The subdivision (the sign at the head of the street called it one) was on the northern bank of one of the three major highways into the town. I remember the house being built, when it was just a concrete foundation and a patch of ugly desert in a tiny neighborhood with maybe 12 houses, each on no less than two acres, no more than four. When completed, our house was a red brick, black roofed anomaly, a distinctly non-southwestern house.
It was the 1980s. Reagan's America. Most of my memory of that place and time is dominated by two major phases of my existence: pre-puberty (lots of great pop music, riding on ATVs, dirt clod and rock fights, blowing stuff up, baseball, basketball, football all in the same thorny patch of sand...tons of fun) and post-puberty (lots of angry music, lots of sulking, being alone, friends tired of my know-it-all attitude and general huge-ego jerkitude, some substance abuse, long lonely walks through miles of superheated and/or full moon illuminated desert, and my first real love).
From day one, there were a core group of kids roughly mine and my brother's age. Two were younger than I, two were older. One of the kids younger than I, younger by a about 18 months (a serious gulf at that age) was a girl. The Only Girl In The Neighborhood.
Her name was (is?) Jennifer. Her parents, when we first met, were still together, but by the time of the Great Turmoils, her parents were divorced and her mom re-married to a born-again evangelist by the name of Gerry. Gerry was a tyrant, in his own slight, evangelical, skin-and-bones way. Jennifer was a nascent wild child, red headed, tall (almost my height, and I've been six feet tall since the 8th grade), lithe, prone to extravagant demonstrations of her femininity while doing her best to maintain her tomboy standing. We'd play football or basketball or jump from things (like roofs) onto other things (like moving cars) and she'd be right there with us, but at the pool she was all bikini and flirtation.
Her presence, her existence, caused lots of trouble with the rest of us. Initially there was a hands-off policy; Kyle (a very sporty, intelligent, crazy daredevil mofo) had declared her untouchable. Many adolescent judgments were made, ill-formed and defensive, to make her less in our eyes. Not while she was around, mind you; when she was hanging out with us, she was one of the guys and/or the center of attention.
One summer, one of the summers where a significant amount of time was split between Kyle's pool and Matthew and Javier's house, I made a series of fatal errors. One of those errors was writing a note (remember those?) to Jennifer, as she'd mentioned she was not easily shocked and could not be shocked by any sexual thing we could invent. So I wrote a few pages of Penthouse Letters worthy text, and handed it to her.
Two days later, that letter (reconstructed from torn pieces by her stepfather) was in my parent's hands at a meeting hastily insisted upon by Jennifer's parents. Her stepfather, mother, and pastor came to my house to confront my stepfather and mother (and me! let's not forget about me!) with the contents of this depraved and shocking document.
Now, three things are important here. First: My stepfather didn't really like me or my brother, but he was in charge of us, and that meant anything we did reflected directly on him. He was at the height of his political power and influence in the valley, so something like this? Bad news. Second: My stepfather as you may recall was a lawyer, and a hell of a good one. Third: You Do Not Enter My Stepfathers House And Accuse Him Of Anything.
I was terrified. I'd heard hints of something bad happening, but Jennifer had told me she'd ripped the note up and trashed it (and that, yes, she was suitably shocked by it) so I didn't expect what happened. I was at Matt and Javier's, and a phone call came: my parents wanted me home right that second. Wouldn't talk to me; they just told Matt to send me home quickly. I got home and it was dead quiet. The lights in the den were on (a formal den, it was only in use when we had family over, or for holidays). My stepfather was sitting down, reading case files for his trial that week, and he looked at me over the top of his paperwork and just stared.
He's not prone to being quiet, not now, and certainly not then.
I immediately lost all the blood in my brain. He gave me a synopsis of what was about to happen, asked me what the fuck I'd been thinking, and sent me to my room to wait for the parents of this poor girl.
They showed about half an hour later, and I listened from my room as the basics were laid out: your pervert son wrote, in graphic detail, this horrifying sex stuff and gave it to our daughter and what do you plan to do about it?
