Excerpt begins p. 18                                                                                                                                              

 

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE

Stomach knotted loosely around lead butterflies, I push the front door open, ears still echoing with the last dregs of music trapped just below the thin membrane of my eardrums. The familiar squawk of welcome greets me through the morose veil that’s woven itself around me. The sound of the Jeep’s engine must’ve woken up Anjo, my little Siamese, or maybe it was the scraping of the key penetrating the lock that had signalled my return. She looks at me with lavender blue eyes. Surprised by my unresponsiveness, she wrinkles her brown snout to let out a more raucous mrawk.

“I hear you, Anjo. Chill, girl.”

I pour milk in her saucer, and to let her know that I still care, I ask, “And so, little rat face?” Half-squatting, in a hurry to get that done before coming to me, she laps her milk. “Missed me? You have, haven’t you?”

Gently, I muss the cream fur between her chocolate ears. Who was it again who sang that real loneliness is not having even a pet to welcome you home at the end of the day? At least I have my cat. Little pants fit little behinds, as my mother often says. Want little, need little. The frying pan, bowls, plates, mugs and glasses that have accumulated by the sink over the last few days throw me dirty looks.

Defiantly, I warn them, “Not now! I’m tired. No, not tired; wrung out. Sad. C’mon, Joey, let’s leave that kitchen to itself. Nasty stuff.”

Anjo weaves herself in and out of my shins while she considers the leather pouffe nearest us. She jumps on it and curls up. I continue towards the bathroom.

The hot staccato jets of steamy water slowly dissolve the burning tightness that’s crept to the base of my neck. Willing my shoulder muscles to unknot their knots all the way down to the small of my back, I close my eyes and lean back into the soothing, cascading water.

Myriads of rivulets gather momentum as they race across the furrows made by tightly shut eyelids. I feel each one as, sliding down the sides of my face, out of control, they find a premature end to their run. Others, gliding on furry, invisible filaments, shamelessly explore the inner recesses of my ears, flushing out the last specks of the dusty ringing.

Unseeing, unhearing, my thoughts run backwards, back to the beginning of the long fork in the road I chose many, many years ago. My thoughts lead me away from the spot where I stand above the drain hole of a shower recess, somewhere in the western suburbs of Brisbane, Australia, escapee that I am, a soldier run-away from The Cage. They pull me back to the crucial moment that’s shaped my life.

*****

A presence by my shoulder. “Hi! I’m Ann. You’re Alex. You’re the exchange student from France.” I turned to look into a smiling, round face but remained nonplussed by the suddenness of the approach. I’ve never reacted well to being ambushed and there I was, cornered between the industrial-sized icebox and this girl who had materialised out of nowhere. Don’t want to know how she knows my name. Don’t care. Just want to get my fudge ice cream out of the huge freezer and make my way back to the dorm.

“I’ve read about you in the Longhorn Gazette,” she said. Head down, I fiddled with the opening mechanism of the heavy lid. “You know … the campus rag?” she added, undeterred by my lack of interest.

Prattling strangers have always annoyed me. For example, why can’t hairdressers just get on with the job at hand, huh? Snip, cut, trim, layer, blow dry, that’s all I need from them, not to be made to feel like I’m answering a series of questions for a dating agency. You’re going clubbing tonight, then, to show off your beautiful new hair? they ask, suggesting that anyone getting their hair done has to hit the town or do something really sexy, just to show the world that we can afford the totally irrational cost of a haircut.

And more questions. So, yeah, on your free time, what d’you like to do? Are you into any kind of social sport at all? Do you read? All I’d like to do is close my eyes and while the time away inside my head till they’re done. You’re going to UT? is another staple question. I am the right age and I probably look like your run-of-the-mill co-ed. So, what’s your major? Where are you from? I think I detect an accent. They all want to know where I’m from and how long I’ve been in the States. That’s just so lame.

So, switching on the I-don’t-feel-like-talking-go-away set of non-verbals that, already then, had become second nature to me, I reached inside the cold box and rummaged around, searching for a Fudgecicle ice cream among dozens of other flavours. Actually, I had quite forgotten all about the interview given only a few days ago to some dude enrolled in a journalism class. He thought that an article on the one resident French chick on a campus that was 40,000 strong might be something ‘different’ to print in the Texas Longhorn college paper. He thought that might give him an edge over the other students in his class.

Personally, I would’ve thought that hanging out at Blue Mother and scoring a post-gig interview with Jerry Jeff Walker or Waylon Jennings might’ve been much more relevant to a bigger chunk of the university crowd, as Blue Grass already ruled supreme with those of us who were big time into alternative Country music.

