Chapter One

On the morning of June 1, 1974, near the beginning of the summer of what would eventually commemorate my eighteenth birthday I was forced to return to the home that I had not visited in nearly three years. In fact, I had been living with a friend in an old camper shell connected via an extension cord to his grandfather’s house. And, had it not been for the fact that his entire family was relocating to northern California where his father had accepted a ministerial position at a Pentecostal Church, I would have missed out on my fortuitous homecoming.

I was not well received.

I wasn’t there but a few hours when my father booted his heartfelt reception against the side of my right leg after I lay on the floor of the living room, courtesy of a well-placed slap across the left side of my face. Fortunately, my mother interceded that morning and spared me the further affections of my father’s love. However, that didn’t prevent him from chaining my motorcycle to the side fence before driving off in that ugly old loser Earl Scheib yellow Dodge pickup of his.

I stormed out my parents’ house hurt, angry, and ashamed. My mother’s tears and pleas may have saddened me but that wasn’t going to stop me from leaving. Nothing short of God himself could have kept me in that house for another moment. I hobbled up 135th too angry to even notice the cool wind cutting into my blue jean jacket. I arrived at Hawthorne Boulevard and without thinking and my leg throbbing I crossed to the other side and stood beside the red zone with my arm raised and my thumb pointed south. No one stopped while I tried to make sense, of and come to terms with, my anger and remorse. I didn’t know where I was going or even why I chose to hitchhike south instead of north. I didn’t know where I could live or even if I wanted to. I thought about my few remaining friends and I knew that I’d already imposed enough on them.

As my leg throbbed with pain, I thought about Death and longed for Him to take my hand. It would be so easy to leave it all. I could step in front of the approaching Chevy step van and trade a brief moment of pain for an eternity of peace.

It’s okay, I thought, just step off the curb when he’s almost through the intersection.

I did.

I stepped off the curb and stood in the street behind a parked Firebird and held my thumb high calculating when I should make my move toward forever. The driver of the Chevy van saw me, smiled while he shook his head, and pointed to a “No Riders” sign mounted on the bottom corner of the passenger side windshield. I turned my head as he drove on by with my riding boots stuck fast to the asphalt. I looked down at my unwilling feet, shook my head sadly, and then dragged my injured leg back onto the sidewalk.

What was I to do?

Where was I to go?

I turned away from statuary hitchhiking in the red zone, kicked an empty Viceroy box and nearly fell from the aching in my leg. I limped south with my left hand raised in thumbed salute eyeing the Palos Verdes Peninsula when the solution came to me. The mountains. The tall, lonely, wild, and beautiful mountains. I would go up into the Sierra Nevadas and live alone. There would be no more people allowed in my life ever again, and there would never, ever, be any more pain.

No one would ever hurt me again.

My mind was made up. I saw my course clearly. I would get my bike back, close my savings account, and buy, or steal if I had to, the gear I needed to survive in the High Sierras where cold mountain lakes and streams nurtured native trout and where mountain valleys shielded mule and black-tailed deer and elk. I would use a bow to put in a supply of meat, collect and chop firewood, and build a warm Paiute winter lodge for the cold season.

I would be free.

I would be happy.

I had limped several painful blocks with my leg throbbing and my tired arm lowered but my thumb still out planning the construction of my high mountain Shangri La and was almost to 140th when I heard a sharp, quick, beep and turned to see that a clean 1968 Delta-Green Volkswagen Beetle had pulled to the curb and stopped. I bent over and looked through the passenger window to see a dark twenty-something woman smiling and beckoning me inside with a sweeping wave of her hand.

I opened the passenger door and admired the immaculately clean and cared for light gray interior, litter free and uncluttered, except for a single white sweater draped across the back seat. I slipped onto the passenger seat and saw that she was a very beautiful young woman who was quite attractively dressed in a dark violet, almost purple, long-sleeved blouse that was open at the top but not at all revealing. Her slacks were a lighter shade than the blouse, somewhere on that spectrum between pink and violet.

Her scent was a familiar mix of orange and cedars.

“You’re hurt?”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “My father wasn’t very happy to see me.”

“He hurt you?”

“A little.”

“Why?”

“Maybe he likes to.”

“That’s terrible.”

“Yeah.”

“Where are you going?”

“I really don’t know. I just had to get away from there.”

“Do you have any money?”

“Some,” I said, hedging, because I found it peculiar that she would ask about money. But, the reality was that I had two-weeks pay in my wallet because I had expected my father to demand rent while I looked for another place to live.

“That’s good,” she nodded, matter of factly, “Everything seems to cost money.”

