Temporary (Permanent)

(photo credit to Robert Couse-Baker via flickr)

I’d just been down the street helping Justin. He was (shirtless) that kid in the neighborhood who was nice to everyone, so I offered to help him fix his bike.

He asked me to (stop staring at him) grab the little oil can from the garage. It was unusual to find him alone, so I asked him what he’d done with his fan club. He joked that they were all marooned on an island together—that’s why he needed to oil his bike chains: he was preparing to save them from doom.

As I pedaled the upside down Schwinn with my hands, Justin leaned over me clicking the bottom of the oil can. I felt his knee lightly on my back. His (armpit hair, bicep) proximity made me uncomfortable. Side-stepping, I made some excuse about getting home, to which he replied cluelessly “Snag you later then.” I walked up the incline of my driveway shivering,  confused.

Inside the house, my brother was in our bedroom. Mom was working at the kitchen table and Dad was snoring on the couch. So my parents’ room was the only option for me to calm down and avoid having to tell someone (my secret) what was wrong. I wasn’t sure I could. I laid on my Dad’s side of the bed and closed my eyes. Whenever a breeze from the open window hit me, I took a deep breath until the shivering stopped.

A few weeks later, I was in our cramped garage watching my mom sand a dilapidated hoosier cupboard. Flecks of sawdust shone brightly in her dark curly hair. She stopped sanding for a moment to stand back and look at her work, so I took the opportunity to ask if she’d give me a perm. She questioned why and I said I wanted to (fix myself) try something different for my first year of junior high. She agreed to do it—more questions churning behind the words—and then looked back at the hoosier.

I watched her work a little longer, trying to figure out why she’d bought the old stained thing. I knew in a few months it would hold a prime location in her antique booth. Customers would comment on how stately and charming it was, but I just couldn’t see how.

My favorite tv show at the time was Head of the Class, about a bunch of high school misfits and their dedicated teacher. I had a crush on (Alan) Simone, the shy girl with the long red hair. Simone had a thing for the curly-headed and brainy kid Alan. Lying on my parents’ bed before, I had concocted a plan to look more like Alan and maybe find myself a Simone to take to the first dance of the school year. I saved money to buy a sweater with a dynamic pattern. I asked for wingtips and learned how to buff them. The perm was the last step.

On the Saturday before school started, I was sitting at the kitchen table with medium-sized pink curlers in my hair—Mom apologized for the color; they were her only set— when my brother walked in.

“What’s going on?”

“Nathan wanted something different this year.”

“A perm?” My brother sat down, a smirk spread across his face.

The chemical smell hit my nose before I felt the liquid dribble down my scalp. I started to panic. I asked my mom what would happen if I didn’t (change) like it.

“I never did understand why they called it a permanent,” she said, “when it’s only temporary.”

Walls

It started with the jar of loose change, the way the coins glittered in the sun. No matter where I stood in my bedroom, silver and bronze flashes swarmed around me like gnats or doubt. Without thinking, I pushed the jar off my dresser and watched as coins pummeled the floor and the jar shattered. The sound punched a hole into the silence of my childhood home.

I froze, waiting for the bellow of my name through the wall or my father’s heavy steps in the hallway. But my thin house remained still.

Growing up, my parents hoarded quiet like other parents hoarded plastic butter tubs. Mom was an insomniac and Dad worked third-shift, so at least one of them was napping at any point during the day. I wasn’t sure if their lack of reaction meant I was in much worse trouble or if I got away with it.  I started thinking up excuses—practicing my innocent face and whispering “I don’t know what happened, honest.” The wind carried the sound of a distant dog bark through the window and a feeling bubbled up in my gut, an overwhelming sense to defy my parents’ rule.

I shoved piles of papers, books, and pencils off my desk. I upturned dresser drawers full of clothes, cassette tapes, stuffed animals, Hotwheels track, and He-Men toys. As I self-plundered, my defiance turned to anger. I was so tired of this stuff, so sick of the kiddie toys and the sweater vests and the thick glasses. I wanted to be completely new, completely opposite.

I noticed the posters hanging on my wall; the liner notes of my favorite album, a framed Bible quote, and a map of Saskatchewan hung over me. Richard Marx glowered from under his silken Eighties mullet. His leather jacket, tight jeans, and vanilla sexuality said: “I dare you.” The Bible verse said, “This is not like you at all.” The map said, “This wasn’t planned. You’ve veered off course.” So I ripped paper and broke frames, toppled bookcases, flipped footlockers; nothing was safe from my rage. I was panting and sweaty. My room reminded me of Jekyll and Hyde. My brother’s desk, his nightstand remained untouched on one side and barren walls stared back at me on the other. The pile of my things reminded me of the bonfire at camp, before a grown-up lit a match. My imagination found one, struck it, and ignited loose paper. I felt the heat on my face. It reminded me of opening the oven door. Dinnertime was soon and there were still no steps in the hallway, no shriek through the wall. Was I alone in the house?

My feet took me to the living room where I found my parents watching TV together. It was so odd. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen them in the same place, not because they didn’t love each other, but because Mom couldn’t keep still and Dad couldn’t get moving.

After Radar from M*A*S*H delivered a few lines, my father spoke. “What in the Sam Hell is going on in there, son?” His voice was gravelly but clear, no sleep in its corners. My mother kept her hands in her lap.

“I was rearranging my room and I accidentally tipped my dresser over,” I said, wiping my nose with my sleeve and trying to convince myself it was the truth. “Could one of you help me, please?”

My father looked at my mother, nodded, and said, “It seems to me that if you get yourself into some trouble, then you should be the one to get yourself out.”

He sent me back down the hallway with instructions to have my room picked up before my brother got home at 8 pm. I returned to the mess I’d created even more frustrated. Nothing had changed. I was still the same person with the same stupid clothes and the same baby toys. The house was still library quiet and Richard Marx was still my favorite singer. I tilted my desk upright and returned it to its spot under the window. I refilled my bookcase except for one shelf because it had broken.

As I worked, I decided I couldn’t let the bookcase be the only evidence of the change that happened inside me. Vacuum still running, I marched through the house to the garage where I knew my mom was working on one of her old pieces of furniture, a tall cupboard with attached cabinets.

“Mom, will you perm my hair?” My mom had been a hair stylist before she married.

“Is your room clean?” she asked, her cigarette fumed between two fingers. I nodded.

“Knock it off with this Tasmanian Devil business, and we’ll see what we can do.”

The Day I Met Charlotte

We’re anchored out front of the Girl Scout camp halfheartedly fishing when the dare comes. I strip down to Sunday and dive in. Guppies dart; seaweed scratches. When I resurface, I hear my friends cackling and the snarl of the speedboat’s engine.

(photo credit: gratisography.com)