Until the newcomer had mentioned the Gazette, I’d been unaware that the student rag was already out.

“Uh, yes … well … French … yes, but not ‘exchange’,” I made myself answer. “Haven’t been ‘exchanged’ for anyone.” With a shrug, I added, “Not yet anyway. Came here of my own free will.”

Yes. Got one! I tossed my find from hand to hand, to keep my fingerprints from sticking to it. Only then did I turn to face the girl who, I knew, had hung around.

Short, blond and perky, she leaned against the wall, watching me with blue porcelain eyes that smiled easily. She had obviously been waiting for me to finish fussing with my ice cream, waiting for me to look about ready to carry on a sensible conversation.

Albeit belatedly, an obscure impulse prompted me to explain, “Uh, yes … I’m from Nice. Southern France,” I added, remembering the American habit of specifying the state after the mention of each town.

Abilene, Texas.         Boston,     Massachusetts.     Jackson,

Wyoming. Shenandoah, Virginia. Brewton, Alabama. Iraan, Texas.         In Texas, particularly, there seemed to be many towns, particularly very small and dusty ones, population seven hundred give or take a few souls, named after famous, glamorous namesakes from somewhere else in the world: Paris, Texas. Athens, Texas. Who knows, just because I’d never heard of it, there might still be a little Nice, Texas too, somewhere in this vast land of the Blue Bonnets, of broken hearts and empty bottles of booze, if the songs were anything to go by, this land of spindly dust devils and wide-snouted tornadoes.

By then, of course, my fingertips were properly stuck to the base of the frosted wrapper. “I seldom eat ice creams. It’s just…” I tried to explain as I tore off the top of the wrapper with my teeth. Feeling somewhat more at ease than before, I snuck a cautious look at … what’s her name again?

“I’m Ann. Maybe we can start all over again now that we’ve both got what we were looking for.” Her grin made me frown in puzzlement, but only very briefly. Though I hadn’t noticed it, she was holding a partially-sucked Fudgecicle in her hand.

“Never mind,” she grinned. “I crave them, too.” Porcelain blue eye crinkled again as she licked her lips clean of the brown sticky cream. “Downright addictive, I reckon. Been hooked on them, in that exclusive, almost fanatical sort of way, since my freshman year.”

I smiled and found myself speculating about this co-ed’s potential as a friend. She was, after all, about my age. At seventeen and a half myself, and mid-way through my first year at uni, I speculated she wouldn’t be older than nineteen max. And I was aware that my earlier reticence was slowly dissipating, melting almost as quickly as the ice cream against my tongue. That inherent insecurity around strangers went back all the way to my childhood. Even back then I knew that much about myself.

Freeze-frame: Nice, France – I’m six years old. The park. Peering from behind my mother’s skirted legs.

In spite of her best efforts to disengage me from the blue cloth of her skirt, I stubbornly refuse to join in the game.

“Look,” Mayanne says, pointing to another little girl slightly younger than me. “See? She’s just got here with her mother and already, see? She’s playing with the other children. Go on, Alexandra. Go join them.”

I remember having answered her with a resolute, “Non! J’veux pas! I don’t know them,” as I had retreated further behind her to better avoid the hand I knew would propel me forward, out from the protected space and in front of her, too far forward to dare cringe back.

From there I’d have had to move forward and come to the notice of the other children. I’d have to go well beyond my comfort zone then and play with them. Well, I would have gone through with the motion of playing, as I often had to in those days, but what fun the other children derived from their games was totally lost on me, and only managed to make me more anxious about my inability to join in, to blend.

And so, at almost eighteen years of age, I had yet to master the art of walking up to someone in all simplicity and engage them in a conversation, like Ann had just done. Why can’t I just roll up to someone, even now, with a casual, “Hey … what’s up? My name’s Alex. Been here long?”

Conscious that I should make an effort, and taking a lead from every hairdresser, I asked somewhat stiffly, “What’s your major?”

“English and Special Ed,” she answered, pink-tipped tongue licking all that remained of her ice cream, the fudge-smeared stick. “You,” she continued, “it’s English Lit and Spanish. That’s what the article said. Bit strange, if you ask me … For a foreigner.” She added seriously, “English Lit. I mean, I’d have thought that a major in something else, or in French, since you’re French … Wouldn’t that be easier?”

