Back when I wrote this entry from the archives, close to five years ago, I was pretty far down.
In my memory, that was a very dark time, my lowest point – the breakup and aftermath of a twenty-five year relationship and marriage, and the divvying up of property and children and emotions, and all that entails. The divorce had not been my idea. In fact, I was kind of blind-sided by it; though in retrospect maybe I should have seen something coming. But I didn’t.
It is good for me now, anyway, to see that, as darkly as I may remember it, even at my lowest point I had not given up hope. I had my eyes open and my radar out for what possibilities for happiness were still out there for me.
I did not end up with Lesa, the subject of this little tale, and that is perhaps for the best. It was kind of irrational at the time for me to even hope I ever would. But, though she’ll never know, Lesa – or the thought of her – sustained me for a while back then, when I desperately needed sustaining. I will be forever grateful to her for that.
That I did end up quite happy, with a girl I had no idea of at the time this story was written, is beside the point, I am tempted to say. But of course, it is not beside the point. Being happy, or ending up happy, is the only point. I have reminded myself over and over throughout my life so far, that if I can just get the fuck out of my own way for a little while, as often as not, happiness will come.
As I am reminding myself again, today.
NEVER SAY NEVER
“Well, I might like you better
If we’d slept together … “
I dove off of the bow of the 22’ Galaxy walk around, from the little prow out front where the anchor sits; off and out and down, headfirst about 5-6 feet into the brown, soupy, and surprisingly cold water.
The boat belonged to a friend of mine, whose daddy owned a local fast food franchise. My friend was one of those kids who wasn’t too bad a guy, but put off a lot of people just by being a rich kid, so ironically he was a bit of an outsider, socially. Naturally enough, we became friends. I had a tendency to collect people like that as friends – outsiders, misfits, weirdos, etc. Actually, I still do.
I was solid with the ‘in’ crowd through high school. But at the same time I found quirky, unpopular people interesting, too; and so I cultivated friendships with kids outside the social whirl as well as within it. I sat at the same table at lunch most days, with a bunch of my friends, but occasionally I’d feel compelled to sit somewhere else. Often I’d go sit at my younger brother’s table, on the other side of the cafeteria. He was two years behind me in school, and he and a bunch of his stoner friends sat together, not eating much, killing time before easing on out to the huge field between the cafeteria exit at the back of the school and the baseball field where, along with at least half of the people in second lunch, they’d chain smoke cigarettes and/or doobies before the fifth period bell.
My brother got a kick out of it when I sat with him, and his estimation among his friends rose when I did. Those kids thought I was ‘cool’ just because I was older; and if sitting with them made them feel good and gave my brother some cachet, too, I was all for it. I don’t think I really bought into the adulation part, but then again, maybe I did a little. I was, like, seventeen at the time. Being thought of as ‘cool’ back then was the pinnacle of achievement.
Anyway, sometimes I’d sit with my brother, and sometimes I’d kind of wander around and work the room, like a politician does. Whether I bought into what was projected onto me or not, let me tell you it is a nice feeling to randomly drop in somewhere and realize the people there are glad to see you, just glad you are there with them.
There was some nobility in all this on my part, I suppose; but on the other hand, I sometimes struggled with reconciling my dual set of friends/acquaintances, and I’m sorry to say I was a bit ashamed of my oddball friends sometimes, when the cool crowd was around.
Anyway, wandering around the cafeteria hanging out with the not-quite-so-‘cool’ kids was how I met my friend John, the one with the boat. Sometimes we’d just ride around after school in his ‘76 Corvette Stingray, with the T-tops off and the stereo turned up, drinking aimlessly. When spring came he would invite me over to swim and party at his house. It was a really nice house, with a big pool out back. So I started hanging around there a lot. After a while, I wouldn’t even call first; I’d just drift in, whether John was there or not. If he wasn’t, I’d still go on in like I lived there, get something out of the fridge, then head on back to the pool house to change. His family was cool with this, by the way. His little sister was in junior high school then, that age where older guys were ‘dreamy’ and acting silly about it with one’s friends was the norm. I got the sense his parents thought it was great that John had a real friend who wasn’t hanging around just to mooch off of him (well, except for using the pool). After a while, they pretty much treated me like an adopted son. That was sometimes preferable to what I was getting at home at the time, so I began going over to John’s house pretty often, and our friendship deepened.
