Chapter Twenty-Seven (Sutro Heights)
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Note: Here’s the voice only chapter of the video book, in case you want to watch while you read. The multimedia version has music by The Moody Blues, The Beatles and Linda Ronstadt, but this version ain’t bad all on its own:
Then one day everything fell apart forever. Wendy was staying with her grandmother in Sacramento. Melanie and I had each other all to ourselves. We hopped on two or three busses and ended up way out at the end of Geary Street. There’s a park out there — Sutro Heights Park. Two cement lions crouched on squat cement pillars with a daunting, heavy black freshly-painted chain strung between them at the entrance to the park. The chain normally wouldn’t have been that big a deal, but Melanie and I were so stoned on acid it took us forever to climb over it.
Once we finally got past the chain and the lions, we pulled each other by turns up the stony path until we came to the crest of a hill and stumbled into the remnants of concrete gun emplacements left over from World War II. They were covered over with ice plant and lichens. The heavy artillery that had been housed in the bunkers had been aimed out at Japanese war ships that might have come steaming toward the Golden Gate. It was going to blow them to smithereens. I knew my history. I didn’t try to explain any of it to Melanie. She had an innate aversion to facts of any kind.
It was misty but unusually warm that day. The ocean was gray. Seabirds cried to each other. I saw the whole bloody conflagration as it might have taken place — Japanese destroyers knifing toward the city, big guns blazing through slits in the concrete, shells landing like geysers, ships exploding, Jap sailors crying like seabirds.
Melanie was busying herself with the building of waterfalls. She pushed tiny drops of water, like mercury from a broken thermometer, into a larger drop of water at the center of a fleshy lichen. Then she swept that drop of water along with one of her bitten-off fingernails into a bigger drop of water until it grew too massive to remain contained by its inherent surface tension and flooded over the walls of the lichen like a waterfall.
The cascading water sent a shock of surprise through her. She was more sensitive than a spider web. The least little whisper of air sent electrical currents of surprise and delight through her, from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. She started making a big drop of water out of little drops of water on the glistening surface of a fern frond. Melanie liked the feelings of things, the way they tasted and smelled and how they made her feel. She touched the fern the way she would have wanted to be touched if she were a fern. She touched the fern as though she were touching herself. It was sexual. The fern was getting aroused. So was I. Everything she did was sexual, sensual; it gave her pleasure to give pleasure.
The park had a gazebo. We went into the gazebo and sat down. Its rafters had been painted over and over with thick white paint. Drizzle clung like jewels to the strands of a spider web in one of the corners. The surfaces of the benches crawled with the graffiti of generations. I climbed up and hung upside-down by my knees from one of the rafters. I could feel the blood bulging the veins in my forehead, throbbing through my temples.
Melanie had just put on fresh lipstick. Her girlishness took my breath away. I went boneless as an octopus with my hair and my head and my neck and my arms dangling down, and closed my eyes. Melanie put one of my fingers into her mouth. I felt the nipple of one of her breasts move under her silky shirt and touched it with the tip of my tongue.
“God, I love you,” I heard her say.
I opened my eyes and slipped two of my fingers through a space between the buttons of her lilac blouse. Where my mouth had been there was a wet spot, like a purple heart.
“I think,” I said. “My head. Is. Going. To. Explode.”
Melanie didn’t say anything.
I climbed down and sat next to her and tried to talk again. “Acid,” I began. And stopped. And started again. “This.” I stopped. “This is a stupid drug to try to talk about…or on…or in…or under. Hey. Did you know. That. When I was in the seventh grade. I memorized. The only thing I ever memorized?”
Melanie didn’t answer, but I assumed she wanted to know what it was. “It was a list of prepositions,” I said. “They were in a thick, flimsy, red paperback book. I still know them. Wanna hear?”
She still didn’t answer, but I knew she’d want to know what they were, so I told her. “In, on, into, over, under, to, at, by, for, from, of, off…”
“Huh?” Melanie said.
“Never mind.” I laughed.
Then Melanie stretched out on the wide bench and laid her head in my lap. The ends of her hair brushed the floor. She closed her eyes. Nerves made a muscle twitch lazily in one of her cheeks. Her mouth was open. Her tongue rested comfortably against the backs of her bottom teeth. I smoothed out one of her eyebrows and rubbed the muscles where her jaws joined, right where the muscles of my jaw ached. That was when Melanie asked the fateful question. She was just trying to make conversation, I guess, but it was the fateful question, nonetheless.
“Are you jealous of them? Ginny and Elliot?”
I didn’t answer right away. That was it, right there. That was all she needed to hear. My heart broke. I felt my heart break in my chest. I got tears in my eyes. Waves of sadness and regret washed over me. Yeah, I was jealous, but the thing that really got me crying, the second wave of sadness that welled up was that in that tiny fraction of a second I wasn’t in love with Ginny or Melanie or anyone. I wasn’t in love, period — love, schmove, stick it up your ass. What the fuck does it mean, anyway? Love. What does that mean, Ginny had asked when we were on the floor of her apartment on 45th Avenue. I didn’t know. I don’t know. I’ve never known. I’ll never know. You can’t trust the stuff is all I know. It comes and goes. It wasn’t something I could explain to Melanie at the moment, so I just didn’t answer and started to cry instead. I tried to stop crying, but that just made it worse.
