(Adapted from “A Left on Cherry Street”)
I was almost asleep when Ned texted me. He said there was a ruckus over by the development’s pool and that I should check it out.
If it was up to Ned, he wouldn’t be texting me. If it was up to Ned, the entire Southern Springs Neighborhood Watch would be fully equipped with pagers. And guns. Like some bitchin cops from the ‘90s. But thankfully we were only neighborhood watch guys from the 2000s, which is almost less lame.
I went and scoped out the pool from the little white fence surrounding it. I heard some kids laughing in the back near the hot tub. The fence was low. So low to the point that you can’t even blame the kids for sneaking in.
Maybe instead of guns, we should work on building bigger fences. But Ned won’t listen to me, and no one will listen to Ned about the guns, so probably by the time Maggie is old enough, she’ll be hopping the same fence with her friends. Tracy wouldn’t be happy with her, but I’d be almost kind of proud of our little Mags.
There was no point in unlocking the front gate, so I hopped the fence too. All the kids had their backs turned to me, dipping their legs in the warm water. They didn’t notice that I had climbed over. I immediately noticed the smell of pot.
I know what you’re thinking: This pathetic neighborhood watch guy is going to bust these kids just for smoking a little weed. He’s probably just like the rest of them, some loser who never got laid in high school so now he compensates by carrying around a gun in a gated community and giving teenagers a hard time.
But, really, I’m not like that.
For one thing, like I said, we didn’t have guns – and even if we did, mine wouldn’t give me the erection Ned’s would give him. For another, I had sex three times in high school. And for last, and most important, I don’t even care if the kids are smoking pot – I’ve smoked a couple times in my day. Tracy never has and never will. She’s the kind of woman who, when I tell her I found some kids smoking, thinks I mean cigarettes. The kind of woman who, if she had been in my situation, would have been appalled and tried to have taken them into custody or something. I’m sure she’ll make Maggie just as uptight.
I always go easy on the kids who I find drinking on the golf course, or making out in the park past curfew, or smoking joints. I’m not like Tracy. And that’s why they like me, they think I’m cool. Well, according to Ned, they say I’m “not a dick,” but that’s a huge compliment. Everything’s relative. Teenagers never come outright and say how they feel about people, especially adults. You know how they are.
So that’s why, when I went up to the kids, I told them to find a better place to smoke.
They must’ve sensed something in me. Must’ve realized I wasn’t like the rest of the watch, seen that I wasn’t an all-American goody-good like Tracy, because the leader, some tall lanky guy in a beanie, offered me a hit. Seriously.
Like I said, teenagers never say how they feel, so you’ve got to infer from their actions. And they infer from yours. So, long story short, I smoked the joint with them.
It felt good. I hadn’t gotten high in a long while. They laughed. Only because I was taking just as big of hits as them.
They were probably thinking I’m pretty cool for an old guy. But I’m not even that old, really. There’s still lots I could do. Maybe I’ve got some bestselling novel tucked away somewhere in my mind, or the cure for cancer or something. But Tracy and Maggie and Ned have all pushed all these ideas back to the depths of my brain. Trapped behind the cage of my safe life. Behind all the missionary sex, and always eating the right amount of vegetables. Behind taking Maggie up to this same pool each summer to teach her how to swim. I thought, after taking another hit, that maybe all this crap isn’t for me.
“Society, man,” the leader told me, “it keeps us down.”
Another guy shook his head and said, “Societal norms.”
And I couldn’t have agreed more. The leader said I was a free-spirit. And I never really thought of it that way, but I am.
I was really convinced when we walked down to the gas station. We went there so I could buy them beer. At first, I worried that they were just using me for booze. But they weren’t. I know because when I told them I hadn’t drove to the pool, they told me that was fine. They said we’d walk because that’s what kids do. They can’t drive places, so they walk.
I used to go on a walk every night before I joined the watch. There’s a certain kind of law-breaking ambiance that comes with walking in the dark. Tracy uses the treadmill at night in the basement. But that’s not the same. She watches TV while she does it. There’s just something about a real, honest-to-god night walk that maybe only me and the teenagers understand – a feeling of potential criminality. It’s such a rush.
We walked down the road as the cars passed. On the sidewalk, we made a diamond formation. I imagined we were birds flying, and the breeze from the cars was wind going through our wings. I told the guys that and they said that we, and all the people like us, were like birds. It’s the wanting to fly in any and every direction at any time that makes us free-spirits.
We got to the gas station, a Speedway two miles from the pool, and they waited outside while I got the stuff. I didn’t call it beer because first off, that’s lame, and second off, someone might hear us. So I just called it the stuff.
I grabbed a twenty-four pack of Pabst – they asked for a twelve, but I got a twenty-four – and went to the counter. Ted was in line too, buying cigarettes. Ted’s my neighbor. He saw me and said something stupid like, “Gearing up for a wild weekend, huh?” and flashed his suburban smile.