During and after high school it was popular in the summertime to hang out on the Neches River on the weekends, if one wasn’t going to the beach or out of town. I didn’t have a speedboat or a jet ski – well, my dad had a 18’ runabout he used to fish out of, but I wasn’t allowed near it. I knew people who did have boats, though. I’d ice down a cooler of refreshments, put a couple of packs of Kent’s in a watertight Tupperware sandwich container, and head for the public boat landing at Collier’s Ferry, or further down at the yacht club, or at Riverfront Park downtown. Just sit out there on my cooler for a while, working on the tan and draining a few cold ones. Before long, someone I knew would cruise by, see me, and circle back around to pick me up. We’d ski or tube or just drink, and try to ingratiate ourselves with all the nice looking, bikini-clad women that seemed to be everywhere.
The main recreational area on the river was above the Port of Beaumont, north of the IH10 bridge; and on the particular day I am thinking of, we’d gone even further upriver, up above Lakeview on the Orange County side. There is a huge salt-water barrier there now; but before there had been a sandbar, where the main part of the river makes a fairly sharp turn. It was popular back then to run one’s boat aground on the sand in the shallow water, and then wade over to the sandbar, which was basically like a small beach. Lawn chairs, music, coolers of beer, Frisbees, women – it was an impromptu, kick-ass party on most weekends.
That day, we were slowly easing upriver, above the Beaumont Country Club. It was wise to slow it down in that stretch. The channel was deep enough in the middle, but in the spring, during runoff, logs and even whole trees might wash down and snag and/or lie submerged around there. The water was muddy and tannin-colored, but still clear enough to see obstructions through, if you weren’t going too fast.
I looked around, and we had on board, besides my friend and I, a couple of other friends of ours. College friends; we were all 19-20 then. And, we also had five or six 14-16 year old high school babes with us … West End upper-middle-class cuties; with tanning booth tans, and gym-tight butts and legs and boobs everywhere. The girls would get stupid drunk on maybe two beers, and then run around the boat in skimpy bikinis, causing a lot of commotion, rubbing up against us older guys and stuff. It was all a bad fucking idea from the get-go, and I think we all knew that, but it kind of seemed inevitable at the time. And we were drinking, too, so on that day common sense and good judgment were at low ebb.
We’d set out that morning, the four of us guys, to ride around the lower reaches of the river, around a big jump and slalom course in a side channel, and ski for a few hours. Then we planned to cruise upriver and party away the rest of the day. And our plan had been going along pretty well. We skied and swam and rode around all morning. We didn’t start drinking until 10:00 or so, and by the time we were ready to pack it in and head upriver, all of us needed to piss. Rather than dive back into the river, or get the boat off in some slough and whiz over the side, I suggested we ride down through the port to the Civic Center. They had nice public restrooms there, right on the docks; and meanwhile we could see if there were any shapely girls hanging out down there who wanted to go for a ride out on the river.
When we arrived at the Civic Center, we moored the boat along the boardwalk, and climbed out and took turns using the public facilities. I had noticed a group of girls on the dock when we first pulled up. It was obvious they were looking for a ride, and also obvious to me they probably wouldn’t have much trouble finding one. As we got closer, though, I could see they were high school sophomore age or thereabouts, so in my mind I immediately discounted any idea of us picking them up.
Today, if I met an attractive woman five years my junior, I wouldn’t think twice about it. But in teen-age, five years was a huge difference and, after all, technically a gateway to statutory rape. I knew some guys who never looked at it that way, unless it was blatantly pointed out to them. But I was operating on the faulty assumption that my friends had some common sense among them.
I forgot to factor in all the beer we’d drank by then, though. Before I knew it, some of our crew had talked up the girls and convinced them they should ride with us. So they all piled in, ass-over-tea kettle so to speak, and before long we were underway again, heading upriver to the sandbar.