The drug no doubt affected the way Melanie saw it, too. She never forgot it, that brief hesitation, the momentary pause, then all that crying and trying not to cry. She saw things simply, directly. She saw things for what they were, and what she saw was that I wasn’t in love with her, that I’d never been in love with her, that nobody had ever been in love with her and that nobody would ever be in love with her no matter what she did. That broke my heart even more. I wanted to tell her that wasn’t it. But I couldn’t. She wouldn’t have believed me. She wouldn’t have heard. She wouldn’t have listened. She saw what she saw. She’d seen what she’d seen.
You had to go all the way back to before Melanie was born to know how really mean and cruel and unfair it was for her to have seen that I wasn’t in love with her. You had to know that Melanie’s mother was already pregnant with her when she met the guy who eventually married her. Nobody bothered to tell Melanie that. The guy who married her mother treated Melanie like shit because she wasn’t his kid. She thought she was his kid. That was the cruel part.
He slapped her and pulled her hair and beat her with a stick until she cried. She didn’t cry easily, either. She was brave. She was stoical. She had too much pride to cry. But once he started swatting his stick across Melanie’s bare legs, he didn’t stop until she cried — and what it felt like to her was loathing, hatred, unadulterated dislike. She didn’t know what she’d done to deserve to be beaten with a stick. The only thing she could think of was that she’d just been born bad, like no matter how hard she tried to be good she could never be anything but bad — and she tried to be good all the time. Everything she did was good. She washed the dishes until they sparkled and shined the faucet handles and cleaned the toilet bowl and got A’s in school and didn’t talk back and kept her room spotless — but no matter what she did or didn’t do, the guy who married her mother shook her and slapped her and pulled her hair and beat her bare legs with a stick because she wasn’t his kid.
Melanie’s mother didn’t interfere. She felt sort of guilty that her husband had to feed, clothe, educate and generally put up with some other guy’s child, but she didn’t feel all that great about her daughter being beaten with a stick, either. She’s the one I blame as much as anyone — well, next to me, I guess. I blame myself for everything. At least there came a time when Melanie found out that the sadistic prick really wasn’t her father and she could make some kind of belated sense out of it, but with me it was like I was mean and cruel and unfair on purpose.
“Yeah. I guess,” I said, when I was finally able to answer the question she had asked what seemed like a hundred years ago. “Sometimes.”
“Oh,” she said.
That was all she said. But her eyes went out of focus and she looked like she’d been hit on the top of her head with a ball peen hammer. I wasn’t in love with her. I never had been. Nobody ever had been. Nobody ever would be. That was the only truth she knew. It hurt.
I tried to fix it. I tried to tell her about love, about what I had meant, but that just fucked things up even worse again.
“Elliot,” I said. “Elliot used to quote The Bible all the time. There was a thing from the Song of Songs he used to say.” Then I stopped and got fucking tears in my eyes again, another fucking lump in my throat, another fucking ache in my heart.
“‘Stay me with flagons,’ he used to say.”
A picture came into my mind — Ginny drunk, her otherworldly blue eyes blacked out, pulling at the ends of her hair, shuddering, shivering, shaking her head, trying to be sane, trying to see things as they really were, laughing, saying, “Oh, dear,” Elliot and I trying to comfort her.
“‘Stay me with flagons; comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love,’ that’s all I was trying to say,” I said.
Melanie had no idea how to respond to that. It didn’t seem to make any sense to her. It didn’t make any sense to me by then, either. We somehow made our way back home again, but that was the day everything fell apart forever all the same.
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Well, that was the beginning, anyway. If it had just been that, that I hadn’t been utterly in love with Melanie for a minute or two, on acid, in a gazebo in Sutro Heights Park sometime in the summer of 1969, things might have figured themselves differently. But it wasn’t just that.
A few weeks later, rather than avoiding the subject of Ginny and Elliot altogether like anybody with any brains would have done, I exacerbated the Bejesus out of it by coming up with the brilliant idea that the four us ought to all just live together. Ha! How fucking stupid of an idea was that?
I know exactly how it happened, when and how and maybe even why. I was in the shower, watching the water stream down my body, down my stomach and down my legs and off the ends of my feet and down the drain — like my life, I remember thinking. That was when I had the clearest picture I’ve ever had of anything, a picture of Ginny and Elliot and me and Melanie all living in a big house together. It was a fantasy, sure, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I didn’t see why we couldn’t just do it. I thought we could all just fuck each other and cook and clean and have each other’s babies and things. I told Melanie about it when I got out of the shower. All she had to do was say no. But she didn’t say no. She didn’t say anything.