Carolina Girls

Every summer, my family vacationed on Topsail Island, North Carolina for one treasured week. Mom would load the back of the wood paneled station wagon with brown paper grocery bags of food. My three brothers and I laid claim to our space for the four hour drive by karate chopping a boundary line in between us on the vinyl back seat, Hi-yah!

Invariably, someone’s foot, hand or breath would breach the imaginary border.

“Mom, he’s on my side!”

When she tired of playing the role of United Nations, Mom would banish the offending party to the way, way back.

I didn’t mind riding in the back so much. I’d lie down and watch the rows of green tobacco plants flicker by like the spokes of a wheel. When I became hungry, I’d pull out the Honey Combs cereal and have a snack while secretly admiring the picture on the box of Bobby Sherman.

Just when cow poker was about to lose its luster, Mom would sing “Who can see the ocean first?”

We’d train our gaze on the undulating sand dunes, searching the tiny valleys between them for a glimpse of blue. Like baby birds we’d chirp, “I see it! I see it!”

We were drawn to the sea, bobbing like bell buoys in the briny currents, searching for the perfect crest and sometimes getting pummeled by a rogue wave. At night, sunburnt, tired and lying in between the sandy bed sheets, we’d close our eyes and get rocked to sleep by the phantom push and pull, push and pull, push and pull of the tides.

We continued that family tradition for years, even after Dad left us. One moonlit night, there was a party on the deck of the cottage next door and I watched Mom peering through the open kitchen window, elbows resting on the sill. The sounds of “Beach music”—those boppy, Carolina R&B tunes—drifted up from the party below. Mom held her hand to her mouth as she laughed, her feet dancing to the beat. For the first time, I realized there was someone else my mother used to be. She was not actually born a mother. It was then that I realized she was in this alone.

Mom was fiercely protective of us, still is. Breaking into the Dameron family for any girlfriend and later, a boyfriend must have been a daunting task, much like wading into the ocean. There were a few family dinners with significant others that crashed terrifically beneath a sea of tears. I think Mom just got used to protecting our borders.

When I worked up the nerve to tell Mom that Paul was going to become my husband, I was terrified. She wept for many reasons, but happiness certainly bubbled to the top. Mom told me she felt like she had missed that boat—that she never really had “The love of her life.” She had devoted herself to her boys and God help the poor man who came calling at our door on Latham Road. He would have been greeted by a tsunami of rambunctious Dameron boys and the flotsam and jetsam of our pets. As much as Mom protected our borders, we flooded hers.

Like all kids, I pushed Mom and my brothers away at one point or another, attempting to find myself and become the man I am today, but Mom never stopped pulling me back. She starts every conversation with, “When was the last time you talked to your brothers?”

There is a faded photograph of Mom as a pretty, young woman clinging to us on Topsail Island. When I look at it, I can feel the phantom push and pull of the tides. God, we all look so happy. The edges may be a bit tattered, but it’s clear to see, Mom didn’t have one single love of her life. She had four. 


When I Said It

It was a garden level apartment, too far from Boston and too close to nowhere. On the day I moved in, I wrangled a queen sized mattress by myself until a young Latina held the lobby door open with her foot and guided the bed with her hands, using facial expressions and Spanglish to communicate, “Mira, left, left!” That first night, I lay awake on the bare mattress and listened to muffled conversations seep through the walls, too distant from English and not close enough to any language I could comprehend.

I was alone in a way that I had not been for more than twenty years—seven hundred miles and a secret separated me from my family.  It was not a complete break, but more of a fracture that we were attempting to heal, as if giving it a rest could mend the broken bones of our marriage.

I tried setting up rituals to break up the solitude, drinks at the Picadilly Pub with co-workers on Thursday nights, take-out sweet and sour chicken from Chin’s Garden for Friday dinner and a run along the abandoned rail bed of the Assabet River trail on Sunday mornings. But on Saturday nights, when the light faded, loneliness crept into my unfurnished apartment, like the scent of foreign foods being prepared by the unbroken families around me.