I fastened the seatbelt and she pulled away from the curb. She drove attentively in silence and I watched her hand when she shifted gears. It was a delicate hand with long slender unadorned fingers, and short-manicured nails with an unblemished polish that complimented her blouse. I admired that hand and I imagined that it would be perfect for playing the guitar. I glanced at her left hand, still clamped onto the steering wheel, and saw that it was also ringless. She was just a little darker than me and it wasn’t from lying on the beach. Her skin was, however, a perfectly toned light brown and, not having a name for such a shade, I simply thought of it as heavenly. I raised my eyes to study her features as she downshifted for a red light. Her face was soft, as if she had been gently molded from Love. She stopped at Compton Boulevard, shifted into neutral, took her foot off the clutch, turned to me with a smile, and then enveloped me in her dark brown eyes, eyes that were nearly the same color as her hair.

“So what’s your name?” she asked.

“Steve.”

“Just Steve?”

“Steven Ray Thomas.”

She smiled and said: “I like Steven.”

“Then Steven it is.”

“I’m Bree.”

“Just Bree?”

She laughed and said: “Briseidia Gabriela Santilláñes.”

I repeated the name in my head to fix it there and said: “Well Bree, It’s very nice to meet you.”

“Well Steven, it’s very nice to meet you too.”

She smiled, we shook hands politely and, while our hands were still clasped together, the driver of the car behind us blared his horn. We both jerked in our seats and she shifted into first and then popped the clutch, when the driver in the car behind us laid on the horn, and stalled the Beetle in the middle of the crosswalk. She flooded the carburetor trying to restart it and appeared ready to burst into tears at any moment. The continued sounding of the car horn agitated her and her right hand trembled as she turned the ignition key. I turned and glared at the jerk in the ‘72 Cutlass and was ready to get out of the car and deal with him but Bree twittered as the engine fired and she pulled into the intersection. The moron screeched his tires and roared the engine of his black 442 as he passed us on the right with his left arm raised out the window in a middle-finger salute. I had half an instinct to return his greeting but there was something about Bree that challenged my conscious to let it lie unchallenged.

“God, I hate that,” she said.

I detected a hint of frustration in her voice that bordered on tears: “Some people can sure be mean.”

“Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s a not a very good person.”

“Or maybe he’s just having a bad day.”

“Lots of people have bad days.”

“Like you?”

“I guess, but it ain’t no reason to be nasty.”

“Steven, are you a nice person?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“I’m glad.”

She caught another red light, just past the bowling alley at 182nd Street, and I watched her shift into neutral again after coming to a stop. This time she kept her eye on the signal across the street and I believed she was afraid of being honked at again. Her face was drawn tight and I still thought that she looked to be on the verge of tears, mostly because of the way her lips quavered.

“You know,” I said, “you didn’t do anything wrong back there.”

“I made him mad.”

“I bet he was already angry.”

“You think so?”

“I’d bet on it.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said, I think, to comfort herself.

“No, you didn’t. You are a very good driver.”

She turned and smiled with a much more relaxed face and cheerful, wide-open eyes: “Thank you Steven.” She turned back and I think I heard her say: “I am a good driver.”

We made it as far as Torrance Boulevard before we caught another red light and after she shifted into neutral she turned to me and nodded her head. I wondered what she was thinking about and considered asking when my stomach growled.

Bree laughed and said: “You’re hungry?”

“I guess.”

“When did you eat?”

“Not since dinner last night.”

“Why?”

“Slept late. The light’s about to change.”

She turned to the light, stepped on the clutch, and shifted into first. The light changed a second later and she did a traffic check before pulling forward. She drove until she reached the speed limit and I watched her brow tighten and furrow.

“How did you know the light was changing?” she asked, still looking straight ahead.

“I was watching the other signal while we were talking.”

“Oh.”

She seemed to be thinking about it and turned to look at the signal lights as we passed through the intersection at Carson. When she stopped for the red light at Sepulveda she turned and studied all of the signal lights and then turned to me with the most wondrous smile.

“That’s a smart trick.”

I smiled back and said: “Jimmy’s dad taught me that a long time ago.”

“Who’s Jimmy?”

“The friend I was staying with.”

“His father must be a very smart man.”

“Yeah. I really learned a lot from him. Not just about driving but about life and how a man should be.”

My stomach rumbled again and I laughed but Bree’s face took on a serious look of concern.

“You need to eat,” she instructed.

“I guess.”

She smiled and said: “The signal’s going to change.”

Bree faced forward again, shifted into first, and waited for the light. Maybe, I thought to myself, this would be a chance to get to know her better. I watched her animated grin when the light changed and she excitedly pulled into the intersection.

We were all the way through it and were continuing down Hawthorne Boulevard when she said: “Oops, forgot to look both ways.”

“It’s okay, I did.”

“You did?”

“I always do. You can’t be too careful, especially on the back of a motorcycle. Bree, would you like to stop and have lunch with me?”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I’m kind of broke right now.”

“Bree, I’m asking you. You don’t have to pay.”

“Oh,” she said, and I waited while she seemed to think about my offer.

“Well, what do you think?”

“Well, you do seem to be a pretty nice person”

“Yes, can I please buy you lunch?”

