“With an ass like yours I could rule the world!” That was what the man shouted as his hand lashed out onto Sandy’s heart-shaped posterior, the whip-like whap! echoing throughout the convenience store; pain springing tears to Sandy’s startled eyes.
Sandy cried out in alarm but took the humiliating blow in her stride. What else could she do? She was all-double D tits and wiggly ass cheeks—her body as much an affront to all the carnal senses as it appeared to be an open invitation — and men were only too happy to teach her that what girls like her got was only what was coming to them. I was all-coltish legs and baby doll face and that got attention too, but raw sexuality was Sandy’s department.
I didn’t try to block her light.
But sometimes I fought her fights.
People mistakenly thought we were sisters, even identical twins. There was a family resemblance, sure, but otherwise we looked nothing alike. We were little weeds though we would never admit it: determined to bloom, daring anyone to deny us the right to try. Fierce, too, a fifteen year-old Sandy advancing on a three-foot tall, one-armed little person at a carnival after he loudly proclaimed all the vulgar things he would do to me. Drunken confidence gone, he shook so violently with fear I thought he would turn over the table he was standing on.
Usually ten shades of chicken, she was a warrior princess that day and I was proud of her. I was the one to most often throw down the gauntlet, rolling downhill in a locked-to-the-death battle with her high school football player boyfriend after he roundhouse punched her in the face for kissing him hello.
That was the last time he hit her. He said he had too much respect for me to do that anymore. But I couldn’t save her from every blow or from herself. Sandy was the kind of girl guys liked to hit and she only liked the kind of guys who liked to hit her.
A child bride, but that never slowed Sandy down, marrying at age sixteen after three months of dating a belligerent military man seven years her senior. Years later, showing me the altar she had rigged up for him in her closet, she told me it was a love spell our grandmother taught her that caused him to marry her; but at the time I thought it was only because he was as batshit crazy as she was.
We had fun with the money he sent home when he was shipped overseas. She was supposed to be saving it for their new house when he returned, but what could he expect from a teenager, unsupervised and flush with easy cash? It was party time all the time. Renting cars, sneaking into dance clubs, indulging her daily weed habit and treating her friends left her scraping until the next check arrived. Then the circus would come to town all over again.
We blew one of her husband’s paychecks in a week at the State Fair, Sandy meeting a carny ride operator who followed her home to ask her Mom for her married daughter’s hand, attempting to soothe her matronly concerns with: “I promise you she’ll always have something to eat.”
Sandy and I, freshening our cherry-flavored, bubblegum pink lip gloss in the bathroom, listening to her weak mother’s feeble protestations through the door; Sandy whispering to me, “Some thing to eat,” and we collapsed into girlish giggles over the sink.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights were devoted to dancing. I’d borrow Sandy’s clothes since my mother wasn’t in the habit of buying me any and sometimes Sandy would pay my cover charge to get into the Pygmalion, the “It” dance club in our small town.
Other times, inexplicably, she wouldn’t and I would have to stand there while the ugly doorman fondled my hand and studied my facial expression to see how I liked it. I learned to keep my eyes lowered so I didn’t have to see the lecherous glint in his, or the smirk on Sandy’s face while he got his two dollars’ worth of satisfaction before bestowing the luminescent hand-stamp that would grant me admission to the promised land.
I could have protested, after all my mother was dating the owner, which is how we got in in the first place, as we were several years below the legal age limit; but I never did.
Once inside we were all teenage mock-sophistication ordering mixed drinks that guys in the club gladly paid for and making a mad dash to the bathroom with other underage girls and a couple of hookers when the signal for the cops was flashed.
We would use all our feminine charms to keep a guy’s attention and his financial benevolence, throughout the night. Sandy was just being tight, or simply enjoying the thrill she got from men spending money on her–she had her husband’s hard-earned cash in her patchwork leather boho bag. My cheap vinyl, hand-me-down purse, however, usually held only lip gloss, a dollar face powder compact, a hairbrush and my house key. Even getting home safely could require some guy springing for my cab fare and my ability to ditch him before he could collect what he felt was his rightful due.
Pop-funk babies, Sandy and I were caught between Slick Rick lauding the imitable charms of the Superfreak and the Brother’s Gibb warning us that nobody got too much heaven anymore as if it were a new revelation. Snagged as we were on the jagged teeth of life, we resolved to slice as deeply as we were cut and, if all else failed, for our toughened hides to at least chip an incisor or two on the way down. We would leave our mark more indelibly carved than the names of the forgotten students in the time-softened wood of our school desks where we daydreamed about secret princes yet to be discovered beneath the shimmering disco moon of the Pygmalion.
