My mother answered the door and saw a well-dressed trio: a dark-haired, fortyish man in a gray suit, a perfectly-coiffed lady in a stylish dress, and a plain but friendly-looking teenage girl. "Hi," the man said. "Our daughter Cynthia goes to the same high school as your son Roman, and she has a question she'd like to ask him."
Mom's eyes flashed like a slot machine as the reels in her brain spun and then stopped. Rich people. Want something. From us! Mom plowed a path through the discarded newspapers and magazines and clothing from the front door to the couch, then pointed at depressions in the sofa where two of them could sit down. They glanced at one another. Their smiles didn't budge but their eyes asked, "If we back out slowly, can we pretend we were never here?"
I liked them. Welcome to my world, I thought. In this insular environment I didn't often get my opinion confirmed. And this was even before seeing the girdles hanging up in the bathroom, or the pinhole glasses she'd purchased that allegedly improved her vision but also made her look like a cross between Betty White and Kanye West.
Mom offered snacks, which the people politely declined, but she ran off in search of them anyway. Good luck on that, I thought. See, we were in an odd financial bracket you might call "Allegedly Poor." Every time one of us kids wanted something, we got a lecture about the sad facts of life. It wasn't fair! We didn't have a cent! Damn our deadbeat dad! We couldn't afford food, or entertainment, or even new pants for me, so as I grew taller Mom sewed rings of castoff fabric around the cuffs of my pants so they'd reach the vicinity of my shoes. Her unhinged optimism wasn't convincing: not only were the pants brighter and more cheerful than the usual ones, she claimed, but if you counted the rings you could guess my age.
Oddly, though, whenever my mom wanted something, we suddenly had the cash. Furniture from Robinsons, dresses from Bullocks Wilshire, face cream from Estee Lauder. It left us kids in financial limbo: were we poor, or weren't we? We envied the black-or-white destitution of the folks in National Geographic. I mean, in Uganda everybody agrees they're starving. The kids don't yell, "Hey, how about buying us a sandwich instead of more Time-Life books?" My chubby sister Clarissa further muddied the waters, but you can't judge a whole family based on a girl who'd stare at a strange man's crotch until he offered to buy her food.
Being a single working mother was part of the problem, but a close second was the work of Clarence Birdseye. When we were flush, we had frozen entrees that came sealed in plastic bags that you dropped in boiling water. They were widely heralded as a technological marvel though a few years later a federal court would rename them
Along With A Little Something That Fell Off The Side Of A Goat
Most of the time, though, our meals came from twelve-cent boxes of Kraft Mac N' Cheese. Which caused endless arguments: my sisters not only lacked the ambition to do their homework or make friends or clean up, but they also found it impossible to commit to six minutes of boiling water. They lolled around on their backs waiting for food to appear, and then attacked it like hyenas.
With pot lids and meat tenderizers I kept them away from my cooking before devising a less-combative solution. If I randomly adulterated my cooking with things they found disgusting, there'd be leftovers for when I was hungry again. Mac N' Cheese with raw onion lasted nearly twelve minutes, with Stella and Clarissa fighting to get it down like baby birds choking down garter snakes. With a cup of cilantro thrown in, though, it lasted three hours. It was disgusting, my sisters claimed. Like eating soap. Apparently they thought their complaints would banish the herb from my repertoire rather than prompt me to add it to everything from instant pudding to apple pie.
Six foot six and a hundred pounds, I knew exactly what was in the kitchen at all times. On this night there were two envelopes of cherry Jello and one box of unmade Mac N' Cheese, but these posh folks didn't look like their meals often went through the powder stage. Rather than running to the kitchen, though, Mom went for her bedroom, reappearing with six boxes in her hands. "Cookies, anyone?" she asked excitedly. "Anyone like Pepperidge Farm?"
"That sounds lovely," the wife said. "Don't mind if I do." Mom dumped a small pile of each cookie onto a plate, then dashed back into her bedroom and fetched bottles this time. "Sherry? Or would you prefer a dash of port?" She half-filled two Baccarat tumblers and passed them out to the adults.
"We don't want to disrupt your evening," the man announced, unaware that we usually spent nights watching Matlock and trying to decide if Mom was lying on the floor because she wanted attention or because she was dead. "But prom is coming up, and our daughter Cynthia hasn't yet chosen a date. We saw a photo of your son in the yearbook and agreed he was a nice-looking lad."
I didn't wait for details but immediately said yes. It didn't matter that Cynthia was as pale and awkward as I was, or that I was gay and would have preferred slow-dancing with her dad. I just knew I liked these people. They were polite. They were clean. They probably stopped and second-guessed Cynthia if she headed for the bus stop with fifty cents in her pocket and a hand-drawn map to Disneyland.