“Easier? Uh, yes, probably … but not as challenging.” I lowered my gaze, afraid I might’ve sounded nerdy, and met her blue porcelain eyes. I liked her eyes, they were quick to smile. I didn’t want this girl to find me either pompous or cold, so I blushed. And before the blush had receded, I was in a kind of silly mood, an exalted sort of mood, a mood that turned my feet around and made me walk backwards on the path, backwards and uncharacteristically light-headed until the path led us back to the campus dorm.

Later that afternoon, Ann confided she had accosted me on impulse. She had noticed me, the new girl on the sixth floor of the dorm, her own floor. Then she said she’d seen me riding around on my blue Schwinn, surprised that I’d be riding a boy’s model.

She had overheard other girls on the floor talk about the Frenchie and how stuck up she was. Ann had thought them a tad too categorical. Three semesters of dorm life already under her belt made her a veteran of the snapshot, boxed-in view of the world proper to many co-eds who didn’t have any reasons to think out of their square.

Party till you drop. Find the man of your life. Get him to give you a ring. Make him jealous a couple of times to test his love. Get him to marry you before he changes his mind. You can always get a divorce later. And oh, yeah, get in a few mid-term papers, too.

Ann, who felt comfortable enough with most of the girls on her floor, had guessed that the girls’ simplistic judgement of the newcomer was most likely due to a knee-jerk reaction. The new girl on the block hadn’t yet gushed out to them a torrent of torrid little sex lies … of sexual history, meant in the strictest confidence, of course, but full of omissions and exaggerations, just the same. Girl-talk in the dorm.                            The price of bonding.

Ann was aware that the friendship groups in the dorm were formed mostly around a similar taste in ‘jocks’ or Red Necks, pizza toppings, music preferences and of course, how far one ‘went’ into the uncharted, promiscuous waters of college sex. Furthermore, if the Frenchie hadn’t asked anyone’s help to entrap a football-playing babe, if she hardly ever bothered to play cards and hang with them in the lobby, or if no one knew how much money, real or fictitious, her parents had in their bank accounts, well, of course she’d be sidelined in less time than it’d take to explain why.

Later on, that afternoon, Ann had admitted that the veil of quiet secrecy that she thought she saw floating around me was her motivation to, sooner or later, engage me in some kind of conversation.

“To see if I’d been right all along,” she explained a little sheepishly, eyes focused on the bowl of popcorn at our feet on the Indian rug. Apparently, she too, felt little in common with many of the other girls on her floor. “Boyfriends and how many ‘hickies’ we’ve managed to score the previous night at the drive-in, and the race to his ring, any ring, well, first his high school ring, then, his engagement ring. They are topics that keep them going endlessly.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed. Not quite the kind of thing I can really get into.” I blushed. “I mean, not just yet.”

Ann had looked at me, a question in her blue-blue eyes, but she held on to it, preferring to recount how a few days ago she had seen me in the lobby about to be kissed by Number 3 of the Longhorns football team – Ray-Ban-handsome John Dillon III and his fresh face, blue eyes bordered by Betty Boop, blond-tipped eyelashes – the quarterback. Well, well, she had thought. That should get the others talking.

I remembered his bear-like grunts, earlier that evening, as he had struggled first with my seat belt before struggling with the buttons of my shirt. I remembered, too, the sharp slap that rang against that freshly-shaved cheek of his and the hard feel of his chest against the palms of my hands.

“Ah … Shit … Look, if you’re not in the mood … Could’ve said,” he had muttered.

I had been about to ask him what might have led him to think I had ever been in the mood for a front seat fondle, when John Dillon III added between gritted teeth, “Forget it!”

“Yeah … sure. Tell you what, John, you take me back to the dorm or I call a taxi from over there. Either way!” I had spoken calmly, pointing to the KFC shop across the street.

John Dillon III had been pleasant while we had cheered the UT basketball team onward until the total defeat of the MIT visitors, pleasant too as we had shared a hot apple pie and ice cream at Ma Austin’s. Pleasant until the pawing bear act in the front seat of his black Capri V8. I could afford to be forgiving.

Once in the dorm lobby, I could afford him a Fare-Thee-Well kiss on the cheek. But John Dillon III had turned his head, just a fraction, so that my goodbye kiss had landed on his lips. The oldest trick in the world. Probably still works every time.

It was at that moment that Ann had walked past, noticing the cage he had improvised around me, arms outstretched on either side of my head, palms resting against the wall behind me. She had had to wait for the lift to the sixth floor, and she had caught the flash of contempt that, she said, would’ve hit him ‘almost like spit’.

She had watched on, as I had shoved his left arm aside to stride towards the stairwell. She had noted the anger that had reddened his face as he had glared back at me across the sea of couples, some of whom were also parting for the night, but longingly, lovingly, regretfully.