She was smiling when she stopped for the light at Lomita Boulevard and I was sure her answer was going to be yes. My palms were sweating while I waited for her to answer me one-way or the other.

Without turning she said: “Yes.”

I was one happy boy. I knew I was grinning on the outside but inside I spun cartwheels and tumbled summersaults. I was going to have a first date with, what I thought, was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen.

“There’s a Victoria Station just ahead on the right. Would you like to have lunch there?”

“At the train place? I’ve never been there before.”

“Then it’s okay?”

“Oh yes, Steven. I’ve always wanted to eat there.”

Bree pulled into the parking lot of the Victoria Station and I could see that she was very excited about the chance to eat there. We walked up the ramp to the platform by, what I think was, a converted boxcar and then entered the restaurant. We were seated on the opposite side of the station in what the hostess called the Parlor Car at a small table for two. It was a very elegant converted train car with hardwood moldings and gold accents. The windows had sheer curtains and shades that could be lowered but they were all open to let in the midday sun.

Our table was small but elegant. The tablecloth and napkins were red and there were two upturned glasses on the table. Bree was so completely absorbed by the décor that I don’t think she even noticed when a young lady in a red apron stopped at the table and filled our water glasses.

“This is great.”

“I’m glad you like it. Do you know what you want to eat?”

“What do they have to choose from?”

I looked down at my copy of the luncheon menu and began reading the selections to her. She turned her nose up at the beef barley soup, shook her head at the salad, smiled at the Station Burger and nodded for the Cheese Burger.

“That’s what I would like.”

“It comes with a salad.”

“That’s okay.”

I ordered two of the Cheese Burgers off Platform #2 and watched Bree as she continued to turn and look about the railroad car. I turned and looked too and was taken by the interest the other diners seemed to have in her enthusiasm for lunching aboard the Victoria Station.

“I always wanted …” she said, and then looked embarrassed.

I waited a moment and asked: “What did you always want?”

“I drive by here a lot.”

“And?”

“I never knew what was inside.”

“You could have come inside and checked it out.”

She shook her head: “Couldn’t.”

“Why?”

She frowned and said: “Not alone.”

“You’re right, it is more fun to eat with someone.”

“Thank you, Steven. You do understand.”

“You’re welcome, Briseidia.”

“You remembered?”

“Of course, Miss. Briseidia Gabriela Santilláñes”

“And, of course to you, Mr. Steven Ray Thomas.”

I wanted to reach across the table and take her hand but I reached for my water glass instead. She picked up hers to take a sip of the ice water and I couldn’t resist holding my own up and saying: “A toast.”

She giggled.

“To new friends.”

“To new friends,” she echoed.

We clinked our glasses and took a drink of the water to seal the pact. Our meals arrived way too soon because I wanted to spend so much more time conversing with her. We ate slowly and peppered the meal with light conversation centered about railroads, railroad cars, model trains, and then Engineer Bill, which segued into fond reminiscing about Sheriff John, Tom Hatten, and Popeye. I was surprised to learn that as a little girl she watched Engineer Bill every evening and had, not only an Official blue-striped Engineer Bill cap, but the entire outfit from the red kerchief to the blue-striped overalls and silver-buckled black engineer boots.

“My father had to buy me boys’ boots,” she admitted. “I don’t think girls are supposed to be engineers.”

“I remember that there were lots of girls on the show. Engineer Bill never said a girl couldn’t drive a train.”

“He didn’t?”

“Not that I remember. Did you ever hear him say that?”

She thought about it before answering: “No.”

All in all we spent more than two hours at the Victoria Station with our lunch. We ate our burgers so slowly that Bree asked for dessert and we shared a piece of their Superintendent’s Cheesecake topped with a strawberry puree. It was just the two of us with one piece of cheesecake in the middle of that little table and two forks. The very first morsel that Bree cut from the slice she offered to me and I accepted. The second I cut and she accepted. I’m positive that we took no less than twenty-minutes finishing that one slice.

I paid the check with a twenty and left five of the change for a tip. After a lunch with Bree I was feeling very generous. On the way to the parking lot I so wanted to take her hand in mine, but I didn’t attempt it, and she didn’t offer. Instead I only imagined what it would be like to hold her hand: with goose bumps running up and down my arm, my spine melting into jelly, and my heart pumping its wild desires.

I was never able to compete with my imagination.

She waited for a sizable break in traffic, turned right onto Hawthorne Boulevard, and immediately began changing lanes.

“I have to turn left on PCH.”

“That’s okay. How far are you headed?”

“Over by the Harbor Freeway.” She added, with what sounded like pride: “I have my own apartment.”

She changed lanes again and then pulled into the left turn lane. After she stopped and shifted into neutral I could feel her eyes cutting into the side of my face and it felt good.

The light changed and I said absent-mindedly: “It’s green.”

