Installment #14 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir

It was spring, my favorite season, and anything seemed possible. In gym class the gym teacher, who coached the varsity football team, suggested I go out for track and cross-country. Muscle-bound, an ex-Marine named “Big Ed” Moore, I was surprised he had even noticed me. You can run Barnes, he told me, pulling me aside one day, as well as anyone I’ve seen around here, you’ve got speed and endurance. Your brother too. Hmmm, I thought, there must be something to this, everyone keeps asking me to do it, when I was never (as far as I knew) given a second thought before.

He was someone you didn’t want to disappoint, so I said I’d ask the Barnes’s about it. Fine, he said, if you need me to convince them just let me know. I really wanted to try it now and would ask them but I blanched noticeably when he offered to speak to the Barnes’s. That just wasn’t possible and wouldn’t make any difference anyway. I thought at least I’d wait until the weekend, when Mr. Barnes would be home.

Rory wanted to do it too but we were quickly brought back to earth when we finally got the nerve to ask on Saturday night. They didn’t say anything right away so we were still a bit optimistic as they hadn’t said no. Just let us talk it over, Mr. Barnes said, and we’ll let you know what we decide.

That didn’t sound good, and our hopes sank. They always did this when they wanted to present a united front, and then the answer would invariably be “no.” It was no different this time, although at least they explained their reasoning, something they’d never done before, and in the process we found out things about ourselves we’d never known before.

They explained that we were very sick as children and when they had adopted us the doctor had said we would never be able to play sports or do any strenuous activity. We accepted that at face value but actually didn’t believe a word of it. How had we been able to play baseball and basketball all those years and run circles around other kids if this was true? And why had they never said anything about this before? We figured it was because they knew nothing about running, which was relatively unknown (I mean the sport) back then. It could also be they just didn’t want us to do it but we’d give them the benefit of the doubt because at least they’d given us a reason. Besides, we still had Mr. Moore on our side and if it came down to that I would ask him to intervene. I was determined to run that fall and no one would stop me.

—–o—–

There was a girl in my homeroom named Cathy, who, according to rumor, liked me. I liked her too, while not exactly a knockout, she was pleasant, always smiling, and that went a long way with me. I had gotten to know her that year by talking to her in homeroom, or in the hallways when I would see her with her coterie of friends, who would all be giggling after I said hello as I walked by.

Then I heard she wanted to ask me to the upcoming sophomore prom and, sure enough, when she did I said yes without thinking. It might be fun, a good experience, it was nice to be asked, I reasoned, but when I realized what I had done I was mortified. No way would Mrs. Barnes let me go now that I had said “yes” without consulting her first. And when I talked to her on the phone about it and started hearing about corsages, formal dresses and tuxes, I began to get cold feet, realizing this was a bigger commitment than I’d envisioned.

Just talking to her on the phone had been a big deal with Mrs. Barnes, she’d interrupted me several times demanding to know who I was talking to, and said and not to tie up the phone as Mr. Barnes might call. I knew this would be an even bigger deal, not only was it my first dance, it was my first date. I figured the only chance I had was to wait until after dinner when she’d already had a few to ask her.

I didn’t dare tell Rory or my friends as none of them were going but they gradually got wind of it and the constant kidding started, so much so that I denied it, saying nothing was definite, and then Cathy heard about that and got very upset, as you might imagine. In all it was a big mess, and I wished I’d never said yes in the first place.

What with the phone call and all naturally Mrs. Barnes suspected that something was up and began asking me leading questions, letting me think she was on to me, and that she’d eventually find out, don’t you worry. No more mention was made of it but the prom was looming over me a couple weeks from then and I had a good mind to call it off while there was still time. But while she’d seemingly put it on the back burner I knew she hadn’t forgotten, and eventually things would come to a boil.

I wasn’t going to ask her directly if I could help it and began to plan a way to circumvent her. It wouldn’t have been necessary if her father could take us but that just wasn’t done in those days, it was the boy’s responsibility to get his date there. What made it even more difficult was it was on a Friday night and I wouldn’t know if Mr. Barnes could take us until the last minute, depending on when he arrived home from his weekly business trip. I didn’t even know if I could bring myself to ask him because he would insist on telling Mrs. Barnes and I couldn’t let that happen.