It didn’t help things that one of the high school girls was an acquaintance of mine, a pretty girl named Lesa. Our families had been close at one time – her father and mine were in the same firm for a while – and we spent a lot of time with them in those days. I’d practically watched this girl Lesa grow up, from a little kid to what she had become, which was pretty damn awesome. I had always considered her as sort of a little sister, I guess. So when she sat her drunk, barely-covered self down in my lap on the boat, and put her arms around my neck, and pushed her decent-sized profundities into my chest, and started kissing me on the ear and neck and cheek and – a few times – on the lips, well . . . She had started off in a kidding way, but I began to realize at some point she wasn’t really kidding anymore. That is when I knew for sure I was in trouble.
By the time we made it to the party upriver, I had noticed there was other illicit activity of a semi-sexual nature beginning to occur on the boat. I had managed to cool Lesa’s jets somewhat by then, but she was still in my lap, arms around me, rubbing the back of my neck. To be honest, I was having conflicting thoughts and emotions about her, and what she was doing to me by doing the things she was doing; which is a nice way of saying that, for all my high-mindedness, I was sorely tempted to forget everything and just go with the flow. Which would have been a disaster, ultimately, which I knew. Even so, I had yet to make it out of the woods at that point.
When we reached the sandbar, we beached the boat on the sandy bottom, and everyone scrambled to get out. Lesa was taking her time getting off of me, and just as she was getting up, she turned and kissed me in earnest, on the lips and open-mouthed and everything. Wow! It was about then that I decided I needed to cool myself off and clear my head, so I told her I’d be over to the party in a minute, and edged up onto the prow of the boat. The water was shallow around us, but I knew from previous experience there was a small pool in front of me, created by eddies in the river as it worked itself around the bend there. So I dove off head first, down into the cool, brown water.
It was early in the summer, when the river normally ran languid; but I noticed right away the current was surprisingly strong. I was still under water, trying to gauge how far it had carried me since I’d jumped in. Around the time I guessed I was near the back of the boat, I came up for air. I was surprised to see I was 30 yards beyond where I’d guessed I was. By the time I swam toward the east bank into shallow enough water to stand up, I’d been carried downstream another 10 yards or so, and the boat and the people on the sandbar seemed to be far away.
I stood there for a moment to catch my breath, and tried to decide what to do. I didn’t think I could swim all the way back to my friends, against that current. I decided to edge my way along the bank, mostly in the river; because everything on the bank was overgrown and would be difficult to navigate fully dressed, much less in a pair of canvas shorts, no shirt, no shoes. Generally, the current was stronger in the middle of the channel. I could hardly feel it, wading along the bank. My biggest worry was not stepping off into some hole, or beating myself up on cypress knees, which were everywhere.
I’d progressed maybe 15 yards, and could hear more clearly the voices coming from the sand bar and make out individual figures, when Lesa saw me, and waved. I could see her talking to one of my friends and pointing to me, and he waved and yelled something. I sped up my pace a little, and was just edging further out into the river to get myself around an overhanging cottonwood tree, when I heard and saw commotion on the sandbar. Damn it! The Orange County sheriff department periodically raided the sandbar on weekends, mainly checking for underage drinking. I could see people milling around, and saw a couple of deputies scrambling down the bank above the sandbar.
My group of friends had charge of five underage girls, all of them drunk as hell. In addition, upon request I’m sure, a couple of the girls had removed their bikini tops. I was pretty sure the deputies spotted that, right away. So we were not only liable for contributing to the delinquency of those minors, we might be up for some charge having to do with underage sex, too. I hung back behind the cover of the tree to watch and, sure enough, I saw people being cuffed and hauled up the bank. There wasn’t going to be a mere citation and/or warning that day. One of the deputies waded out and secured our boat to the bank. I assumed they were going to impound it.
As much as I cared about the people being hauled off, I didn’t move from my hiding spot. I couldn’t see the point of going to jail with them. One of the deputies stood out on the edge of the bar and gazed along the surface of the river, looking for stragglers I guess; but he didn’t look as far down as where I was. I was pretty sure I was in the clear. I hadn’t left anything on the boat except a cooler, which didn’t have my name on it. I knew none of my friends would say anything. I figured the best I could do for them at that point was find some way back downriver to the public launch, where my car was; then see about bailing them out.