I just nodded and got the hell out because we wouldn’t have had anything to talk about. If he had heard what I was really doing, he would’ve been jealous. The same way Tracy would’ve been. The same way Ned would’ve been. I don’t even know the last time one of them ever talked about doing something like this. Something that broke the mold of the regular, predetermined “happy life.” They wouldn’t get it.
But, me, I wanted to break the mold. It was the reason I said yes to taking the joint, after all. It was also the reason I said yes to wanting to go to a party with them after we got the stuff.
They said it was time for us to really start our night, time to follow what our bodies really wanted to do. For people like us, my group and me, we have to follow our hearts – not our brains – in order to be happy. We have to destroy the guardrails society has built in order to truly smile.
I don’t expect you to understand, especially if you’re my age. It’s hard to follow what you want rather than what society wants for you. You’re probably more of a Tracy. It’s not a bad thing, being a Tracy, really. It’s just that I’m different from the average middle-aged person.
How many people my age, in my situation would’ve agreed to go to a party with a bunch of teenagers?
Exactly. Not a lot. But I did, and I’m not lying. I didn’t just say I would go and then came up with some excuse five minutes later. I really went. It was how I ended up in a dark apartment in Chicago.
At first, though, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.
When I asked where the party was and they said Chicago, I was a little worried. That seemed crazy. I said, “But that’s like two hours away from where we live.” I didn’t know how I’d make it back in time.
The leader said, “No, only two hours from where you live.”
And I said, “Where do you guys live?”
And he said, “Wherever, man.”
This really opened my eyes. I realized for the first time how dumb it was to have bought a house. I knew now that I was meant to be a nomad, so how could I have been so stupid to have trapped myself? I bought my own coffin at age twenty-five. Well, after realizing that, I was determined to feel less like a caged animal, so I said back to them, “You know what? Me too now. Let’s go to Chicago.”
Still, that didn’t solve the problem that Chicago was two hours away and we didn’t have a car.
The leader said, “No one has a car. People drive cars, man. No one owns anything Which really makes sense when you think about it. If you don’t get it, then you just don’t have the right mindset – not everyone is like me, but you’ve got to trust that what my friend said makes sense. It made sense to me, at least. So much, actually, that it was why I broke the window of a Ford sedan that night so that we could make it to Chicago in time. Seriously, I did that. It was crazy. I can’t even imagine how little miss straight-A Trace would’ve reacted if she saw me do that.
We drove for a couple hours, but one guy put in a Bob Marley – no – a Sublime album, and it made the whole trip feel like minutes.
I’ve never had a more intense urge to wear tie-dye. I hadn’t realized it before, but the whole group was wearing tie dye hoodies. And bandanas. Well, except the leader, he was wearing a beanie, remember. And after a while in the car, the leader turned to me from the passenger seat and gave me my very own beanie – I wear it now when I’m on watch, so the kids know I’m one of them.
At this point, Ned was texting me asking me what happened with the pool. But I was too high to answer – we were smoking pot the whole way to Chicago also, along with the Sublime. Eventually I texted him saying everything was fine.
Tracy had called me probably ten times too, but by the time I was ready to answer we were already getting close to the apartment. She would’ve just been a buzzkill anyway. So I threw my phone out the window. I didn’t want to be bothered, especially as the party heated up.
This party was different than ones I was used to. The lights were very dim, there wasn’t loud music, but there was plenty of alcohol. Then I realized there were only girls there. They were all wearing beanies and bandanas, too. The leader said, “Take your pick, man.”
And I learned that me and my guys, and all these girls, believed in free-love. I hoped that maybe Maggie might one day believe in the same thing. Well, maybe.
And instead of me taking my pick, two beautiful blondes came up to me – they were already wearing lingerie – and took me into the other room. I wouldn’t have said yes if I hadn’t realized who I really was, but I had found out I was a free-spirit, so I gave them the greatest nights of their lives. Honestly, I’m that good. They even said so.
The guys teased me because they saw how much fun I was having. I said, “Can I keep one, please?”
They laughed and said, “Of course.”
So I grabbed the hotter one, the one with the better features whose voice came out more smooth and naturally, and we made love again right then and there. After, she said she wanted to run away with me.
Laila, that’s her name, just so you know, said we should get in a car – a car, not my car – and just drive. Drive all the way down to L.A., maybe even get an apartment near Venice Beach. She could suntan on the sand, and I could write my books or find the cure for cancer. And if we get low on cash, because society requires that we have money, I’ll just rob banks or something. It wouldn’t even be that hard. I could do it, really.
And I almost said yes to her – well, actually, we got in the car and started heading West, but I stopped because I knew I couldn’t leave Tracy and Maggie. They need me. And I’m man enough to know that I have built a life in society that I must retain, even if I really am a free-spirt – which I am. So I dropped the gorgeous blonde back off at the apartment and headed home.
Ever since that night, Tracy has respected me a lot more. I must carry myself in a different way, the way I was meant to carry myself. I’m not a drone. I’m not a Ned. I don’t need a gun. I just need to be with people who understand me, and for someone who is young at heart like me, those people happen to be young.
All this stuff really happened. I never told Tracy, so don’t ask her.
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Posted: February 5th, 2008