I looked down and saw that her delicate hand had already shifted into first and I felt the lurch forward as she let out the clutch. I so wanted to take her hand in mine as she pulled the shift lever into second halfway through the turn and then again when she pushed it forward into third. I stared at the beautiful, delicate, intricate hand losing myself in its myriad of contours and lines as she passed through the green light at Crenshaw and every other green light until we were finally stopped at Western. She pointed south, her hand poised in front of my face as if asking, I imagined, to be kissed.

I leaned forward with pursed lips but was ultimately able to resist my primal urge. I wanted to caress and kiss that hand in the worst way.

“You ever go over to San Pedro?” she asked.

“Sure. I’ve been to Cabrillo Beach and Ports O’Call.”

She lowered her hand and accidentally, I think, brushed it against my shirt and my imagination shifted into its top gear as I envisioned us lying together on the beach as the sun draped the horizon and then dining in the elegant Ports O’Call Restaurant that looked out and onto the harbor lights. I coveted her smiling lips as she turned away from me. The light changed and she pulled forward. I watched as she shifted again and was captivated by the pulse of her hand as it pushed forward and pulled back on the lever.

“I,” she said, “used to picnic sometimes by the museum. It’s nice there.”

“It is,” I agreed. “Sometimes I like to ride my bike over and just kick back.”

“Bike?”

“Motorcycle.”

I enjoyed watching her shift through the gears as her hand caressed the knob and pretended that it was my hand that she fondled. My multiple fantasies caromed off each other so often I found myself growing anxious as I gazed upon her hand, her arm, and her legs as they pumped the clutch and pressed upon the accelerator. It amazed me that the simple act of driving could, inside my crazy imagination, turn into something erotic.

“What kind?”

“Seventy-two Suzuki GT750.”

“Is that a good one?”

“I like it.

“What color?”

“Black.”

At Normandie she stopped for another red light and then turned to look at me while my eyes were focused upon her hand as it rested on the shift knob. I looked up to see that she was looking down and I imagined it was at my predicament and that her grin was at my expense.

I’m sure my face turned sundown red but she said nothing and I figured it was just my imagination going off again. I was having trouble keeping my fantasies reigned in and was getting quite uncomfortable sitting in that front seat. I wanted to adjust to a more comfortable position but I couldn’t bring myself to do that with her watching me. And watch me she did. We sat silent through that light as I studied her features and she shifted her eyes between my face and the opposing traffic lights. I know we were somehow communicating but I wasn’t at all sure what we were communicating about.

The light changed and we continued south on PCH and I spread my legs and quickly pushed myself into a more comfortable position when she turned to check her driver’s side mirror. We soon drove under the Harbor Freeway and turned right onto Wilmington. She drove several more blocks, turned left, and then turned into the parking area of a white-stuccoed apartment building. She pulled into an unmarked parking spot and turned off the engine.

She sat and stared through the windshield and I waited and wondered. She had a very serious expression on her face and I could see that her forehead was wrinkled in deep contemplation.

“I,” she said, still staring straight ahead, “got married when I was nineteen. He hurt me.” She paused and added: “It was not a good marriage,” then she turned to me and added: “My father erased it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re a nice person.”

“Yes.”

She continued to sit quietly, looking through the windshield at the white stucco siding, apparently in ponderous thought. I sat in that front seat and watched her face change expressions while I wondered nervously what she was thinking about.

“I have a bottle of wine upstairs,” she said, and turned to face me. “I want to celebrate.”

“Celebrate what?”

She turned and cupped my hand with hers and pulled it onto her lap and held it.

“Come and celebrate with me.”

I had craved for her and ached for her all that time in the car and in the restaurant and for some reason, at that moment, I wanted to run away and at the same time my carnal imagination wanted me to leap from the car and carry her upstairs. My vocal chords froze and I couldn’t speak. I perceived what I took to be a longing in her eyes and tried to think of something intelligent to say and failed because my imagination constructed insurmountable barriers to reason. I tried to think of an excuse to get away and failed because my desire for her was overwhelming. It soon became obvious to me that I really wanted to stay and my conflicting selves merged into one quiet entity.

“Please. I need a friend.”

I nodded because I needed a friend too.

“You said you were my friend.”

I remembered my toast and answered: “I want to be.”

“I want you to be.”

We each got out of the Beetle and I followed her to the foot of the stairs where she took my hand and led me slowly up the steps and to her apartment. She released my fingers and I backed away with resurrected uncertainty. She removed a key from her purse, stepped forward, looked up into my eyes, and handed me the key.

“Will you open it for me?” she asked.

I did.

She took my hand and led me trembling inside her darkened apartment and closed the door. I reached for the light switch and flipped it up and turned on two small lamps that sat on matching end tables, which flanked a tan cloth upholstered couch that ran under the full length of the living room window. Besides the end table and the couch the only other furniture in the living room was a coffee table and a compact entertainment center on which a small fifteen-inch television set, complete with rabbit ears, was sitting. A counter ran behind the TV stand that separated the living room from the kitchen and held at least a dozen clear glass vases containing what were obviously artificial flowers. The walls of the living room were completely unadorned.