I finally decided that the only way we could go was if Cathy’s parents at least called to make the arrangements, which, as it turned out they were perfectly willing to do, it being Cathy’s first big night and all.

On the Saturday before the prom I hovered by the phone all day, making certain I was the one to answer it when the call came. When it did I answered and immediately gave the phone to Mr. Barnes, nervously anticipating the outcome, trying to make it look like I didn’t know what the call was about and listen in at the same time.

He didn’t say much during the phone call except for a few yesses and I sees, mostly he just listened but I thought it was a good sign he was writing everything down and finally I heard him say he would get back to them only if there was a problem, otherwise he would leave everything the way it stood.

Soon after he hung up he called me into the den and told me about the phone call, to which I feigned indifference, so much so that he felt compelled to ask me if I even wanted to go the dance because this was the first he’d heard of it. I said yes, of course I do and I was very relieved everything seemed to be going so smoothly until Mr. Barnes uttered the dreaded words, Of course I’ll have to talk to Mrs. Barnes.

My heart sank and I thought the jig was up but Mr. Barnes went right in to talk to her and reported that she seemed perfectly okay with it as long as you don’t make it a regular thing of it, and we haven’t even met the girl or her parents but just this once it couldn’t hurt as long you’re home by eleven. I couldn’t believe what had just happened, how easy it had been when I had been dreading it for so long, and couldn’t help but think there had to be a catch.

Sure enough, as soon as Mr. Barnes left for his business trip on Monday morning the retribution came raining down on my head, Mrs. Barnes launched into a tirade before school consisting of insanely ludicrous accusations that wouldn’t have been possible in a million years much less at that point, declaring that she’d get me for this (my subterfuge with Mr. Barnes), that this girl must be some kind of tramp and if we propagated any children she wouldn’t be responsible for them that was for damn sure. She continued her rant when I got home from school, spewing out vile things, especially during dinner as she got more sloshed by the minute. I said nothing, knowing better, trying to avoid any further unpleasantness, trying to get through dinner as quickly as possible although what appetite I had was long gone, but my plate must be clean in order for me to leave the table.

After dinner I went upstairs and made a quick pass at my homework, but mostly listened to the radio, hoping she wouldn’t come upstairs any time soon, which she rarely did.

Meanwhile Rory, who was getting the fallout from all this too, was begging me not to go and after a few days of worrying about the whole thing, not wanting to hurt Cathy but at the same time wanting to keep peace in the house for Rory mostly, I finally broke down and decided I wasn’t going to go to the dance at all, that it just wasn’t worth it. I steeled myself to break the news to Cathy who was naturally very upset when I told her and I figured it was because she was embarrassed she didn’t have a date now and there was only a week and a half until the prom and what could she do now, all was lost, but I could tell she genuinely wanted to go with me or not go at all so I hedged a bit and said I still might go, though it looked doubtful and would be a last minute decision probably dependent on Mrs. Barnes’ reaction when Cathy’s father arrived to pick me up, so she should be prepared for disaster.

Mrs. Barnes, knowing the nearer the prom got the more likely I’d be going, upped the ante over the remaining few days, launching a sustained diatribe against me that seemed the backdrop for my every waking moment, making all kinds of threats about what would happen if I went until finally I’d had enough.

For the first time in my life I looked her right in the eye and said I’m not going, I never wanted to go in the first place. For once Mrs. Barnes was speechless but not for long and, attempting to save face flung back, You’re damn right you’re not going because I said you couldn’t. No, I replied calmly and coolly, I’m not going because I choose not to. If I wanted to go there is nothing you could do to stop me. Is that a threat? she replied. Take it any way you want, I said as I turned around to go upstairs, her expletives following close behind me.

Needless to say I hardly slept at all that night, my stomach roiling, my mind in a whirl. Even though I was used to nights like these it still bothered me each time it happened. The next day was Thursday, the day before Mr. Barnes was due to arrive home, and two days before the prom. We had an uneventful dinner that evening with nothing more about the dance being said, and, as was my normal routine we went upstairs right after dinner.