We knew not to ask for too much, we knew to ask nicely and we knew we’d have to pay dearly for it. But we were born paying.
There were times when Sandy would exclude me—the good girl—from hanging out with her and her racier friends. I was the only one in the group who was still a virgin and though I never threw a wet blanket on any of her madcap plans, it sometimes seemed that she considered my sexual status a personal affront.
That was when Sandy started sleeping around, her over-ripe body and restless mind no longer able to contain itself.
She would regale me with talk of her and her girlfriends sharing hotel rooms, each entertaining her own guy, sometimes trading them like cute sweaters. She referred to these guys as “shipments” as in, “We gotta get a new shipment in,” when she became bored with the current batch.
She delighted in how bad she could be, in how shocked she could make me. And I was shocked by her promiscuity, but part of me envied her boldness, too. One thing was for certain: wherever the path she was choosing would take her, Sandy wasn’t afraid to meet it head on.
Me? I was always afraid. Afraid that people could look at me and tell my real worth by the hot and itchy polyester clothes I wore. Afraid that my poverty hung about me like a suffocating odor, that the stench of being uncared for, unwanted and unloved preceded me through every door I cracked my back to open. Afraid that it would always be this way and afraid nothing I had the power to do would change it.
I tried to fit in more. To compete with Sandy’s usual uniform of painted-on jeans and even tighter, low-cut tops that stopped traffic when we walked to the store, the length of my dresses diminished considerably until men thought they could look at the hem of my skirt and see their futures. I wore more makeup. I bleached my hair. Suddenly all the attention was on me — attention I wasn’t sure I could handle or even wanted, but Sandy approved, I was part of her gang again.
We would go dancing and when Sandy was bored and ready to leave, she would pick out the hottest guy in the club and send me to get him. It was a game we always won. Cruel and bruised, we would take the over-confident guy home and keep him frustrated all night, one of us pressed against either side of him on her mom’s couch, making him feel at any minute he was about to be the luckiest man alive and then sending him home mightily pissed and, sometimes even crying, with the dawn.
Wolves at our flanks, lions to the fore, we stumbled onwards to a destiny already mapped upon the time-worn faces we abhorred and pitied. Hope was sand flung in our eyes, fear merciless as fangs nipped at our backsides. We blundered toward every mirage that promised an oasis and every salvation that was little different from suicide. This is the story I never wanted to write—these are the memories I wanted to continue to mis-remember.
This will not end happily.
Sitting around my mother’s (call me Charlotte, not ‘mom’, I’m too young to have a daughter as old as you) kitchen table we dreamed of escaping our sleepy little town while we passed around the joints we referred to as “chocolate candy”, holding in the pungent smoke until we were just on the verge of choking, making it almost a contest — daring each other to capture every possible thrill, no matter the price. Always making choices but never getting to choose–our lows were terrible, our highs had to be incredible, we spent up our youth as if it were a rich kid’s trust fund.
Amid the doobie-fueled gaiety we would catch each other’s eyes and recognizing what we saw there the laughter would die a sudden, gasping death. We were so desperate that we were desperate to be victims, bracing for the cauterizing iron if it would only save us from bleeding out. Quick so we can avert our eyes and bear it–anything but staring down that long, hard road and seeing nothing but the same sharp stones mile after mile.
To my father I was a busted nut, a biological desire to be satiated–nothing more than the haphazard intersection of marginal hunger and low-hanging fruit. He did not pause to see if the seed he planted grew straight or crooked, if it received enough rainwater or sun. He raised up, dusted the soil from his hands and moved on. He said that due to the circumstances of my birth he didn’t owe me anything, a sentiment oft echoed by his mother after she dutifully spent several minutes recounting the faults of the family that reared me and vigorously praising the Lord whom she claimed agreed with her.
The pregnant fifteen year-old girl my father left in his wake grew into a violent, resentful mother who could be cool when there was pot around, even becoming child-like and lovable. I saved myself from being brained one night with a cast iron skillet after coming home in the wee hours of the morning just by producing a fat doobie for her I’d been wise enough to request earlier in the evening. I was sixteen years old.
When we weren’t dancing the night away or choosing and discarding boyfriends like unsuitable outfits, Sandy and I hung out at the mall, drinking Orange Juliuses, eating pizza by the slice while eyeing cute guys in the food court who never would have thought we were good enough to meet Mama and buying cheap makeup from the Revco drugstore.
Once, I let Sandy talk me into stealing a Max Factor Pancake Makeup compact from that drugstore and I smuggled it out of the pharmacy, terrified and limping, in my shoe.