Turns out, getting back downriver was easy. There had been a few other boats on the sandbar with us, and once the deputies figured out who had the teenage girls, they let the other boats go. I waited until one was almost on top of me. As it was swinging out to go around the bend, I stepped out and waved it down. It was some people I didn’t know, but my friends had been partying with them earlier. They picked me up, no problem, and brought me back downriver and let me off.
All the while, I kept thinking about before, when I had been standing in ankle-deep water, in the leaves and branches of a cottonwood tree, watching as, in the distance, my friends were being arrested. I was absolutely still. It was in order to avoid detection, mostly. But really, I had been absolutely still, hardly even breathing. I realized I hadn’t just been hiding from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. I was hiding from the Big Overseer, as well. I didn’t want Him to see me there, hiding in the bushes instead of stepping out. I didn’t want Him to know about the girls, or some of the thoughts that had been running through my head, earlier that day. Whenever I did something good, I wanted Him to know. But even then it would be pointed out to me there was a selfish motive on my part. I surely did not want to know what He thought about the events of that day. Even though I had eluded the deputies, I couldn’t revel in my good luck. Because I knew, no way around it, there would be repercussions. I never got off scot-free.
Meanwhile, as I stood in the cover of the tree, it occurred to me that for that moment, I was alone in the universe, utterly alone … just an outsider, looking in. There would be short-term consequences for my friends, admonishments from parents as they bailed their kid out and began making arrangements with the authorities to have the charges reduced, or dropped altogether. But they would also have a bond, getting thrown in jail together; and they would laugh and tell stories about it later. I wouldn’t be part of that, except on the periphery. I couldn’t decide if it was worth it, hiding in the bushes, undetected. And all alone.
I thought a little bit about Lesa, too. Our brief encounter on the boat that day on the river was mostly benign, thankfully. We just had a little too much to drink, is all. We’d go back to being friends again, once we got over the embarrassment; and I am sure we’d laugh about it privately one day, our little secret. There was nothing to it, really; just drunken shenanigans, no need to give it any more weight than that. No need to think about it at all.
In a way, Lesa slipped through my fingers that day. I had the sense that we had maybe blown any chance of getting together, later on, when we were more age-appropriate. I hadn’t realized, but I was harboring some latent feelings for her I guess, strong feelings. As, apparently, she was for me. She was a beautiful girl and, having known her for so long, I thought the world of her.
Really, though, the moment she came onto me that day, we were done. No matter what my reaction was. It would have been wrong, wrong, wrong for me to pursue her at that point. I knew that, and I suppose I could have congratulated myself for having the will, even though drunk and being strongly come onto, to resist the urge. But, really, I am not so sure. If there hadn’t been a raid, and that day had gone on as we had planned, and I kept on drinking, and Lesa kept molesting me, would I have had the will then? I know myself; if I had enough desire built up, and was drunk enough, I could have come up with some excuse in my head . . . an excuse to temporarily bulldoze all my morals and make ragged, sloppy love to this sweet girl. That’s how fucked up I was.
It was no wonder to me I was left on the outside looking in that day. It was where I deserved to be.
I mentioned earlier about standing in the river, concealed in the heavy foliage of a leaning cottonwood tree, and how I felt like I was totally alone and an outsider, watching my friends in the distance on the sandbar, being arrested. That instance was a brief and over-dramatic realization; but to be honest, since I was a kid, I always felt like a bit of an outsider.
It wasn’t a black and white, cut-and-dried thing. There was a lot of ambiguity. In general, I was a well-adjusted kid, outgoing and popular, and it came to me naturally. I didn’t have to work at it. I was blessed with what I guess most people considered decent looks. I was pretty smart, pretty funny, and pretty good at athletics. I was pleasant and at ease with most people, and always had a pretty good grip on my temper. I was blessed, plainly put.
