I pedaled faster, away from my stepfather’s El Patio Restaurant, darting a glance over my shoulder. My fingers clenched the money pouch with three hundred and six dollars against the handle bar.
Two p.m. sun cooked my scalp and shoulders.
I pumped harder, my progress bogged down by the thick humid air that blanketed Stuart, Florida. I slowed as I navigated the roundabout onto Ocean Boulevard. The weight of the bills and change and responsibility nearly veered me off the curb.
How many fourteen-year-olds waitressed breakfast and lunch, counted money, filled out the deposit slip, mopped, locked up, and delivered the profit to the bank? None, probably. But Mom and Ralph went out of town for their anniversary, and here I was.
I shoved the bag into the bank night drop and exhaled a gust of relief.
Dad had monitored my every move, but when we left him in Miami Mom turned me loose, believing I had great judgment.
My “great” judgment had muddied my Catholic soul. I threw away a kiss on a boy whose wavy, white-blond hair entranced me for thirty seconds. I ditched Dad as deliberately as Mom had, and I did it all over again—every time I saw him. I snuck into R-rated Clockwork Orange. I shuddered and my bike slipped off the sidewalk into the sandy gravel beside Ocean Boulevard. Violence and the face of the unredeemed sociopath flashed through my mind. If I could cleanse my memory with bleach and a scrub brush, I would.
Mired in the sand and gravel, my wheels bogged to a stop. I straddled the bike, hiked it back onto the sidewalk, and pumped toward our empty house.
My version of Hilary Clinton’s village-needed-to-raise-a-child had been left in Miami after my parents’ divorce—stay-at-home dad, almost-a-nun maternal grandma, St. Hugh’s Catholic School, and a cadre of communal dock parents on Pier 1.
In Stuart, Mom acclimated to a new husband. She worked full-time at Martin Memorial Hospital. She raised eight-year-old R.J.
I ran a little wild.
I never saw myself as “at risk.” But maybe I was.
I picked up life skills—shooting pool, slamming the ping pong ball—hanging out at the Civic Center. But one Friday night, during a high-decibel dance, I learned chess from the twenty or thirty-something guy who handed out board games at the desk.
The sole member of my village in Stuart.
Over the following months, chess and conversation boiled down to a syrup that ran through my psyche, telling me I was intelligent and valuable—things Dad had likely expressed, but had broken down in translation when I disappointed him. I never climbed all the way to the top of the rope that hung from our banyan tree. I never read a chapter from Stalking the Blue Eyed Scallop without stumbling over a world-class word.
I’ve lost the guy’s name and face, but the time he took to talk to me and teach me a game I considered intellectually challenging threaded into who I was and upped the quality of my decisions.
My stepfather didn’t count as part of my village. Ralph’s direction, like the orange polka dotted dress he bought Mom, trended a little left of center.
This observation played out a couple months later as sequins glinted up from my costume in the half-light off stage. My palms sweated as I waited for the music to cue the burlesque striptease I was about to perform.
When Ralph talked me into resurrecting my childhood ballet lessons to dance in his vaudeville review, I found the steps easy, the women twice my age and peacock headdresses innocuous enough. The danger of mortification ranked zero. No one my age could be begged or bribed to show up in the octogenarian audience. But I hadn’t counted on the stripper catching the flu and my being the only one who could fit into her costume.
Ralph, all six feet eight of him, stood stage right with a toy cap gun in his hand and delivered his line, “What’s the matter? Won’t your gun won’t go off twice in one night?”
The audience guffawed.
Instead of trying to puzzle out the campy sexual innuendo, tonight I chewed on my lip, mortification churning under the heavy layers of fabric.
The first note of the hokey striptease music sounded and I tromped figure eights around the stage as though I wore my friend Patty Young’s scoliosis rods sewn up my back beneath my skin. Virginal and barely sprouting breasts, I had no game, and certainly no vamp. I flung off scarves and articles of clothing like I did when deciding what to wear to school.
The last note wheezed from the cassette player.
The spotlight whited my flesh—and the crushed velvet and rhinestone costume that covered three times more epidermis than my bikini.
I ran off the stage in a volley of codger catcalls.
Riding home, I crossed my arms and glared through the windshield of Ralph’s crappy Lincoln Continental.
Mack the Knife white-noised from the eight track player.
“I. Am. Never. Doing. That. Again.”
Ralph’s bass rumbled from his chest. “You know we had nobody else to do it. The show must go on and all that. I thought you liked doing the dances.”
I shook my head, disagreeing. He owed me and I’d collect chauffeuring services around Stuart for a long, long time.
Though my village felt pretty slim in Stuart, I didn’t realize until years later, one member moved with me wherever I went. I just couldn’t see him.
God kept His anonymity, but took a more active role during my untethered fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth years in 1972-74.
He must have thought about my Stuart era when he stamped my hard drive with a cautious nature and love for swimming. My inner sissy kept me safe from Boones Farm and sex. And the Martin County High School swim team delivered structure and discipline when I needed it most.
Every summer found me tucked me away in the bosom of the Church at Our Lady of the Hills Catholic Camp in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
It wasn’t random that I bulls-eyed into friends brainier and more stable than I was. Carolyn Rathkopf, Denise Domansky, Mark Travis, Jane Miller, Tara Gambee, Becky Blackford, Terri Orino, Mitzi Bronson, and Aida Gale channeled me toward grades and clean fun.
Amy Kuhns ran free in Stuart like I did. Her father farmed their land back in Pretty Prairie, Kansas. In Florida, her mother lay dying by increments from breast cancer on the sofa, in her bedroom, finally at a nursing home. Perhaps, it was our freedom that sealed our affinity when we met on the swim team.
Amy “got” who I was inside. She recognized the sharp edge I spent much of my life trying to dull—the one that decades later sliced through the “church lady” box I wrapped and bowed around myself. We sat on the curb and peered, shoulder to shoulder, into “cool.” Our hearts gripped hands till I was ripped away—two months after her mother died—by my family’s U-Haul as it tore up the Florida coast to New Smyrna Beach.
Most of my regrets are stacked and stored in Stuart.
Still, my untethered years could have netted a lot more damage—if God hadn’t lived in my village. If He hadn’t hemmed me in with smart friends, swimming, summers of Catholicism, an adult who showed me that I mattered, and a girl who saw my heart. God marched an army around me as though I were royalty in danger of check mate.