“You’re not limping so much,” she said.

“No, it’s better. Not so sore.”

“You want to rest it some more? I need to brush my teeth.”

I nodded and sat down on the couch figuring Bree needed to use the restroom but she continued to stand in the living room, perhaps thinking about something, for another minute or two while I didn’t know if I should say something or not.

“You’d probably like to brush your teeth too.”

“Yeah, but I don’t have a toothbrush with me.”

“I’m sure I have an extra one.”

She reached down and took my hand and then led me into a small bathroom in the rear of the apartment where she opened the medicine cabinet. She unwrapped a new toothbrush, squeezed toothpaste onto it, and handed it to me. I brushed my teeth almost feeling like the toddler whose mother watched to make sure he did a good job while she squeezed toothpaste onto her own brush. Soon there were two childishly grinning faces in the mirror watching foam ooze out and across our lips.

She spat and continued to brush while we maintained eye contact in the mirror. Her eyes were turned up into a smile on the outside corners and my whole body smiled with them. She dried on a hand towel while I rinsed and then she patted my mouth dry with it.

I’m not sure who initiated it but we kissed in that bathroom, in front of the sink, our hands hanging at our sides, and Bree still holding the hand towel. We kissed and she dropped the towel to the floor and slowly our arms found each other and we held on as our craving grew. My imagination stayed within the confines of our touch and with the sweetest of passion our kiss lingered and simmered. I was satisfied and anxious for it to continue when my mind quieted and all thought vanished from it and, as if in a sublime meditation, we were suddenly, utterly, and totally one. I imagined that we were one united spirit, held together by some unimaginable force, entwined, intertwined, wound, bound, and fused – until our inept bodies interrupted us with their rude need to breathe.

Our feeble bodies gasped for the air that we desperately needed. She coughed and choked and I rubbed the small of her back encouraging the flow of oxygen as she pressed the side of her head against my shoulder. She hugged me tight. I held her and wanted that sense of unity back. We supported each other and found our breath and properly paced pulses.

“That was nice,” she said.

“It was wonderful.”

“Do you …”

“Do I what?”

She appeared to be embarrassed when she asked: “Do you want to be together?”

I looked into her eyes while I thought about what she was implying and realized that it was what I had been earlier fantasizing about. I grew afraid and reticent all over again, imagined my face blushed, and probably frowned.

“Kissing,” I admitted, “is as much as I’ve ever done.”

“Do you want to do more?”

I did but all I could say was: “I don’t know.”

“Why?”

“Because Mr. Flores said people ought to be married.”

“I was married.”

“You told me.”

“Then it’s all right.”

She smiled and we kissed again in that small bathroom and I searched once again for the joy I had felt and I found it, again and again: In her touch, between her heartbeats, under her breath, within her smile, and by her side. We stopped once again and she took my hand and led me into her bedroom where she guided me onto her bed. We lay on her quilted bedspread fully clothed and continued our kissing, hugging, touching, and exploring for what seemed like forever. She slowly taught me what pleased her by guiding my hands, my fingers, my lips, and ultimately my naked erection. When she sensed I was complete she guided me further until she was fully satisfied.

We held each other, touched, and slowly recharged while we held on to each other like we were afraid to let go. After a time I lay on my back staring at the painted ceiling with her resting quietly on my shoulder drawing circles upon my chest.

“You’re so smooth,” she said. “No chest hair.”

“No.”

“My father has lots.”

“Mine doesn’t.”

“Why?”

“He said it was because we were more evolved. You know, not so closely related to monkeys.”

“You’re funny,” she said, after she laughed at my father’s little joke.

“You’re beautiful.”

“You’re pretty.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re very good.”

“You showed me everything to do.”

“I’m glad I went to see my mama this morning.”

“Why?”

“Cause I found you.”

“Then I’m sure glad you went to see her.”

She continued running her fingertips across my chest and I used my fingers to massage her shoulder, gently. It had been my first time and there were so many questions running through my mind. Questions like: Did she like me? Was I good enough? Would she want me again or tell me to leave?

Without looking up she asked: “Steven, how old are you?”

“Does it matter?”

She hesitated then put her arm around me and squeezed before asking: “How long has it been since you saw your father last?”

“Almost three years.”

“You’ve been on your own that long?”

“I shared a place with a friend.”

“Not now?”

“His whole family left for Northern California this morning. It left me without a place to stay.”

We lie quietly for several minutes communicating with the caress of our thumbs supported by intertwined fingers. In the silence I wondered what she might be thinking about, rehearsed a half-dozen scenarios of what might happen next, and imagined that she was doing the same.

“Maybe you can stay with me.”

It was not one of the possibilities I had considered and I couldn’t believe she actually made the offer but I really wanted to stay with her in the worst possible way. I kissed the top of her head and pulled up on her chin gently with the tips of my fingers and answered with lips, my tongue, and finally with my words.

