Excerpted from the in-progress book RAD: a twisted memoir of a fierce teenage girl in 1982. Halpern’s latest film, with co-director Chris Quilty, is the documentary Llyn Foulkes One-Man Band, which premiered at the LA Film Festival.
I am 16 and not invited to my mom’s third wedding. Apparently, it’s a ‘no kids allowed’ affair, which is scandalous considering I menstruate, I have touched three penises (two with my eyes open), and tonight, I am pretty sure I will lose my virginity. When I march in my mom’s bedroom to tell her what I think, she laughs and says of course you’re invited. We said it to keep the Bialy kids from coming, the ones who always pee in the pool. That’s a relief, I say. I thought you guys didn’t want me there. My Stepdad-To-Be says nothing as he pulls on his shoes and leaves.
He is becoming a real problem. Two nights ago, my mom and I were arguing, and he jumped in and took her side. Trust me, my mom doesn’t need his help. She’s tough as nails — too tough, according to my father, her first husband. She knows how to arc weld and she’s the kind of Sunday School principal who even the parents are afraid of. When long-haul truckers tried to run us off the road because of the “Shirley Chisholm for President” poster, complete with a larger than life photo of Shirley Chisholm, afro and all, filling the rear window of our little car, she just flipped them the bird. If Stepdad-To-Be thinks she needs his help in an argument, he might want to get to know her little better before getting married.
He’s a physicist, which some people think is funny, because my dad is a physicist, too. What are the chances, they laugh. If I were a physicist, I could probably answer that with some degree of accuracy, but I will never be a physicist because physicists have to pass geometry. What I do know is a lot about physicists, like how they wear brown leather lace ups with a thick sole on their feet which are often flat, how they enjoy eating weird foods from exotic places, and that they tend to have strange hobbies like collecting vintage Conan The Barbarian comic books or building audio equipment from scratch. Most of my friends have dads who play golf. You would think physicists would like golf too, since getting a tiny white orb across stretches of wide open green space is full of probability, but if there is a golfing physicist, I haven’t met him or her yet.
That’s another thing – the man to woman ratio in physics is about a billion to one. It seems probable that the one female physicist would be the belle of the smarty-pants ball, but the one I met was more like a man in a skirt. She wasn’t interested in being pretty but she cracked funny physicist jokes with the best of them. You know, jokes about quarks and strings and relativity. Stuff like that. I remember she wore a tee shirt that read across her giant, gravity defying breasts, “Help stamp out entropy!” (1) It was a big hit at the physicist party, which is another thing I know about physicists - they love parties.
The most important thing I know about physicists is they understand the laws of nature. Stepdad-To-Be seems to be the exception, because if he truly understood the laws of nature, he never would have jumped in the middle of a fight between my mom and me. But he did, so I reacted as nature dictated I should, turning on him with staccato machine-gun spray precision: who the hell are you, mind his own business, you aren’t my Dad, why don’t you butt the fuck out.
He sat down hard, the center of his button-down professor shirt crumpled and deflated, his mouth forming a tiny oh. He looked at my mom but she didn’t rush to his defense. Instead she studied me, nodding slowly, her head cocked slightly left the way she does when someone starts talking about how Reagan’s ruining the country. She had never looked at me that way before, but clearly she was giving a cue, so I continued talking to her in the most reasonable, grown-up tone I could muster. As if he didn’t exist. As if my mom and I always work things out. Big deal, you discovered some important part of an atom in your atom-smashing machine. You don’t understand one tiny thing about us.
That was two days ago and Stepdad-To-Be hasn’t said shit to me since. I feel a little bad about it, but not bad enough to fix it. Not that I think it’s fixable. I don’t even know how this man works. I understood my First Stepdad just fine, but he didn’t stay around. Michael met my mom when I was in second grade and by the time I was in fourth, they were married in a kids allowed ceremony. A year later, Michael was packing up his share of the kitchen, saying he’d call soon and hugging me goodbye as my dad came to pick me up for the weekend.
It’s almost midnight and the house is quiet other than the buzzy snores of Stepdad-To-Be down the hall. I throw the covers off me. I’m fully dressed. “Shh,” I say to my giant dog, who has slept in my room since I was little. His tail thump thump thumps on the floor as I move the curtains aside, the ones my mom and I made out of sheets. My palms are on the window frame and I push. It fights me, stuck solid with gunky layers of paint, and then jumps loose with a sharp chirp, opening an inch. I hold my breath, making sure no one is coming to investigate. All quiet. I push again. Chirp! Another inch. My dog lifts his head. “Shh,” I tell him. Thump, thump, thump. Each chirp makes my heart pulse, sending a jolt all the way to my hands as they slowly work the window open.