“Tsk, tsk,” she clicked with her tongue. “Don’t know what they’re like in France,” she explained, “but UT jocks don’t like to be treated like that. Never. And certainly not in public. Imagine the loss of face! One bad trip for the dude!”

“Nah. I can’t possibly imagine what a guy might feel. And not one who jumps a girl just ‘cause he’s got an itch that needs scratching. Not on. I’m not at all interested in thinking how he might think or feel.”

Hands waving close to my face, Ann had cried a Whoa, girl, chill! that had made me self-conscious and I had blushed again.

She had looked at me quizzically. Much later, she confided that she had initially felt sorry for my quarterback.

“Imagine. A date with the only French girl on campus and he wouldn’t even have a teeny-weeny little hickey to brag about to his jock friends.”

She assumed that he would probably tell them I was frigid. At the same time, she had thought that little incident could ultimately be damaging to me, the new girl on campus, to my dating prospects and to my acceptance by the dorm girls. And so, almost instantly, Ann had decided to take me under her wing. She was after all one year older.

“So, where are your parents, Alex?” she asked.

“South America, Peru. Won’t go home until Easter.”

Ann thought how she’d feel so terribly lonely if she knew her own family to be so far out of reach.

“I’ll take you home with me. Next month. Labour Day weekend. Whadda you say? You’re in?”

Something about her easy manner made me feel buoyant, like energised. Awareness flashed across my mind. I realised that I did want to spend time with her, with Ann, with my new buddy. As much time as I could, but I only nodded laconically. “I’m in. Yeah, why not? Could be fun.”

Ann had a thing about my French accent, cute but weird. “The funny thing is,” she had decided by the end of that first evening as we had sat cross-legged on her bed, “it’s the way you do the syllabic stress thing that’s weird. Like the way you say bu-lahnce,” she over-pronounced to make her point, “instead of bah-lance. Or what you said, just now … uh, what was it? You don’t want too much … in-tee-macy with guys? That how you said it?” I shrugged. “In-tuh-macy. Short second syllable as in intimate, Alex. The rest of your pronunciation’s fine, though.” She grinned, visibly happy with her diagnostic. “Tom will love you to bits.”

Tom? She had kept me so busy with her relentless flow of questions that I had hardly had any time to ask her any of my own. Weird though, weird how that boy’s name had ricocheted high on the sixth floor of the dorm and had bounced around Ann’s small room.

“Who’s Tom? Your boyfriend?” I had realised, too late, that I didn’t really want to know anything about this dude, Tom.

A few weeks later, Ann decided the time had come to share with me one of the many simple solitary pleasures she derived from life, that of walking to the epicentre of a large field of tawny wheat and spreading a quilt over a sun-bleached patch of ground. And that day, she invited me to lie next to her on the quilt, tucked out of sight behind the softly blurred line of the horizon.

Under the hot Texan sun, Ann would feast on plump, overripe figs, on Florida mangoes, on slices of watermelon. She’d spit the dark, glistening seeds as far as she could, well beyond the quilt’s edge and, there, in the middle of nowhere, she’d let sweet juices run down her chin, smear her cheeks and stick to her fingers. And that afternoon, eyes closed, face uplifted so that the passing breeze would dry her face, she softly said, “See, Alex, if it hadn’t been for me, you’d never have known about this major, totally free, pleasure in life.” A flat watermelon pip landed on my thigh. “Even if you’ve actually been all the way up to Machu Picchu and down again.” I grinned.

 

*****

The showerhead is still splashing hard, but now only tepid water. Wow! That’s been one long shower. I open my eyes to press out the watery blur. Dripping hair, dripping face, dripping hands, I pull the bath towel off its rack.

Odd how memories, like cold embers, can flare up and overwhelm us, olfactory and tactile sensations all intact. Preserved, no matter how long they’ve been relegated to the ‘no need to reopen’ drawer. No matter how long they’ve lain dormant. It had been years since I had let those tender moments of my sexual awakening travel upstream.

Ann is the one who awakened me to another pleasure that went far beyond the enjoyment of the sensual pleasure associated with sitting in the middle of a field, teeth biting, lips burrowing inside a juicy slice of mango. If it hadn’t been for her, just as she said, I might’ve gone on travelling the world, blindly overshooting the fork in the road that already lay at my feet, the fork in the road that would soon lead me to love her as a lover. To love women as lovers.

One of the few simple pleasures in life, that’s what she had said then. And some eighteen years later, invisible in the steamy mirror of the bathroom, but wrapped inside the folds of a candy-striped bath towel, I’m pleased with the double entendre.

