Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
Published 1:04 am, Thursday, March 18, 2010
My mother said that I was being "truculent" and needed to be punished.
"Just wait until your father gets home!" She hissed.
Her irrational refusal to even entertain this all important sleep-over merely emboldened me. It was not just any overnight but 24 hours at the libertine household of Stephen, one of my more progressive friends whose mother had become the temporary focal point of all my adolescent fantasies.
"Because you already had a sleep over and you are dead tired," she retorted. "You know the rules."
I was tired, having slept a total of 35 minutes in the last 24 hours. However, adrenaline and the prospect of seeing the angelic Mrs. L. -- a woman who could have been the stunt double for Julie Christie -- was too intoxicating.
My mother did not subscribe to the catty gossip regarding Stephen's mother who was rumored to be more liberal than a bordello madam. As a Southerner in the land of transplanted carpet baggers, she had the unfortunate combination of self confidence, candor and beauty.
My mother liked Joan and secretly enjoyed her liberated and unfiltered assessment of our community. I occasionally overheard Mom defending the Southern interloper to some patrician old money maven who had declared "that woman" a threat to our cocooned decency.
With my parents going out with clients, I would be stuck with my brothers and our sitter Mrs. Olsen, an angry, pruned spinster who baby sat for families with "difficult to mind" children. (No one ever admitted to being a client of Mrs. Olson publicly. Such an admission was to suggest that you did not have control of your own life -- the home economics equivalent of an F.)
She was the scourge of the babysitting community -- a substitute teacher packing a handgun and mace. Instead of laissez faire oversight by a blue haired lady that would raid your Dad's liquor cabinet and fall asleep to Lawrence Welk, this prison guard did everything but give you a full cavity body search.
I was not going to remain in the captivity of this escaped war criminal when love and adventure awaited just blocks away. I had to find a way to spend the evening surrounded by throw pillows, love beads and sitar music.
However, Mom was conflicted at the thought of me spending too much time at a house that seemed to be permanently stuck in 1968's Summer of Love. For all she knew, it was the east Los Angeles extension of the Playboy mansion.
Her intuition was not far off. Their kids were allowed a glass of wine at dinner. The dog wandered the house and slept on the end of the parents bed. Mr. L.'s Playboy magazines lay brazenly on his office coffee table. They had a hot tub.
Any adolescent boy would have paid his hard-earned allowance to spend the night at the home of such French people. And I had been invited as a guest. Best of all, it was the home of the most beautiful mom on the planet.
As is often the case with suburban families that do not fit neatly stitched into the nuclear pattern due to divorce, lifestyle or political orientation, my friend's family had been undeservedly painted with a scarlet letter of disapproval.
Steve's mother, Joanie, was a cool breeze of bell-bottomed pant suits, flowing floral blouses and earrings that fell in great hoops like rings at the playground. She was a Southern dervish of hair, diamonds and fingernails. She would enter the room followed by a jet stream of strong perfume while holding a cigarette with the world's longest ash.
I adored her for an entire springtime -- barely disguising a crush that would have had me run into freeway traffic at the mere flick of her finger. When Steve and I had once been caught spying on his older sister from the roof, she admonished me by calling me an "audacious rascal." It was a priceless nom d' guerre bestowed on a worthless prince by a magnificent queen.
Yet, between Sunday school and my Lamp Unto My Feet adolescent guilt, I understood it was not appropriate to have impure thoughts about a friend's mom. I tried imagining her mangled in an industrial accident. I considered her with a beard. Nothing worked. How could Steve's dad even go to work in the morning being married to such a beautiful Alabama belle? I was befuddled and bewitched. I did the math of young men determining that I could attempt to court her in 1981 when I was 20 and she was 51. When I was 50, she would be 81. This could work.
Steve's father was a creative director at a competing agency of my Dad's. He had obsidian black hair that fell to his shoulders and lamb chop sideburns. He had drove a Porsche and mounted a massive Harley Davidson motorcycle on the weekends. He would rumble up to the soccer fields on a Saturday morning dressed in the Johnny Cash leather and black. He was every working man's doppelganger -- the other road, the riskier option and the life that you could have had if you had the guts. He was different and proud of it.
There were rumors borne either out of fact or petty jealousy that Steve Sr. and the other creatives at this agency sat around all day smoking cannabis while getting in touch with their super egos and that new secretary. While hip was very much in, too much hip meant dislocation for the men on the gray flannel suit generation. You go to one of "their" parties and you end up pulling keys from a community bowl, reading communist literature and living in a cheap motel estranged from the things that matter most -- church, family and community.
My crush was a source of great guilt and like most unexplained feelings of adolescence, made me feel creepy. I was grateful at these testosterone times that I was not Catholic as I would have had to spill the beans in confessional and possibly spend the rest of my life making penance for my polluted imagination.
My only hope to win her would involve a series of improbable events starting with Steve Sr. having a motorcycle accident, followed by young Steve being institutionalized in his grief. In her despair, I would be there, just like Gary Grimes was for Jennifer O'Neal in "The Summer of '42."
After finally getting my mother to consent to this all important sleep over, I drenched myself in English Leather cologne, combed my hair and was dropped off by my father. Steve Sr. came out, ostensibly to chat but really to gloat over a recent account they had taken from my Dad's agency. Joanie waved from the front door. I disappeared into the smoke, perfume and lava lamp light of Pleasure Island. It was on this night I had determined to profess my eternal love to my friend's mother.
I recall Mrs. L. looking at me at dinner and sensing my anxiety. " Michael, you look as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs."
I screwed up my courage and followed her into the kitchen. I was 14, and could get a job. I would soon be a professional baseball player. Suddenly she understood my peculiar intoxicated state. She had seen it before. Sensing my imminent confession, she asked me if I wanted to see her wedding album. She described her first kiss with Steve Sr. and how exciting it would be for Steve Jr. and me when we found the right girl. "Be different. Remember you only have to please yourself." Joanie smiled and I could see her eyes glistening with tears.
I had no idea what she was talking about and I recall the next morning waking up disappointed but cured of my infatuation.
Years later, I heard she had died. She had divorced Steve Sr. for serial infidelity, moved away and ended up in Charleston becoming the prized wife of a wealthy attorney who adored her and gave her the freedom to express herself.
I imagine her grave at the foot of some great magnolia. The cemetery is a sea of sad sameness -- a long gray line of slate sentinels. A head stone stands with an epitaph from Rick Nelson's song "Garden Party": "Well it's alright now. I learned my lesson well. You see you can't please everyone so you got to please yourself."