, and he treated me like a queen, and I remember being smug and arrogant enough to think that Candy was treated that way because she allowed herself to be, and that I was different. So Candy... I think she was flitting around dancing and swaying and sort of humming... when I remember her, these are the only images I can conjure.

About Wendell: Yes, he was insane. Poor Wendell. He was a few years younger than me, and I think he was already sort of receding hairline man... but he kept his head shaved, so at least it was hard to tell. He had this maniacal laugh and this maniacal grin... in fact, everything about him was sort of maniacal. I loved that. He had this reputation for treating girls with complete disrespect (note the Candy story) and yet, he was so nice to me. So tender. Didn't try to get in my pants, because he knew I was a virgin. He used to take me to his house when his mom was gone and play the soft punk rock songs that reminded him of me. We would cuddle on the bed and he would trace lines down my arms or something. He had the longest fingers. He said that his favorite part of me was the blue vein that he could see on my lower left jawline. He used to kiss it all the time. Once he showed me this eyelid that he had in a jar of formaldehyde in his closet. He said it was his ex-girlfriend's, and that she had given it to him as a token of love. I think I said "Cool" or something.

When I broke up with Wendell, it was at a party at my house. We were in my bedroom and I told him that I didn't really want to be going out with him anymore. He started crying and went into my bathroom and got a razor. He sliced up and down his forearms really quickly and bled all over my bedspread. How's that for melodrama? Then, I guess I still sort of liked him a little bit, even though he was nuttier than a fruitcake. So, I still hung out with him... but we also hung out with my friend Robin. He would act like he totally liked her and ignore me. Like we went shopping and he bought her a necklace and made a big show of giving it to her right in front of me. I knew he was just doing it to make me jealous, and yet still it worked. I stopped hanging out with him altogether.

Marlo and Mimi were there. Marlo was stocky in that someday I will be fat but right now I'm just curvy sort of way, and she had thick dark hair which she wore down to her shoulders. She and Mimi were sisters and they had a white dad and a Philipino mom, so they had skin like liquid brown sugar and the biggest brown doe eyes. Mimi wore her hair in this bowl cut which was perfect on her, and she always painted her nails like green or orange or something. She had the biggest smile with these white teeth. She was always up for anything, and even though she couldn't be counted on, she was fun.

I think this night they were into their Speed as Diet Pills phase, and so they were buzzing and hopping all over the place and thinking about all of the calories they had absolutely no desire to be consuming. I'm sure Mary was quietly there, quietly stoned, with her quiet jean shorts and tank top and unassuming quietude. She was more like one of the guys than one of us, but I remember one night when I stayed at her house and she dyed my hair black for me, and it felt like special female bonding.

Sheldon was there. I have to smile remembering Sheldon. I don't remember how I met him. He just appeared one day and started living on my couch. I was glad, because he was this big black dude with a goatee and a cuddly tummy; he made me feel safe. The first time I ever got stoned, I sort of had a panic attack and thought I couldn't breathe, and you know what he did? He laid me down on the bed with him and held me tight and talked me through it. So I could sleep. He really wanted my virginity, and would often make mention of my "booty," but he wasn't awful about it. I liked Sheldon. I'm sure he would have been stoned that night and had a big grin on his face as he mentioned the word "Spliff" several times and with a special finesse.

Sean and Bobby were there and they had taken all of these weird pills, the effects of which they didn't know. I remember feeling nervous about this, and watching them a lot. Sean had his black Mohawk and his goofy grin, Bobby had his big hair and his leer. Yuck... Bobby. I had his tongue in my mouth. All of the females in the group had a running joke about Bobby's legendary prowess. We always knew trouble was on the way when he would choose one of us to lean into conspiratorially and whisper, "let's take a walk" in a husky tone. I'm sure he thought he was the height of discretion and seduction, but this precursor to his advances was so predictable to all of us that we would imitate it and squeal laughing.

What would I have been doing this night? I think I was wearing a black skirt and black tights and black shoes and black hair. No panties, cause I never did laundry. No bra, cause I had no breasts. I didn't have money for alcohol... didn't want to get stoned, do speed, or take weird pills... so I took a bunch of Nyquil. The cops came to the door because of the noise and they wanted to see my ID so they could do a card on me for their "Fuck-up file" and I had gone to the door with my purse on. When they asked for the ID, I commenced a frantic search for said purse, and Marlo was kind enough to stage-whisper to me that I was WEARING it. Silly me. The cops left and I plopped back down in my spot next to Marlo, who, as you will recall, was speeding. Those of us not on amphetamines began to grumble about how hungry we were.

Shortly thereafter, I think it was Bobby who noticed that there was a big snack truck in the parking lot of the convenience store across the street and the back door of it was open. Apparently, manna had been sent from on high. So a bunch of the guys jumped up and went on a mission to liberate the truck of several boxloads of snacks. They came back with chips (several varieties) and cookies. That was so cool. Although my conscience never would have deserted me for long enough to let me steal from a truck, it didn't mind when I scarfed lots of stolen goodies.

Flushed with this victorious score, we decided we wanted some meat. Derek was there. Oh yeah... Derek. He was a ska-boy, half black, half white and the biggest weed smoker in the world. I had many a drunken meeting with his manhood... but that's later. This night he had his big ugly Cadillac (the Fresh Ride) and we piled in to do some dumpstering.

Fast forward to McDonald's parking lot, where there was a big dumpster full of perfectly good hamburgers and cheeseburgers, which had been thrown out because they were a little tiny bit too old. We filled a box full, and headed to the Quikmart to use their microwave. Feasts and happy whoops and hollers all the way back to my place. Then everyone plopped down in a pile on the bed, the couch, the floor... and took more drugs. I don't think I needed any more Nyquil. Full belly... cold symptoms and any other symptoms adequately relieved... those who were speeding playing cards or drawing or talking a mile a minute... those on weird pills lying beside me... I drifted quietly off to dreamland. Now that was one of the good nights.

Who was I then? I don't really have a connection with that lost, rebellious teenager but the memories that link us. I guess I decided to renounce and disown her, because my life is comparatively so sedate now. All of those people who at one time made up the chaos of my life have faded away just like the memories. When there is a stirring of that old restlessness in me, all I have to do is turn the lens on and focus to remember where it comes from.


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