Finally ready for bed, just about to fall asleep, we heard Mrs. Barnes come up the stairs, which was unusual because she ordinarily stayed downstairs in the den well after we were asleep, drinking and reading, or watching PBS. We heard her go into her bedroom then the bathroom, where we heard her humming and brushing her teeth.

Rory and I were wide awake now, though we hadn’t really been asleep, waiting to see if she went to bed. She came out of the bathroom and turned out the hall light. We watched her about to pass by the room when she suddenly stopped short in the doorway and whispered, Are you asleep?

We said nothing, in fact pretended we were asleep, but she came in anyway and, passing by Rory completely, neared my bed said, Do you mind, and sat down on it. I froze then, not knowing what to do, this was so unlike anything I’d ever experienced, realizing finally there was nothing I could do. She was dressed in a sheer nightie, through which I’m ashamed to say I saw her nipples and the outline of her breasts very distinctly. I didn’t know if I was supposed to see this and immediately averted my gaze, when she apologized about this dance business, and said it was perfectly fine with her if I went to the dance after all, she really didn’t know what all the fuss about. She went on to say that if I needed any pointers about what to do on a first date, or in learning some dance steps, or anything else at all, I should not be afraid to come to her.

I said nothing the whole time, just laid there with my arms by my sides trying to absorb what was going on. All I knew was that no matter what she said I didn’t trust her one bit, knowing that she was capable of changing her mind at the drop of a hat, or that I would pay for her seeming capitulation in the long run.

Oblivious, she patted me on the hand, lurching slightly as she got up, saying Goodnight boys, and left the room. It had been all I could do not to instinctively pull my hand away at her touch.

I lay there in bed long after Mrs. Barnes left, not at all sure about what had just happened or what it meant but I didn’t have a good feeling about it at all. I don’t even know what Rory was doing during this, whether he saw or heard anything, and I wasn’t about to say anything about it to him ever.

The next day, prom day, was chaos. Mrs. Barnes wasn’t there when we got home from school which meant she had probably gone out to “lunch” with her best friend Jean. That meant that she would be in no shape to cook dinner and would probably go straight to bed when she got home. Our normal routine was broken, not a bad thing in itself, something we might have even been relieved about most days, but, having dreaded this day for weeks, it was here now, and a little normalcy would have been nice.

At worst was this might prevent me from going because I didn’t think I should leave without Mr. or Mrs. Barnes being present, leaving Rory (who was all for me staying) alone in the house; at best I wouldn’t have dinner before I left, and I was famished, feeling nervous and weak as it was.

Because I didn’t know what else to do I went ahead and got dressed for the prom then called Cathy to explain the situation; she thought a minute and said they would order some pizza (something we never did) for me and come a little earlier to pick me up to that I could eat it on the way.

That problem solved I was feeling rather mature but there was still Rory to contend with. Imagine my relief when I heard Mr. Barnes pull in the driveway and not a second too soon, as Cathy’s father got there not long after. So it all worked out perfectly but not before I was almost a nervous wreck.

I barely ate any pizza, but just the fact that they’d thought of me was sustenance enough. Knowing the grief I was getting from Mrs. Barnes Cathy had even brought a corsage for me to give to her, which I was too callow to be embarrassed about. Compared to all the craziness that had just transpired the dance would be a piece of cake. Everything went fairly smoothly after that until the time had come for me to go out on the dance floor. As I had preferred to listen to the band most of the evening Cathy practically had to drag me out there and then I would only do the slowest dances, and even those I could barely handle.

I gave her what I’d been told was the obligatory first kiss later in the evening but my heart just wasn’t in it and I knew she had sensed it. It was a pretty quiet ride home though neither of us gave any hint the evening had been anything but a great success.

After everything was said and done we ended up not seeing much of each other after that, except in homeroom, which was awkward because I could tell she was hopeful something more would come of it when I knew it wouldn’t. I was always friendly when I saw her and I never stopped thinking she was a great person but it all became a distant memory by the time school let out for summer. Amazing how that happens when you are young and naïve. Easy come easy go, I figured, but would soon find out ruefully that wasn’t always the case.