“I would like that.”

“You have a job?”

“Auto body repair. At a shop in Hawthorne.”

“Where?”

“On Inglewood Avenue, near Hawthorne High School.”

“Wow, I work on El Segundo. How did you get to work?”

“My motorcycle.”

“Oh that’s right. Where’s it at now?”

“My father chained it to the fence.”

“Why?”

“He’s just a mean …” – I couldn’t bring myself to say what I wanted her to hear.

“Can you get it back?”

“On Monday. I can borrow a pair of bolt cutters from work.”

“Your father won’t try to stop you?”

“He’s been working twelve hour days according to my mother. Seven to seven. I’m only working eight to five so there’s time.”

We lay quietly for a few minutes after that and I thought about how quickly we seemed to have settled into a relationship. I’d only met her a few hours ago, we shared a ride along with an extended lunch and extensive conversation, and she’d already invited me to stay with her. We were planning our future lunches together like we were a normal couple that had been together for a long time. The whole afternoon was every bit as surreal as one of those crazy psychedelic acid trips I’d read about.

But, I liked it.

She looked back up at me and said once more: “You’re pretty.”

“You’re beautiful.”

We kissed and then she pulled away.

“I need a shower.”

I nodded.

“There’s room for you,” she added.

My body jellied.

She walked into the bathroom with one hand cupped between her thighs and turned on the shower. I followed and put my arms around her and she leaned her head back against my shoulder. I kissed her neck and held her while we waited for the water to warm.

“You’re fun.”

She stepped into the shower and tugged at my hand with her own lubricated fingers. I stepped in and closed the rose-adorned but otherwise clear shower curtain. She picked up a bar of soap and proceeded to wash every square inch of my body: deliberately, slowly, and ever so gently. It was the first time anyone had taken such an interest in me and I loved it.

“Does it hurt?”

I looked down to see what she was talking about and saw the large purple bruise on my thigh that vaguely resembled the profile of an angry Siamese cat.

“Not really.”

“It looks like it should.”

“It will be okay,” I assured her.

She kissed the bruise and continued washing me with the bar of soap. When she finished I reciprocated and followed her silent instructions on where to linger and for how long. When we were both rinsed clean we held each other and kissed slowly and delicately until the spray began to cool. I shut the shower off and she retrieved a towel and patted me dry.

By the time I finished patting her dry I knew she had me, forever if she wanted, and I knew that there wasn’t anything in this life that I wouldn’t do for her. I told myself this was the real honest-to-God love and I wanted to tell her in the worst way.

“Bree,” I whispered, “I lo –“

“Don’t say it.”

“Say what?”

“Don’t say you love me.”

“Ever?”

“Just show me.”

I nodded and pulled her close. Her long brown hair pressed damp and limp against my shoulder and chest. I kissed her on the forehead and thought maybe she was going to cry. I heard her clear her throat and felt her hug me tight. And I waited for her guidance.

“Are you ready to celebrate?”

“I thought we sort of were.”

She laughed.

“I want a glass of wine.”

“What exactly are we celebrating?”

“You Steven.”

“Me?”

“I have a friend.”

“You have other friends, don’t you?”

“Not for a long time.”

“Why?”

She hesitated before answering: “I was afraid.”

I kissed her and held her close. I wondered, afraid of what? I continued to hold her and she seemed content to stand naked in the tub of that little bathroom of hers with my arms around her and her head resting on my shoulder. I soon synchronized my breath with hers and I was content. The events of the morning seemed like they belonged to a different lifetime, a different reality, as if they were only a bad dream. My spirit grew and blossomed in her nourishment and I knew I loved her without doubt and without reservation.

“I feel like I’ve always been with you Bree,” and I had no idea where that came from other than perhaps the feeling of contentment that ravished my very existence. She raised her face to where I could see her smile.

“You have Steven. Don’t you remember?”

I thought about that crazy feeling of oneness I experienced earlier and wondered if she had felt it too.

“I do.”

She pulled away and I let her go. I remained easy and watched her wrap her hair up into a white turban with the bath towel and then followed her naked into the bedroom. I watched her dress while I put my clothes back on, except for my socks, boots, and coat.

“You need some more clothes.”

“Yeah.”

“How about a Sunday picnic tomorrow and then we’ll find you some more.”

“I do have clothes at my parents’ house.”

“But,” her brow furrowed, “you won’t be able to get them,” even deeper, “until Monday.” She brightened: “Right?”

“Right.”

I followed her into the combined dining room and kitchen where she had a reddish-brown vinyl covered card table and four matching chairs like the one my mother had gotten by saving up those Blue Chip stamps. In the center of the table was another clear glass vase like the ones on the counter that held more artificial flowers, a mixture of pink and white carnations.

“Do you like flowers?”

‘I do.”

“They’re not real?”

“No. My mama got them for me. They don’t die and they stay pretty.”

