We were running up the stairs, and then down the stairs, avoiding the treads that were cracked and unsafe, although actually, all of it was unsafe. At one point, Terry started screaming like a girl, startling our whole group with his silliness, and we tumbled back into one another, crashing into in a pile on the landing, bruised but invigorated, and Willie didn’t waste any time taking advantage. He caught me in his arms and snuck a quick kiss, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t exactly like him, but when you’re young, you’ll pretend someone is your beau just for the practice. And he wasn’t unattractive, and he was with the popular guys. So.
I was too afraid of Chris, the rascal, the bad boy of this group. Chris, who would seduce a different girl every night, despite his tender age of seventeen, a dog before his time. Chris of the deep blue eyes and raven hair. I go back to that place, that night, any night, and I’m not sure Chris was actually there, but I know he was friends with these boys, and so there’s always a chance he was lurking in my periphery. I certainly didn’t want my boyfriend practice to be with him; he’d destroy me. He was too fast.
We were in the Bellerive Park neighborhood, and this abandoned house was on South Broadway, near the Mississippi, the ominous river of my youth. There were actually several old homes we played in: abandoned, soon-to-be-demolished mansions whose no-longer-manicured lawns overlooked the river bluffs. Two of the mansions had been saved, expanded, and were used as nursing homes. The remaining ones were boarded up, marked with “no trespassing” signs, certainly dangerous, hanging far back from the road, their beaten driveways barely discernible in the weeds.
We were south city hoosiers, sort of, but not as trashy as the sort I would come to know shortly after, when the path would veer, as paths do when networks of friends dissolve and absorb new members, who would take you new places, places you don’t necessarily wish to go, but that’s another story. At this moment, it was a not-really-trashy group, more a cute, hopeful group, kids who mostly went to school, who would eventually have jobs and homes and kids. Mostly.
There was a sudden bright light shooting through the boards over the windows, and we all lay down on a floor, quiet except for excited whispering and funny comments. The police frequently patrolled the area, shone their searchlights at these decrepit buildings; they were home to bums and vagrants, and host to frequent kids, like us. The graffiti on the walls told the story. The light swept back and forth over the window, and streams of it illuminated slivers of the room, and I could see dust particles floating, and no doubt they hurried toward Chris, his gravitational pull stronger than the rest of ours. Or at least I imagined they did, fanciful thoughts being my problem. Overestimating objects of my affection being another one of my problems.
Terry whispered, “Who’s touching my ass?” and we giggled uncontrollably, and then Tonya whispered, “I think it’s Willie.” And Willie disagreed, “No, my hand is on Lisa’s leg.” And on it went, there in the receding glow of the police searchlight. Safe once more, we exhaled.
One evening, we found ourselves on the steps of the Gateway Arch, downtown, looking at the flooded river, dangling our bare feet into the filthy, rushing waters. How did we get there? I don’t recall. Someone must have had a car. It was surely late – probably after any respectable teenage curfew – and I was no doubt running the streets because I’d made some arrangement to spend the night at Tonya’s house. Her mother couldn’t control her, and had given up. Had we been with the same group of boys? I don’t know. Tonya had many groups of boys, and I tagged along every chance I could get. She was my tutor in the art of love and mind games and passion.
Why was it we always ended up near the river? Was it our recreation center? Our park? And there, barely a skip from the steps, years later we would end up drinking on Laclede’s Landing, gazing upon the same frequently-flooded river, except drunk, and did the meaning change at all? For certain on that high school night, we threatened to push each other in, jokes of course with not a fragment of truth. And it wasn’t the drowning that scared me. It was the excitement of floating south, down and away, floating until I was coughed out into the gulf.
After chasing each other through the abandoned mansions, we would sometimes go down to the unfinished walkway on the river’s bluff, below Bellerive Park, below the abandoned railroad tracks. In a fit of juvenile flirtation, Terry threw one of Tonya’s shoes into the weeds by the tracks. She raged and rode him until he, helpless in the presence of her anger, began crawling around looking for it.
“I’m getting eaten by mosquitoes!” he whined.
“Good.” She didn’t really like Terry anymore. I could hear it in her voice, see it in her eyes – her disgust in this boy. And if she didn’t like Terry, then I wouldn’t be with her in Terry’s group, which meant I wouldn’t have Willie as a practice boyfriend anymore. In the divorce of friends, I would naturally go with my gal pal, not with a guy.
So I could see it was the beginning of the end. I knew Tonya had already met a new boy, a Doug, Doug of the trashy Iroc-Z car, from the rougher Shaw neighborhood. Doug, who would get in group brawls while I stayed cowering in his car, under his strict instructions to keep the doors locked. Tonya would be glad to hand Doug a stick, a brick, whatever weapon he might need, and she’d brawl right alongside him. That wouldn’t be me, though. That was where my link with Tonya would begin to weaken. But that was another time in the future, and in this time in the past, I was still sitting I sat on a bench with Willie while Terry looked for Tonya’s shoe, while she cussed him, criticized him, and I watched the river flowing by in all its glory. I didn’t say much to Willie because although I loved my little hoosier world, I despised it, too, certain there were greener pastures. I wanted bigger and grander things than a working class neighborhood in a dying city. Like the waters flowing by, I wanted to rush away, always rush away, burning bridges into the future, always abandoning anything problematic, leaving everything behind, but at that moment, Willie was enough. He wouldn’t follow my thoughts into adulthood, but Chris would, and Tonya would, and the river would, and all the other dark things that imprinted upon my psyche would, because they were fast. They lit a flame under me and made me run, just as I ran up and down those stairs in that abandoned mansion, running in glee, thirstily drinking in whatever life would give me.
(Published in Literal Chaos: Water, Winter 2008; Recited at Poetry Prose & Pints @Dressel’s, Spring 2009)