With $20 budgeted for new clothes, I bought a blazer at J. C. Penneys: the salesman insisted it was the finest corduroy, and both of the colors were really hot that year. On prom night Mom dropped me at Cynthia's house, glaring angrily as the happy family met me the door. They took a few dozen photos and then we piled in their car with her dad.
I struggled to recognize the freshly-scrubbed faces, though they were all painfully familiar at school. Well-dressed and surrounded by chaperones, these idiots, jocks and hoodlums suddenly looked like adults. Suddenly they had better things to do than chase the fat kids with briefcases. Cynthia and I danced at arm's length, chatted about the weather, and then I ran off to get us punch. When I returned she was talking to a tiny Grace Kelly, complete with diamond necklace and tiara. "This is my best friend Barbara," Cynthia announced. "Barbara, this is Roman Hans."
Barbara offered me her hand and for a second I was tempted to kiss it. Instead I shook it and said hi. We could have been different species: her hair was hand-twisted and lacquered and arranged, and mine was hacked by a trainee at Supercuts until it looked like bean dip at a Superbowl party. I couldn't give a fuck, because it wasn't even close. I had nothing to offer but attitude.
The next time Cynthia and I danced, she leaned in close. "Barbara likes you," she said. "She wants to go out with you. Would you go out with her?"
"Of course not," I replied.
"Have you ever been to Clarkwalder Beach?" I shook my head. "Her name is Barbara Clarkwalder. The beach is named after her."
With those words, the thought of tossing Cynthia aside for bigger fish took root in my brain. Sure, she lived in a nice house, but buildings are just cement and bricks. A beach is part of history, drawn on a map. It moves you out of the society pages and into the history books. Imagine your name turning into a noun. "Shall we go to Hans this afternoon?" parents would ask their children.
"YIPPEE!" the kids would reply. "Hans is my favorite place in the world!"
A couple of hours later we were giddy but exhausted, and Barbara herded us into her limo. I assumed we were going back to Cynthia's house but we turned off La Cienega into the parking of Lawry's Steak House. I was easy-going so it didn't bother me: I just knew I couldn't order anything with just a dollar in my pocket. In the back of my mind, though, a thought bubbled up. This was a date, a little voice said. And don't guys pay for ladies on dates?
Instantly the bright lights of La Cienega started swirling around my head. The night had gone so well, and now it was going to end with policemen handcuffing me while well-dressed people struggled to distance themselves. "I just saw his picture in a yearbook," Cynthia would say. "I didn't know he was the type who'd go to fine restaurants when he couldn't afford a Burrito Supreme."
I mean, I knew I wouldn't have a problem. I could order potato salad or cole slaw, then hide a crumpled single under the pile of cash collected at the end of the meal. Cynthia, though, looked hungry. And why wouldn't she be? She'd just danced for six hours straight, and she wasn't footing the bill.
Sweat seeped into my blazer as I scanned the padded menu. It was even worse than I'd suspected. Somehow we'd reached a point in American history where fifteen bucks was reasonable for a steak.
"You know what?" I barked at Cynthia. "I'm still stuffed from lunch. I think I'll just get an iced tea."
Cynthia didn't get the hint. She ordered appetizers and soups and salads, then a steak and dessert. It didn't have to end tragically, I thought, as she ladled Béarnaise onto her Porterhouse. I'd just have to come up with a polite way to say, "You know you're paying for what you order, right?"
Cynthia, Barbara, and Barbara's date didn't even flinch when the check came. To me it might as well have had a neon sign atop blaring, "ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO VENTURE HERE." I was deciding between playing on their pity or running for the exit when I felt a hand brush against my leg. When I investigated I saw it was attached to Cynthia, and it was offering me a wad of bills.
I exhaled for the first time in two hours. She was a great girl, that Cynthia. In fact, if she'd dropped to one knee and offered me something simple with maybe one big diamond I'd be Mr. Cynthia right now. I counted five twenties into my lap as Barbara's date grabbed the folder holding the check. "I'll get it," he announced. I looked skyward. Mentally I shook my fist at whoever was up there and hollered, "Now you're just FUCKING WITH ME!"
Cynthia and I cuddled in the back of the limo as we headed back to her house. Was this how the world worked for regular folks? I wondered. A little struggle, a little worry, but everything worked out in the end? I could get to like a world like that. "Hey, about -- " she said, and I gently touched her lips. "Hush," I said. "Let's remember tonight exactly the way it is." I memorized the tinted windows, the fluffy tulle, the gemstones in Barbara's anklet. Sapphire onyx emerald. Sapphire onyx emerald.
I reached back in to check on the wad of bills in my pocket. Everything had changed. The future was bright. I'd need every cent of this cash to leave for college a few months later, but first I had cilantro to buy.