I shimmy through the opening, landing on top of the bush outside my window. The thorns snag my shirt and rake my skin. Who the hell thought this was a good place to plant a thorny bush? Probably the people who owned the house before us. They had a teenage girl and her room was my room. I know this because the walls have told me everything about her.
When we moved in, my bedroom was eggshell white, freshly painted. Within two months, faint black marks started to bleed through the new paint. The marks began to take shape: hand drawn mushrooms with the word MAGIC JOY written in puffy lettering, black and uneven. BONG LONG, DIE HIGH appeared over my dresser with a soupy drawing of a marijuana leaf. Over the door, THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME. SEE YOU ON THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON was hiding in my closet. Hanging over my bed was a thick cross. BLACK it said in the across part, SABBATH on the down. By the window, LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIEMONDS. When I rearranged my room, I found save me in tiny, private letters by the heating vent.
I bet her parents planted this thorny bush to keep her in the house. I don’t think it worked. I did some asking around and people said she was hospitalized for something and then the house went up for sale, sitting empty for two years before we moved in.
I lean over the thorns to yank the window closed, one heart-coursing chirp at a time. My dog stands at the window. Stay, I whisper. In the dark, I can see the white tip of his black tail flying back and forth behind his head.
I walk down our driveway, across the street, and up the next driveway. This house looks a lot like my house except for the color scheme and the huge RV camper hunkered in the driveway. I knock on the bedroom window that mirrors my own. It slides up with ease. “Come on in,” Scott says.
Scott’s dad and stepmom are on a water skiing trip. Scott was supposed to go but he got a ticket for doing donuts (2) in the K-Mart parking lot with his dad’s car. I’m glad, because it means we have the house to ourselves. We can pretend we live here, just the two of us. For one night we own an RV and a cream colored Cadillac, even if his parents did lock the keys in the safe.
Scott has candles lit. The sliding glass door is open to the back yard, letting in the scent of night blooming jasmine and the roiling sound of the Jacuzzi. They have a super deluxe model with cross jets and a gazebo because Scott’s dad is an authorized Jacuzzi dealer. I have never been in it, but it looks like tonight might be the night. Scott smiles that special smile where his tongue fills the space under his two front teeth, which are noticeably small and give him a vaguely vampire-ish look. Everyone asks and he likes to tell the story, how he was nine years old running for the pop fly, arm outstretched, eye on the prize, the ball landed in the soft spot of his glove, victory, and then he ran into the backboard, busting out his two front teeth. He won the game, he tells people, but had to go straight to the dentist, who ground down what was left of the old ones and implanted two shiny new front teeth. Now his adult teeth have grown but his two front teeth are small enough to order off the kids’ menu. When he laughs, his tongue fills the gap and he makes a hissth-hissth-hissth sound.
Sometimes wonder if he really won the game or if it just feels better to tell the story that way. I’ve been toying with the idea of making my own stories more sparkly and heroic when I tell them, but I haven’t had the guts to try it out yet. Either way, it doesn’t matter if Scott is telling it the way it really happened because I am in love with him. (3)
Scott’s dad hates me and I don’t know why. Whenever he sees me, he makes a point of stopping in his tracks, and saying, “Oh. It’s you again,” his face like he just discovered a turd on the carpet. When I told Scott this, he just laughed, hissth-hissth-hissth, like somehow this is part of his dad’s charm.
Tonight, I won’t be trapped in the hallway between his father and the fading family pictures of Scott when he still had a brother and a sister and a mother. Tonight it’s just the two of us. Scott lowers the needle over the spinning record. There is a soft static and then Journey kicks in. We smile again and I have to look away because he is looking at me and we both know why.
He takes my hand and we sit on the frame of his waterbed. We’ve been dating for six months. We have been waiting for this moment for a long time. He leans close and I feel his blonde moustache working against my upper lip. We lay back and slowly take off our clothes. Journey serenades us and the glow of Scott’s stereo gives us just enough light to slip the rubber on.