—–o—–

I ended up failing geometry that year and had to go to summer school, which didn’t sit well with the Barnes’s, who were pretty hard on us about our grades when it suited them, other times they didn’t seem to notice, even if we had done much worse. Surprisingly it didn’t make us study any harder. We were both pretty sure we were smart but it didn’t seem to matter to us and we accepted mediocre (if not poor) grades as our due. There was no way we could compete with the “smart” students, and we had no desire to.

Geometry was particularly difficult for me. I found it boring and irrelevant and hated doing proofs with the requisite illustrations using a stupid compass and protractor that made me feel square as hell. In addition, the mother of a kid I knew was the teacher, which made it embarrassing somehow, both the fact that I was failing miserably and that I knew her, even if it was ever so slightly.

I would have to find my own way to summer school, too, which wouldn’t be easy as it was more than a couple of miles away, and I didn’t know many kids who had a car or even drove. Many times I ended up walking which was a real drag because at the end of that long hot walk there was geometry class waiting for me. This was the third time I was taking it and I had to pass it eventually or I wouldn’t be able to play school sports or even graduate, or so I was told. I just didn’t get it, the shapes, having to do theorems, and especially that damn compass, it was all so boring and pointless. I only hoped I could scrape by somehow and be done with it.

The whole situation was very stressful, with Mrs. Barnes reminding me every day that I had failed, which is why I was wasting my summer going to school, but it was good for me, she’d say deprecatingly, at least I wouldn’t get into trouble, and that I had better straighten up and fly right or there would be no college for me. That didn’t really bother me as I hadn’t even thought about college, Rory either, we were just trying to make it through high school.

Every now and then I got a ride from a classmate, a real motor head who drove a souped up Camaro. I didn’t really know him all that well and it was embarrassing to have to rely on him or even be seen in the car, which he thought was so cool and was always showing off by speeding there then parking it right out in front of the school, though no one seemed to notice as far as I could tell.

He really was a very good driver and even raced the car at a local speedway. One day he called me to tell me that he’d totaled it the night before at the race track and wouldn’t be able to give me a ride any more.

I resigned myself to having to hoof it the rest of the summer session which actually wasn’t so bad as I became friends with a girl in my class named Holly and we used to walk together and hang out afterward.

Big Ed Moore was there teaching civics or some such thing and continued to push me (us) to try out for the cross-country team in the fall and I (we) decided to do it. I began running right away, not seriously, just enough to get in shape, not worrying how far or how fast, just enjoying this new endeavor and to be ready when practices began. I tried to get Rory to run with me but he declined,  he’d wait until practices began, no use rushing things.

I managed to somehow scrape by, passing geometry by the skin of my teeth, so relieved that monkey was off my back. Once summer school was over I spent more time at home as there was not much else to do and it was during that time the visits to our room by Mrs. Barnes grew more frequent.

Rory and I had both gotten jobs as dishwashers at a local restaurant, working on alternate nights and one night when I was alone in my room feigning sleep while waiting for him to come home she climbed right into my bed.

As before I froze, not daring to move a muscle. She was saying something but not making any sense, her face was blotchy and she smelled like vermouth. She said she was sorry if she had woken me, she only wanted to say goodnight. Okay, I thought, but did you need to get in my bed to do that, momentarily wondering if she even realized where she was.

When I proffered my cheek for her to kiss in the usual way she said, No, not that way, and clenched my face in her hand and turned it toward hers. I thought she was going to kiss me on the lips, which I was pretty sure she’d never done before, and she started to, but when her lips met mine she thrust her tongue right into my mouth.

I recoiled immediately and spluttered, What are you doing?  Now was that so bad, Mrs. Barnes replied distractedly. Isn’t that how boys and girls do it these days? Don’t tell me you don’t know all about it, she suddenly sneered. No I don’t, I assured her, to which she replied, Then it’s time you had some lessons so you’ll know what to do when you find that special girl.

She left as quickly as she entered and Rory came home soon after. I didn’t dare say anything to him. I could tell he knew something was up but he didn’t pursue it. When things were quiet I snuck into the bathroom and washed my mouth out with Listerine. I didn’t sleep much that night for fear she’d return.