The sun would slip below the horizon around 4:30 pm and shortly thereafter, a group of Brazilian men in dark Levis, whooping and hollering, would emerge from the cinder-block apartment building and climb into the back of a pick-up truck, the night stretching out before them like a lubricious promise.

I chose one of those Saturday nights to rent a video, when video stores were still a thing. I walked up and down the aisles surveying the titles, already knowing which DVD I would select, too ashamed to see it alone in a theater and barely brave enough to hold it in my hands. I would rent it and return it through the after-hours slot and then cancel my membership.

I waited until most of the customers left. My heart pounded as I walked up to the cashier, DVD in hand holding it close to my body so no one could see and placed it title side down on the counter.

“Do you want popcorn or candy?” The cashier asked, nodding his head towards the selection.

“No, just this please,” I said without looking up.

He turned the video over, glanced up at me and said “I need your membership card.”

I thought his stare held a certain conviction as I fumbled through my wallet and when I looked up after finding my card, I caught him regarding my wedding band.

When I returned home, I poured a healthy amount of gin into a glass, placed the DVD into my laptop computer and sat in the single chair next to the small, folding kitchen table.

A dusty little town, the longing twang of a guitar chord and the forlorn landscape of Wyoming was all it took for me to know their love was doomed from the start. When it ended, one dirty, blood-stained shirt neatly folded into the other, it ended me too.

Like Ennis del Mar, I’d have to stand in that open space for a while, too afraid to move forward and too changed to go back. Looking into the mirror that night I decided for the first time to try out the foreign words, see how they might fit. It was more of a confession and less of an affirmation and only a whisper.

“Shit, I’m so gay.”


The Turkeys

The turkeys woke me this morning. They roam our Boston neighborhood in a gaggle, like a gang of delinquent teenagers. They are unafraid; defiant even as they strut across the sidewalk daring pedestrians to cross their paths. I’ve witnessed them charging the oblivious passerby, their brown wings extended, red wattles flapping and eyes narrowed. This morning, they are just outside my window.

When I lived in Franklin, MA a lifetime ago, the turkeys hung out on a rural back road next to a restaurant called “Ma Glockner’s,” an establishment famous for their chicken dinners served with a fresh cinnamon bun. It opened on Maple Street in 1937 on Thanksgiving Day, serving the domesticated big breasted, white, dumbed down brethren of the wild turkeys.

The land surrounding the restaurant could have been lifted from the pages of Watership Down; sun-dappled stones walls, birch leaves alternating green and silver as they shudder in the cool breeze and rabbit warrens burrowed among the twigs and russet colored leaves of the forest floor.  

I used to pass the turkeys of Maple Street on my morning and evening commute. I was mostly unaware of the beauty surrounding me. But every once in a while, one of those damned birds would run along the side of the road, hook a left and attempt to become airborne. Their lumbering bodies would tumble mere inches over the hood of my car, more like an awkward long jump across the road than a graceful bird taking flight. Startled, I’d pull my car into the parking lot of Ma Glockners and wait for a minute while my heart stopped pounding.

I sat there once, listening to Al Green on the radio singing “Love and Happiness.” The tune so sweet it made me tear up. A strip of clouds blushed orange in the western sky. Squirrels chattered in the Oak trees, turkeys huddled. I wanted a love that would make me do right and make me do wrong. Next life, I thought.

But here I am.

Each morning, I check the balance of my 401(K). I calculate the years until retirement. I glance at Facebook. I wait for an email from my agent. Perhaps he worked out a deal at two AM with a publisher and sent me a contract. It could happen. I re-read the same essay I have been working on for two months. I delete a comma and then I put it back. I look to see if any of the publications have accepted my submissions.  

How easily we fall into a routine. But this morning the turkeys gathered outside of my window and sang me a song. Gobble, gobble, gobble—“Wake up mother-fucker.”

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