“How come you don’t have any pictures on the walls?”

“The manager said,” and she emphasized it with a hammering motion and then imitated what I thought must have been his voice, “no holes in the walls.”

I stood beside her and watched her use a pronged tool to open a bottle of Martini Zinfandel. I had never had wine before but I did occasionally have a beer with the guys at work and once they gave me some bourbon at Christmas, which burned my throat and stomach. They all laughed at me when I choked on it but I never tried it again.

She poured two glasses of the wine and handed me one.

“It cost a little more. I’ve been saving it.”

She took a slow sip from hers and I copied her. It seemed bitter to me, sweet but still bitter.

She took my hand and led me into the living room and sat on the couch. She pointed across the room to the small entertainment stand that held a TV and a stereo receiver with a built in 8-track player.

“Do you want to put some music on?”

I sat my glass on the coffee table and walked over to the stand.

“My tapes are in the drawer.”

I knelt and opened the top drawer, which contained a white-leather bound bible and a short stack of comic books. The top one was a recent Archie issue. I fanned the top few and saw others like David Cassidy and The Partridge Family. I closed the top drawer and opened the bottom where I saw a couple of dozen tapes by various bands and artists, many that I liked, including Chicago’s first two albums, and there were also three of David Cassidy’s and four of the Partridge Family. I selected Chicago’s first release.

“I did Columbia House for a while.”

“I’ve seen their ads.”

“I got eleven tapes for,” she paused, her face scrunching up like when someone is trying to remember, “a dollar-ninety-seven.”

“Sounds like a deal.”

“But I had to buy eight more.”

“How much were they?”

“They were too expensive. I didn’t understand the fine print.”

“You know, you can get eight-tracks at the Rhodium for a couple of bucks each, sometimes even less.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

I pushed the power button and pushed the tape into the slot. When the music started I turned the speakers down and rejoined Bree. She folded her legs onto the couch and leaned against my side. I put my arm around her and lounged in her comfort while we sipped on the wine.

“This is nice,” I said, “being here with you.”

“I think I’m happy again,” she declared.

Of course I wondered why she was happy now as we sat and listened to Chicago playing softly on the stereo while we sipped on the wine and held on to each other. For someone I’d only known a few hours it was quickly becoming evident that I might have always known her, like she said. I was so confused. Only that morning I was unhappily contemplating suicide, or emulating Jeremiah Johnson and running off to the High Sierras, and now I was where I really always ever wanted to be – with someone who wanted to be with me.

I knew I was in love even if I couldn’t say it out loud. I was beginning to grow terribly afraid that she didn’t want me to tell her that I loved her because she was going to send me away. Maybe not right away but eventually. It was a horrible thought.

I prayed like Jimmy’s father taught me. I looked at the beautiful woman beside me and resisted the urge to cry when it crossed my mind that I had actually stepped in front of that Chevy step van and I was lying on Hawthorne Boulevard dying while the Angel of Death blessed me with this final fantasy. I resisted the urge to cry and shook that insanity from my mind.

“I’m,” I said, “actually having a very good day.”

“Me too.”

“I’ve never had a better day.”

“I think it might be my best day too.”

We finished our glasses of wine and sat them on the coffee table. She leaned across my lap, her arms around my neck, and began to weep. I held her and kissed her on the forehead and let her cry, undisturbed, because I didn’t know why she was crying or what I could do to soothe her angst. I held her until she rose up and kissed me on the lips with a tearful smile.

“I think I’d like another glass of wine.”

“Bree, why were you crying?

“I guess I’m just happy. Happy to be with you.”

She scooted beside me and I stood, still holding onto to her hand, wanting so much to say I love you. I mentally repeated those three little words over and over in my mind trying to project my thoughts into hers. I smiled all the love my soul had to offer and I think she understood because I tugged gently on her hand and she willingly stood, took my other hand, and leaned her head against my shoulder and allowed me the pleasure of basking in her warm aura. I closed my eyes and breathed in the pure clean scent of her body subtlety imbued with shampoo, soap, and wine.

I was content.

She raised her head. I opened my eyes and lowered them to where I could be awed by the beauty of her face, clear and sweet.

I stepped back, still holding both of her hands, and was reluctant to release them.

“Bring the bottle,” she said.

I nodded, slipped between her fingers, retrieved the bottle from the kitchen, and poured two more glasses of wine. I was already getting light-headed from the first glass and I was worried about drinking the second. We resumed our positions on the couch and sipped on our refills. I matched her sip for sip and was starting to feel pretty weird.

“I’m hungry,” she said. “I think I’m a little drunk.”

“You want me to fix you something?”

“You can cook?”

“Of course.”

Bree and I went into the kitchen. She carried the bottle of wine, sat down at the table, and unsteadily refilled our glasses while I opened the refrigerator. It contained mostly condiments, a partial loaf of bread, and four bottles of Dos Equis. There was nothing that could be used as the basis for a meal. I looked in the freezer, which was empty except for a single ice tray.