And yet, since my earliest memories, I always felt like I was missing out on something, like everyone else knew something I didn’t. I subsequently studied just enough psychology, in college, to be dangerous; and now I think a lot of my early achievement was driven by a desire to avoid feeling like the outsider that, deep down, I knew I really was. It seemed when I accomplished things, I was more accepted, more popular. Being good in school got me into fights on the playground sometimes, but I figured out that, everything else being equal, women preferred a guy who had something on the ball, intelligence-wise, over one who did not. Plus, it kept my parents and teachers off of my back. Being good in sports also helped with the girls, plus it often meant some acceptance by the older kids in school and in the neighborhood I couldn’t have got, otherwise. And so on.
I think my childhood insecurities sprung from some things going on at home, to be honest. I know that now; I had no idea back then. Either way, I couldn’t have done anything about it. You play the hand you are dealt, you know? Take the bad with the good. I had a poker-playing, black Irish uncle who used to tell me that all the time. I loved my uncle, but he drank like a fish, and that was the only advice he ever gave me that made any sense, or was useful in any way. Most of his advice was along the lines of, “When you get the woman home, make her make you tea before you take her back to the bedroom and bang her but good.” Just random stuff like that, after he’d been pulling on the pint of Jameson’s in his coat pocket all afternoon. “OK, Uncle Joe. I’m only in second grade, but thanks for the tip.”
But the playing one’s hand thing was good advice. That is how it became an adage, a bromide, an old saying. As tired as those sometimes are, there is almost always some truth in them. On the other hand, it was kind of weak as advice goes – that you played the hand you were dealt was self-evident, I thought. What the hell else were you going to do? When I was young, I wasn’t capable of recognizing the slight nuance in that statement of advice, the implication. I couldn’t hear the unspoken part of it, which was that you played the hand you were dealt positively, in good spirit. No whining about one’s fate, or one’s station in life. Just play your hand, win or lose. And then move on.
Without understanding it all back then, that is basically what I went ahead and did. I had a good childhood, for the most part. It was only occasionally that the outsider feelings would come up. Often, it was just me, jumping at shadows. In fact, I mostly forgot about all that in time.
That one day on the river remains a vivid memory, and I am not sure why. We spent dozens of days like that on that river, with pretty much the same results. Yet I only remember those other days in bits and pieces. I could say the raid on the sandbar made that one day stand out, but the truth is that raid happened mostly to my friends. It didn’t have that much of an impact on me.
The only other thing to consider was my awkward encounter, uninitiated by me (for once), with a pretty girl in a skimpy bathing suit who was drunk and horny and all over me. No big deal, stuff like that had happened before, and probably would again.
Of course, that time was different because I actually knew the girl. And I cared about her. I cared about her so much, in fact, it surprised me. I did not realize how strong my feelings for her were. How would I have? I only saw Lesa rarely in those days. She was a sophomore in high school, I was a college freshman. We lived in different worlds. In a sense, she had grown up and gone her way and I had gone mine, and I really didn’t know her anymore at all. If we did cross paths somewhere, we would exchange greetings and smile; but we were smiling about things that had happened years before, back to when she was a preschooler and I was a family friend, an older boy who gave her some of my attention, pushed her on the swing set, admired her crayon drawing of a horse. That is what we smiled about when we met. It had nothing to do with who we were when we bumped into each other later, at the 7-11 or McDonald’s. By then, we’d both grown up, and had grown apart. That is what I thought.
If my friends and I had not chosen to go to Riverfront Park to piss that day, if I had not had the idea to do it in the first place . . . there is a chance I would never have run across Lesa then. She and I might have kept on growing separately, with no residual feelings for each other we knew of. Then maybe four or five years later we would have seen each other again, in a more intimate setting, and maybe we would have realized we had these strong feelings for each other, so different from the ones we had as children. If so, maybe we could have done what is to me the sweetest thing in this life two people can do. Maybe we could have fallen in love, together. Maybe we could have jumped into that mighty river together, and held on tight, and just let it take us wherever it would.
Eventually, later on, Lesa and I did talk about that day. It was six months or so later, around Christmas time. I went to her house one evening with some of my family to exchange gifts with her family, and to drink bourbon in coffee mugs and in general to bring good cheer to the season. At some point the dads went into another room to watch TV, the moms became engrossed in a conversation about something or other, and the other kids wandered off to various destinations in the rest of the house. Lesa took my hand and we went into an alcove off of the main foyer downstairs, and sat on a love seat (ironically), and we each talked to each other about our feelings for each other before and after that afternoon on the river, and our impressions of where the minor chaos of that day had left us afterward.