“See?”, I wanted to tell her, “I can be like you. If you just don’t leave me behind, don’t leave me alone with no one, I think I can be like you.”
Bitter winters ended, springs rushed in. Sandy and I cut our teeth running through fields of bees until we became accustomed to the sting—hopping and dancing to distract our minds from the searing pain; we laughed as we walked barefoot on broken glass without getting cut. Meanwhile, for all our nihilistic courage and fierce determination, we were merely somebody’s indelibly stained wash flapping noisily on the line and everybody knew it but us.
Doom was our currency and we spent it like the heiresses we were, all of our purchases credited to a future we were both born knowing we could never count on.
As kids, Sandy was more excitable than me, but we both looked forward to decorating our fourth grade classroom’s Christmas tree. We were happy whenever we could afford to participate in any activities. Our world was so very small: a suffocating, oppressive bubble of the rundown neighborhood we lived in bordered by school and the corner store where we could buy Coca-Colas, green apple Jolly Ranchers, stale potato chips and sickly sweet, rot-your-teeth and stain-your-tongue-blue Sno-Cones of chipped ice.
Fearing we would break the few nice Christmas ornaments we owned, our mothers would only let us take the glass balls that had cracked paint to school, their marred surface looking as if someone had stretched delicate spider webs across the glossy sheen.
I had no intention of putting them on our classroom tree—I didn’t even want anyone to see them—but when it was time to start the tree trimming, Sandy marched up to Tiffany, both in charge of the holiday decorations and easily the most popular girl in our elementary school and proudly handed her our box of festive disgrace.
“Oh, no!” Tiffany said, displaying the bulbs for everyone to see as if she were Vanna White. “We could never put these balls on the tree, why, the paint is all cracked. They would just look horrible and ruin our tree.”
I watched the joy leak out of Sandy’s eyes, her hopeful smile crumpling to an expression of horror and oft-visited defeat.
Sparks ignited, crackling between my fingertips. A fuse exploded in my brain shooting balls of fire into my eyes.
Rushing over to Tiffany, I snatched the box of ornaments from her hands. “You’re so stupid, Tiffany! You don’t know anything. These ornaments have been in our family for years. They’re antiques! Rare, special spider web bulbs; the paint is supposed to look like that and we had to beg our mothers to let us bring them. They’re too good for you if you’re too stupid to know that!”
Every day right up until Christmas vacation, I cringed when I walked into our classroom and saw those ugly cracked globes at the front of our tree, as glaring as the lie I dared to tell. Not just one or two in strategic places, but the contents of both boxes displayed front and center, amidst the brand-new golden tinsel and sparkly icicles.
Whether Tiffany bought my bullshit about them being special antiques, whether she was afraid I was going to stomp a mud hole in her ass, or whether she just took pity on us, I cannot say, but she pleaded with me to let her put the ornaments on the tree and very carefully hung each one herself, declaring them too fragile for the other students to touch.
Despite my mortification at seeing our poverty so blatantly intermingled with the other kids’ finery–each daily viewing a fresh slap in the face—Sandy’s face lit up like a holiday decoration. She proudly showed the tree to any visitors to our classroom, making sure to point out our special spider web bulbs.
As time went on and our shenanigans increased, I started seriously getting concerned about our reputation, but Sandy didn’t and I admired her for it. The timid little girl who wanted to be accepted so much that she was willing to exist inside a sparkling lie because it was so much prettier than our gray and crusty truth no longer gave a damn what people thought.
I might have carried on in that vein as well, mindlessly shaving days off a life that didn’t seem to matter—not even to me—if it hadn’t been for my Aunt Brenda. My mother didn’t care what I did as long as she didn’t have to be bothered with me, actually preferring it when I wasn’t around, but my Aunt Brenda took me to task, telling me she wasn’t going to let me be another Sandy. I had to get serious about school and if I wanted to go to college, she would help me.
Her promises fell rather short of her intentions – her financial benevolence only lasting a few months — but she lit a fire under me and I resolved to tighten up my life.
As I got more serious about school and college, Sandy and my escapades began to wane. We were still two wild and crazy girls, up to hijinks whenever our schedules coincided, but more and more, Sandy and I drifted apart.
Her husband returned, furious to find that she had blown every dime he had sent home, but still unwilling to give up on her. Sandy, seemingly contrite, followed him to his next military assignment.
In the interim, I acquired new friends, created new goals and dreamed of a better life on my own.