I wipe a part of the mirror with the corner of the towel to better peer into the glass. It is simple to fall in love with a woman, yes, but maintaining that love intact is a lot more difficult. My reflection in the mirror sighs back at me. Time for bed.

I coax my scrubbed body to remain loose a little longer. Like a stretched elastic, it snaps back into its habitual tightness. One foot tucked under the other knee, the crook of the left arm shielding my eyes from the moonless night trapped above the bed, I give in to the spiralling pain that’s outgrown its nucleus. It weaves ever-expanding ripples around the right lobe of my brain. It tightens its grip. A dog barks and it barks again. Unanswered, its bark slides into a forlorn howl.

Ann said she could no longer think past the exhilaration, the total sense of freedom she felt when we were alone together. We had become almost inseparable best buddies. Only lectures and her dates with Tom, the boyfriend, kept us apart.

During the in-between hours, we studied together; she’d test me ad nauseum with her sets of ink blots, and I’d read her the Thurber and Dorothy Parker stories I had to deconstruct for the following lecture. One day, I came across a Marjorie Barnard story, The Persimmon Tree. Wanting to share the text with Ann, I brought a photocopy back to the dorm. As I read it to her, I felt something move inside me. And I blushed. Later, much later, I found stories like The Beautiful House, The Last Leaf and The Fire. I brought them home to read to her. Only by then, I didn’t blush anymore.

We had moved in together, still on the sixth floor of the dorm, but in a double room. When we were not cooped up in there studying and chatting late into the night, we’d ride our bikes to the nearest B & R ice cream parlour for a tub of Rocky Road. Or, following a shower of rain, we’d go out for a walk and splash each other in the fading twilight, kicking up the warm rain puddles left behind by the little tornadoes.

On lecture-free afternoons, we’d cavort in the open air, rolling around on Ann’s quilt spread wide among swaying stems of bleached wheat, thrashing around in mock wrestling matches, each one heaving hard against the other, each struggling in earnest for the position of the victor straddling the vanquished.

On one such afternoon, because I had allowed Ann to wriggle from under my legs that had her pinned to the quilt, she had perched atop my hips, strong hands still pinning my wrists down. Protected from view by the fuzzy line of our swaying, sandy-coloured horizon that smudged into blues as it met the open sky, our joyous shrieks were acknowledged only by passing crows.

My legs had been strengthened by many a skiing holiday in the Swiss Alps with my mother, but the years Ann had spent working with her father on their ranch had given her upper torso a strength uncommon to city girls. Our bodies responded to the unadulterated pleasure of being young, healthy and with each other.

It was then that she had looked into my eyes, peered into them for the first time. “Not green, not brown.” She brought her face down a little closer to mine. “Not hazel. There’s bits of gold flecks all around.”

I lay pinned beneath Ann’s legs, unable to shield my eyes from the dark-blue pull of her eyes. Her face had moved too close to my own. My nipples had hardened even before I became aware of the tips of her sun-bleached hair. It felt as if each, independently from all others, were toying with the thin cotton weave of my shirtfront. I had become very still. All that had happened in a couple of fleeting seconds.

That afternoon, on that quilt, in the middle of a wheat field, was the first time ever I became aware of my clitoris. I became aware of the warmth that was pulsing over it, around it, inside it. I was seventeen and a half. My very first moment of sexual arousal. Straddled by Ann, my best buddy.

I did move under her. I had to move under her. I had to shift, to ease away the shimmery-white sensation that was too unfamiliar to be truly pleasant. Ann had returned her gaze to mine. She made herself heavier across my hips as if she had stopped supporting some of her weight with her thigh muscles. The tip of her tongue darted between my lips as quickly as she sprang to her feet pulling me up with her. Not to her.

Inside my bed, eyes closed under the crook of my arm, I still remember how I had had to squint against the ache of desire that had ripped right through my belly. How she had cocked an eyebrow at me, how neither one of us had spoken during the ride back to the dorm. How my muddle had begun.

My muddle had been about Ann, of course. About her face. About her body as I had seen it so many times, under the shower, in the bathroom or when we all skinny-dipped at The Hollow, with Tom and the others.

My muddle was about her small apple-shaped breasts, about her wiry body. It was about the gap in her front teeth and it was about the violet-changing-blue of her eyes.

All that muddle kept me awake at night while she slept, breathing softly, in her own bed. It kept me awake long after Tom’s after-shave and body scents, washed out of her hair, had dried up at the bottom of the shower recess.