Don’t stop believen’
Hold on to that fee-len-ee-en
Streetlight-ah people whoaahh whooooooaaaaaa…
He is on top of me and then he pushes inside. He moves and the warm waterbed rocks under my hips. It doesn’t feel wrong but it doesn’t feel right either, it hurts a little, but I don’t care because we are doing it. That’s what I keep thinking, over and over. “We are doing it. We are doing it. We are actually doing it.” He looks down at me, his hair flopping in and out of his eyes. He smiles, his tongue filling the space under his front teeth. One last push and the song is over.
Scott lights a cigarette and hands it to me. “It’s the best one,” he says. I take a drag and exhale, watching the smoke make swirling calligraphy. I blur my eyes and the stereo lights turn to soft gems while Steve Perry sings about the sun playing the same game with the San Francisco Bay.
I look at Scott and he feels me looking at him. Hissth-hissth-hissth, then he grabs the ashtray and smashes the cigarette out. He hunches with strained focus the way he always does, using the cigarette butt to methodically corral the ashes into a neat pile in the corner of the ashtray. Then he dumps it all in the wastebasket and puts the ashtray back in the same spot on the nightstand, left of the clock radio. Just as his bed is always perfectly made and his records stay in alphabetical order, cigarette butts never languish in the ashtray. It’s just the way it is.
He lifts the record off the turntable, slips it in its paper sleeve, then the cover, wedging the album between Janis Joplin and Kiss. The stereo flips to KLOS and the room is laced with the soft murmer of a DJ. Scott hops back in bed and I glide on the warm waves like belly dancer.
“Can you stay the night?”
“Probably not.” I tell him.
“Let me hold you for a while,” he says. Soon his eyes droop and his breathing deepens. How can he possibly be sleepy? I’m wide awake.
“Do you always sleep with the radio on?” His eyes pop open. “It helps me sleep,” he says. “They noticed it stopped my rocking.”
“What do you mean – rocking.”
“I used to rock back and forth until I fell asleep. My dad was getting really mad about it and one night they turned on the radio.”
“I don’t know. The music just calms me.”
“No, why were you rocking?”
He thinks for a while. “It might have been after the funeral, I’m not sure.” Scott had told me about his older brother. About how he was riding his bicycle when he was twelve and a garbage truck drove by too close. How it sucked Scott’s brother under its carriage and that was it, he was gone. It was the same year Scott lost his front teeth. A year later, when Scott was ten, he woke up early to find his dad, suitcase in one hand, front doorknob in the other.
“Dad. Where you going?”
“California. I’ll send for you and your sister.”
When his dad did send for them, Scott’s sister stayed in Chicago with their mom. That was nine years ago and Scott hadn’t seen them since.
The DJ must be asleep because there’s a whole seven seconds of radio silence before the next song kicks in. Quarter Flash, Gonna Harden My Heart. Scott lights another cigarette.
BANG! BANG! BANG! DINGDONGDINGDONGDINGDONG! Scott grabs my arm and we wait, listening. Fight or flight is not always the first option when your mom and Stepdad-To-Be are pounding on the front door. Sometimes you just freeze. Scott mouths to me, “They can’t come in without permission.” His baby teeth show as he says, “It’s illeeee-gal.”
We slither out the sliding glass door, past the bubbling Jacuzzi I still have never tried.
We scale over the back wall and drop into the neighbor’s yard behind his house. The foxtails whip our legs as we sidle past garbage cans, lifting the latch on someone’s side gate. It swings open with a creak, but the creak keeps creaking, louder and louder, because it’s not a creak, it’s an alarm. aaaaaarrrrrrRRRRRRRREEEEEEE!
We race past houses that look exactly like the houses on our block, our Vans silent on the perfectly poured sidewalks. We turn left up the next street and slow down. “I’ll tell them I was out partying with Cindy and Nancy,” I say. “Tell them whatever you want,” he says. “Just don’t tell them you were with me.” He smiles, then leans down and kisses me, his moustache like a warm caterpillar.
I walk down the sidewalk, trying to figure out what to say, how to handle this like an adult. Calm, absolute, in control. No hysterics. No screaming. That kind of shit will only make my mom and Stepdad-To-Be unite. I turn and head up the driveway. My mom is standing in the dark under a tree.
“Where the hell have you been?” she says with evenly chopped words.