“It looks like we need to go grocery shopping.”

“Look in the cabinet,” she said, pointing above the kitchen counter.

I opened it and there were two cans of chili con carne in the front along with an open package of Oreo cookies. I took the cans of chili out while Bree selected a pot and then fished a can opener out of the drawer. She sat back at the table and sipped at the wine while I heated the chili. She’d nearly finished her third glass when I sat a bowl in front of her. She was weaving and bobbing her head while she tried to smile.

“Yes, I think I’m getting a little drunk.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t drink any more.”

She pushed her glass toward me and I sat it, and my untouched one, on the counter and returned to the table with my bowl and the remains of a loaf of bread. I watched her closely while she ate and could see that she was a little, well maybe more than just a little, unsteady from the wine. For that matter, the two glasses I drank made me more than a tad bit woozy as well. I, who had never had more than one or two beers with the guys at the shop because Jimmy’s dad thought drinking to excess was wrong, had never felt so weird.
Between the two of us we finished both cans of chili and several, well the last, slices of bread.

“Feeling better now?” I asked.

“I am, but no more wine for me tonight.”

“I think that’s a good idea.”

I rinsed the dishes and left them in the sink while she took two of the Oreos from the package in the cupboard and offered me one, which I accepted.

“I like Oreos,” she said, “but only one at a time.”

“Why only one?”

“So they’ll last longer.”

We each ate the solitary treat and then she picked up my untouched third glass of wine and dumped it down the drain. She took my hand and we returned to the living room where the Chicago tape was repeating. She shut the power off and led me to the couch where we resumed our previous position.

We spent the next two hours sharing information about our families, our childhood dreams, our disappointments, our accomplishments, and ourselves. I learned that her father was of Spanish-Mexican-American descent and that his family had lived in California since the 1700’s, even earlier when the Spanish were settling Mexico. She said at first that her mother was of German descent but as we talked I discovered that her mother’s ancestors actually came to the United States before Germany unified and were from Saxony. I also learned that her parents lived in Lennox, that she had graduated from Lennox High School, and that she had lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins. She spoke only a very little about her marriage. It was short, unhappy, and erased.

I told her about my father being an only child like myself and that my mother had one older brother who had been an MP in the army and became a San Fernando City Policeman who eventually made detective. I told her that my father didn’t like me and we were always getting into fights, which is why I left home three years before.

“Why doesn’t your father like you?”

“I don’t know but sometimes when he looks at me it’s like I wasn’t even his son. It really makes me angry.”

“I know my father loves me.”

“You’re lucky. I used to wish mine did. I guess maybe, sometimes, I don’t even care anymore.”

“You should care.”

“Why?”

“Cause families should.”

I almost wanted to argue about it but I knew she was right: families should care about each other. Jimmy’s family did. I watched them for three years and even though they had their problems with money, and his little brother getting into trouble with the law and spending time in Juvenile Hall, you could tell that they really cared about each other. I had watched them with what I thought was envy in my heart until Pastor Flores, Jimmy’s dad, told me about each of the seven deadly sins and explained how envy meant you wanted to take something you coveted from another person. Since I didn’t want to take Jimmy’s family away from him I discovered that what I felt was not a sin but just the desire to have my own loving family.

I had promised Jimmy’s dad that I wouldn’t let any of those sins corrupt me, although sometimes I have worried about anger taking control of my thoughts and actions.

“I think you’re right,” I said, and watched her yawn.

“I think I’m tired.”

“You want to turn in?”

“I do.”

We brushed our teeth together like we’d done earlier that afternoon and she yawned several more times. It seemed to make her happy to have me standing next to her. I know it did me. We finished and retired to the bedroom where I was very nervous. She smiled and removed her blouse and bra and I shamelessly studied her breasts, which she did not seem to mind. In fact, I believed she appreciated the attention I gave her and them. She took a nightshirt out from under the pillow and put it on. I removed my own shirt while she removed her slacks and I watched her get into bed and lay on her side watching me. I removed my jeans and folded them, turned off the light, and crawled in beside her with only my briefs on.

It was a good day.

We were cuddled in bed with her head lying on my shoulder ready to go to sleep when she shook my shoulder.

“Steven,” she said, “I’ve changed my mind.”

“About what?” I asked, and was worried what her answer would be.

“You can say it. Please. I want you to say it.”

I hesitated a moment before what she asked clicked in my slow moving brain. I smiled in the darkness of the bedroom.

“Bree, I love you.”

“It sounds right when you say it.”

I repeated, “I love you,” and listened to her take a deep breath.

“I’m twenty-two.”

“I’m not.”

She rolled over to face away from me. I turned on my side and pulled her backside tight against me with my arms wrapped about her. She squirmed as she searched for a comfortable position. She sighed and then lay still with her left hand holding mine.

“Steven, I love you. I really do.”

I smiled and fell asleep.


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