I turned off the television, which I had not been watching, anyway. It was dark in the house, and quiet. I had been sitting up late. I felt a tinge of sadness, realizing everyone had turned in. I hadn’t even realized. I walked through the house, checking deadbolts and turning off lights. I tripped over a pair of Crocs in the den, dammit. My son wears them when he goes out to check on his dog before he goes to bed. That boy is always leaving his stuff everywhere, wherever it lands. He has always done that, since he was little.
I looked in on Walter, the red beta fish my other son won at the State Fair, back in March. He brought Walter home in a bag of water, and I didn’t even want to waste the money and effort to get a proper fish bowl. I didn’t think the fish would last until the end of the day. But of course, I was on my way to Petco, my son in tow, before I knew it. We picked out just a little 2- gallon plastic aquarium, and some rocks and fake weeds and a little stone bridge, and a small water pump and filter setup. We put all that together and dumped Walter in there, and right away he started swimming around like he owned the place. Since then, he has thrived, and I feel a little guilty each evening when I look in on him. He doesn’t know, but I once had no faith in his ability to survive. Not knowing any better, Walter had just gone on living.
I turned into the hallway and heard a muffled thumping coming from one end, from my high-schooler’s room. He falls asleep with the stereo on. I used to try to go in there and turn it off, but every time I did, as soon as I switched the sound off my son would bolt upright in his bed, and ask me what the heck I was doing. After a while, I just left it alone. As long as his door is shut, it doesn’t disturb anyone else. I walked to the other end of the hall, past my younger son’s room, and opened the door into mine. It was pitch dark; and as I shut the door behind me, the darkness just engulfed me. I wasn’t ready for it, the depth and power of the darkness. It was like I’d stepped off into an abyss, and it took my breath away. I felt like I was falling helplessly, spinning around like that guy in the opening sequence of The X-Files. I didn’t know if I would ever stop.
That Yuletide evening, years and years ago, Lesa and I sat down and talked about a day we both got drunk and stepped outside of ourselves for a bit. She apologized for coming onto me that day, and I told not to apologize too much, because in truth I kind of liked it. We laughed, but of course some things were being revealed. I think we ended up resolved that we’d each continue our separate lives, and whatever happened, happened. But I had the feeling then that was basically it, as far as Lesa and I went. I had never even looked at her in a romantic way before that anyway, and it should have been easy for me to just move on. Yet for some reason, I had a hard time with it. I came away from that meeting very sad.
That sadness eventually passed, and Lesa and I both went on to marriages and kids and all that entails. I am pretty sure we forgot about each other. So I was kind of startled and pleased when I bumped into her at H-E-B not too long ago. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, or talked to her in longer. She is an approaching middle-aged mom now, but she still looks pretty good. At the store we fell into easy conversation, discussing our families and the families we’d gone on to start ourselves, how her marriage was, how I was dealing with my recent divorce.. Then, the weirdest thing, when we ran out of small talk we fell right into a conversation about the day we almost had a fling, way back when.
We talked around the edges of it for a while; and then this sweet girl, who I’d known for most of her life, whose virtue I fought (myself) mightily to preserve one day all those years ago, smiled at me and said, “You know, you should have just fucked me that day. We didn’t get together later anyway, so at least we’d have that. It’ll never happen now.”
Damn it to fucking Hell. Even when I try to do the right thing, I do the wrong thing.
But I am not feeling sorry for myself. Nope. Got to keep playing that hand I was dealt. That last conversation at H-E-B keeps replaying itself in my mind. I am 50-something now, but still in decent shape. No grey hair. Most of my scars are psychic in nature, and don’t show. Lisa is 47 or 48, and looks great. What I am saying is, there is time. I hope she doesn’t think about me nearly as much as I think about her now, usually late, when I am trying to fall asleep. Okay, yeah I do. Whether she does or doesn’t, there is one thing in this life I have learned for sure, and I am trying everything I can think of to communicate it to her, telepathically or cosmically or whatever it takes.
Never. Say. Never.