Occasionally Sandy would return home to visit her ailing mother. Her tales of her continued exploits still had the power to thrill me. We laughed about her and her girlfriends taking an entire crew of male strippers back to her apartment while her spouse was at work, the ensuing cacophony causing the neighbors to call the cops. She painted a hilarious picture of her husband dragging their fully decorated tree to the dumpster on Christmas day after he found out about her neighborhood lover, not knowing he was just one of many.
More than a decade later, Sandy’s marriage failed. Her husband—crazy and volatile but longsuffering as Job—had finally had enough.
Sandy came back home to live with her mom, but there was something different about her. She was broken. You could see it in the hunch of her shoulders, the pronounced dip of her once-proud head. The girl who never took “no” for an answer, who blew through every stop sign just because it was there, had finally been dismissed.
We tried to pick up our relationship where we left off, but to me, our former carefree antics seemed silly and useless–to her, they felt boring and worthless.
Suddenly she was easy prey for the low-lifes and ne’er-do-wells who had caught her scent back in the days when she would breezily flick them aside with “I ain’t got no time and I can’t give you any estimate as to when I’m gonna get some,” her mother’s door slamming shut in their slack-jawed faces.
Soon Sandy began a series of romantic relationships, each guy more dangerous than the previous and more likely to hit.
It wasn’t long after that that her daily marijuana habit escalated to crack and things completely spiraled out of control. She proudly displayed the large weeping patches of missing skin where her current meth-addicted boyfriend had dragged her across rough-hewn boards as bloody, irregular-shaped badges of honor, grinning widely to show gaps from teeth he knocked out and swept off the porch into tall grass so there would “be no evidence.”
Her life became weekly episodes of having him arrested after his latest devastatingly violent outburst, only to patch herself up enough to run to the police station to beg them to drop the charges the very next day.
She deteriorated from being spontaneous, outrageously funny and sometimes generous to being cut-throat and venomously bitter, coiled like an adder, awaiting her chance to strike.
There’s a certain glorious, desperate freedom that comes with knowing you’re doomed. In the end, maybe it’s that same freedom that dooms you.
When I finally left our little town, I had no qualms about no longer being there to fight for Sandy. We all had shrugged that particular burden from our shoulders long before. I left her there, proudly displaying her own wretchedness as if it were a rare, spider web bulb. If there was something left to find, some way to change my fate, I had to find it. I wasn’t trying to wear my trials like a Purple Heart. I would have rather not been wounded.
Sandy was fun–like fireworks about to find a gas leak. Our lives were never boring with her around. Her “the-world-can-just-suck-out-my-sweet-ass” attitude saved us from a hopeless bleakness and her antics were a welcome reprieve from relentless daily visions of firing a bullet into our skulls. For years I had tried to find and define myself through Sandy–the only one I knew defiant enough to live like she wasn’t afraid.
Our irreverent savior, our closest ray of weak and mottled light–Sandy willingly climbed up on a cross of self-destruction and we cheered her all the way, needing her sacrifice to save us, somehow knowing she wouldn’t be able to save herself.
Sandy still haunts our hometown, a gaunt, jack-o-lantern caricature of her former glory; her girlish giggles morphed into a rueful cackle that catches in her throat as the wide gaps from her missing and broken teeth show. Had life ever tossed us a Hail Mary pass and we fumbled it? Or had damage already scored so deeply our efforts were forever precluded from putting points on the board? Was she and I born destined to watch in horror—clutching and grasping and tearing down the field as fast as we could — as the clock ran out?
Sometimes even now, I have dreams about Sandy. In those dreams, so great is my desire to be severed from her that for the smallest infraction I attack her and carve her into so many pieces she is unrecognizable as human and I wake shuddering that I have crucified once more someone I loved. A niggling little voice inside me asks, even as I write this, “Isn’t that what you’re doing now?” And I know that Sandy’s blood is on this page as much as ink, mingled with my own.
Innocent Sandy and I came into the world–the same as any sprouting seed. Fortune looked down his aquiline nose at us but Mother Nature took us up, dressing us in homemade pink finery before conceding us to the waiting claws of Father Time. We smiled and cooed in his embrace, gazing into his unknowable face, hoping like all things new and precious to be cherished and protected.
When I reach for the fringes of my memory to a time when I possessed so much more hope than I can dare to grasp now–when the cheapest of thrills could still masquerade for stolen joy–I think about Sandy and what might have been for the both of us. I wonder if she even remembers the girl she used to be; the girl I can’t forget: the lush little weed who dared stand by my side and stomp on the suffocating crack that imprisoned us, laughing as our wounded roots shredded revealing the tiniest clay feet.