“None of your business,” I say. I step toward the house and she grabs my arm. “Don’t touch me!” I twist away, but she’s got me good, like wolf on rabbit. The screen door bangs against the wall as Stepdad-To-Be rushes out. My mom is shouting, he is shouting, my dog barks furiously from somewhere inside the house. Now Scott is behind me, “Let go of her!” and Stepdad-To-Be shows his total inability to grasp the laws of nature by firing a sucker punch straight into Scott’s face.
Everyone freezes. Scott stands, fists clenched. I try to go to him, but my mom will not let go. Scott, my Scott, the boy I love, stares at my stepdad-to-be with everything he has. “Do it again, I will kill you.” He turns, fists still clenched, and crosses the street, disappearing in the dark.
“You asshole!” I level at my Stepdad-To-Be. “Who’s the adult here? With your classical music and your pipe and those fucking suede patches on your fucking professor jackets, you’re posing! You’re a fake! I see right through you! You’re the teenager!”
I run into my room and lock the door and I cry. Crying alone is the loneliest thing in the universe, because no one is there to put their arms around you. I cry loud enough to make my mom regret things, and then quietly because I don’t want them to know. I shove the dresser in front of my door, then I push it back. I open my door and call for my dog, but he won’t come. They won’t let him. I slam the door and cry some more.
I think about Michael, my First Stepdad, about how much I liked having him around, how he told jokes and let me stay up late to watch the Golden State Warriors play. The Warriors were his favorite team and even though I didn’t know the first thing about basketball, they were my favorite team, too. I think about how it’s been five years since I last saw him in the kitchen and he still hasn’t called.
I stay in my room the next day, spending Sunday listening to The Dark Side of The Moon over and over, using my fingernails to flake the paint off the messages from the girl who lived here before me. I find a cigarette in the back of my sock drawer and smoke it out the bathroom window, which has the best view of Scott’s house. I wonder how Scott is, if he has a broken nose or if I’m about to have a broken heart.
I lay in bed that night, weighing the chances of sneaking out versus the chances of being caught. Clearly Scott has weighed his chances, too. He doesn’t knock on my window. The next day, my mom watches from the kitchen window, making sure I turn left, toward school, instead of straight, toward Scott’s. I decide to go to Scott’s after school, but my mom’s car is in the driveway when I get home. She must have taken the day off.
That night, I lay in bed till everyone’s asleep. She can’t keep taking days off work. They can’t sleep with one eye open every night. I hear the buzzy snores down the hall. I throw off my covers. I am fully dressed. I go to my window and move the curtains my mom and I made out of sheets aside. Across the street, Scott’s bedroom light glows from behind the RV. I put my hands on the window frame and push, but it won’t budge. I try again, cursing the layers of paint someone sloshed over this room to erase the memory of the girl who was here before me.
The moonlight catches the gleam of a hundred haphazard screws dotting the window frame like chicken pox. Some are flat, the carved exes of the heads flush against the wood. Others are at odd angles, anchoring the corners together and overlapping in sloppy patterns like preschool art, only instead of macaroni and glue, it’s business. I wonder if anyone thought about doing this to the girl who lived here before, instead of planting a thorny bush under the window. I wonder if it would have made a difference.
I run my hands over the tangle of screws. I imagine Stepdad-To-Be with the power drill, heavy and clunky in hands that are better suited for writing math problems on a chalkboard. He presses down, each screw burrowing through the paint layers, embedding deep inside the soft wood. This window is sealed forever and I can’t tell him to mind his own business or to butt out, because I imagine my mom standing behind him, shouting over the whir of the drill, “Put another one in. Put another one in.”
1. Entropy, as explained by my father, is the act of creating chaos while trying to control chaos. He offered several analogies to illustrate, the best being this: You’re standing on a windy plain holding a stack of papers. The wind blows and the stack flutters out of your hands. You scoop up rocks and throw them at the swirling, flying, fluttering pages, pinning some of them down on the ground, but also rendering them unreadable as they rip, crease, and smudge from the impact of the dirty rocks. Add to that, when you throw the rocks, they sometimes hit the other rocks that are holding down pages, releasing them back into the swirling wind. I still dream about this happening.
2. Yeah, I didn’t know either until Scott showed me. Drive as fast as you can in the tightest circles possible. Get out of the car and examine the tire marks on the asphalt, which look like donuts. Actually, they look more like the symbol for infinity to me, but I keep that to myself.
3. I am telling you all this the way it really happened.