At other times she would come in and question me closely about the girls at school, who I was interested in, was I popular with them. I pointed out that she knew that I had gone out with only one girl thus far and how that had ended. Even when I made it perfectly clear that I had no sexual experience at all she persisted in questioning me.

Show me hypothetically then, she would say, what you would do on a date with one of your floozies, and she would make me tongue-kiss her again, this mind you before I had ever experienced this with a girl my age.

I had heard plenty about those things, naturally, guys bragging how far they had gone with a girl, how far they intended to go if they got the chance, etc. I’d listen but had nothing to contribute. Not wanting to admit I had no experience, I’d chuckle and go along with it, acting as though I knew exactly what they meant, but mostly I desperately avoided that kind of talk, especially after what I was going through with Mrs. Barnes.

I couldn’t even begin to understand what was happening, except to tell myself that I had been taught to obey her in all things and as this seemed to please her, how could it be wrong?

But when she confronted me I thought of nothing more than to obey her. Several times she undraped and told me to feel her breasts, her nipples, and one night I even thought we had “done it” because she said to lie on top of her and rub myself against her because she was lonely.

I was both mortified and enthralled she had admitted something like that to me, it made me feel special that she was taking me into her confidence. Aghast that I had become aroused I did as she asked and even got that feeling I had during those wet dreams I’d had or when climbing the ropes in school.

But when I was talking to a friend one day and he told me what “doing it” really meant, I was appalled and couldn’t bring myself to believe that Mrs. Barnes had made me do that or that I had.

That her behavior both repulsed and enthralled me made my anguish that much more exquisite. It was, after all, at these times that she was nicest to me. Though I would never ever admit it, I began to look forward to her coming to my room at night, actually sometimes willing her to when she went by and thinking I had succeeded when she did.

Still, the worry about what was happening and what it meant was constant and grew so insistent that I just had to talk to somebody about it soon and naturally that person was Rory. As I mentioned before, these things occurred on the nights when he was working and I never imagined they might also be happening to him.

When I finally was able to bring myself to broach the subject it was extremely tentatively, first because I was afraid of how he would react, second because I was loathe to admit to anyone the extent of it, and third I wondered how much he already knew. Surely he would sense that something horrible was happening to me, although he never gave the slightest indication he had.

I asked him in general terms if she said or did anything to him on the nights I was working. His response was the usual Rory shrugging his shoulders reaction only this time he added that he wasn’t sure what I meant. What kinds of things, he asked. Oh, you know, does she talk to you a lot or say anything about me?

Looking as though he was beginning to see what I was getting at he said, She seems to talk a lot more than usual, mostly about you- us. This really piqued my interest as you might imagine though I tried to act casual. And what things does she say? I asked. Oh, you know, Rory said, mostly about how good I am and how bad you are, which I don’t believe for a minute.

This shocked me as I’d never credited Rory with being capable of any type of perception at all- I’d certainly never seen it-  much less even have an opinion on something, but also because this was the same thing she did with me, playing us against each other, praising Rory and badmouthing me when he was there, and vice versa.

I was surprised I hadn’t had the slightest inkling this was happening, because it was so unlike her to say good things about either of us, I should have been suspicious. It made me feel even worse about was going on because I too had been skeptical when she was praising me and condemning him but I kind of enjoyed the flattery, especially coming from her, as it meant that perhaps I was her favorite after all.

Not that I believed one negative word she said about Rory but on the other hand kind of did believe her when she was praising me, when I should have realized it was all lies. I didn’t let on to Rory she had done the same thing with me, he had a low enough self-image as it was, and that would only make it worse, instead I decided to drop the whole thing.

As I had kind of beaten around the bush with I knew I still had to tell someone in no uncertain what was going on and the only other person I could think of was Mr. Barnes, also the only person I felt could do something about it.

It seemed somehow more urgent when realized I had feelings for Holly, the girl in my geometry class and what I had been doing with Mrs. Barnes repulsed me and couldn’t go on any longer. I wanted no part of it anymore and had to stand up to her sooner or later. I’d poured my heart out to Holly about my home life in general, though I revealed nothing about the worst stuff. She sympathized, but of course couldn’t really understand the extent of it, thinking it was just the normal teenage parent conflict she herself was going through with her own parents.

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