My stepfather called my name, and I walked out, wide-eyed and white as a sheet. Beyond shaking, petrified in fear and embarrassment. Mouth dry, ears ringing, I don't remember all of what was said initially. They asked me whether I had written the thing. I said yes. They asked how it was I knew those words and situations. I told them, I'd read about them and, hey, I went to public school.
It was at this point my stepfather started treating me like one of his clients. "Don't answer that," stern and final, catching Jennifer's parents and pastor off-guard. Two or three times, he interjected, and I stopped dead.
Then, Gerry made a fatal mistake.
He said "I just can't imagine a boy of that age having access to pornographic material, and I can't blame him, he's just a boy."
"What are you implying?" My stepfather, grinding the words from the depth of his being, tectonic and commanding.
"Well," Gerry said, sheepish but determined. "Well, it's not the boy, it must be....his parents? Why do you all allow him access to pornographic mater...." and that was as far as he got.
As a younger person, I'd once seen my stepfather in court. I compare his oration during opening, examination, and closing to a typhoon or other terrifying force of nature: something slow, unstoppable, and completely, utterly, monstrously devastating. He was always precise, forceful, and always right. He retired just this year having lost only two cases in more than 40 years of very busy practice. At the time of this story, he was at the top of his game, a brilliant, egotistical, well-regarded trial attorney.
When faced with an accusation as to his lack of fitness as a parent, he lost his goddamn mind, but in the way he loses his mind: nothing frantic or crazy or out of control, but holy shit loudly clear and completely, entirely in control.
Gerry's pastor tried to deflate the exchange, but my stepfather shut him down as well. I don't recall the specifics (my heart hammering in my chest and my general state of embarrassment and shame made all but standing quietly completely impossible) except for two things.
One, after the accusation (and attempts to bolster and explain how terrible my parents must be in the eyes of God and Community), my stepfather said "If you mean to accuse me, here, in front of witnesses, of being an unfit parent to my wife's children, I would invite you to go fuck yourself" which was delivered in a slightly loud speaking voice, and pretty awesome. The second thing was the massive rush of relief I felt once I realized that my stepfather wasn't furious with me. He was furious that this pissant dweeb was wasting his goddamn time with adolescent shenanigans, furious that Gerry had inflated a stupid misguided bit of childish nonsense into a goddamned capital fucking offense, and, in the process, accused my stepfather of being responsible. "That," he said, pointing at me, "is not my child. My children are grown, and doing quite well thank you very much. That," again with the pointing, "is a child who has exceeded at being intelligent and well mannered, though I will admit he has his moments. He is no more dependent on me than I, on him. He is allowed to make mistakes; this is the way my wife raises her sons. He has made a mistake. He will apologize," and I did, then, and I meant it dearly, "but he will not be accused of failing me, and I will NOT be accused of failing him. Now, I think it is time for you to leave before I lose my temper."
I could see the surprise in Gerry's face; this man had not yet lost his temper? Then what the hell was all of this? By now, Gerry was trembling as much as I'd been (though I am not sure how much was fear, and how much was impotent rage), Jennifer's mother's eyes had not left the floor in a while, and the pastor basically hopped at the chance to get the hell out of that house.
My stepfather led them to the door. "I hope," Gerry said, "that you understand that I meant no offense, and that we can continue to be good neighbors?"
My stepfather, smiling a smile normally reserved for the losing side in a trial, shook his hand, muttered something to the effect of "I hope to never see your face again, truthfully." Shook his hand with a grip that could crush things, things like trees or children.
They left. My mom and stepfather commiserated about the ridiculousness of the whole damn thing. I got a stern talking to and was told to eliminate any "dirty magazines" from my room (my brother, caught in that same command, nearly wept at the loss of so much hard-earned softcore porn).
My brother and I were told, in no uncertain terms, that Jennifer was not only off limits, but she represented a buffer of at least an entire football field. In a tiny neighborhood, this meant that she and I would have to split time with friends, a sort of shared custody at a distance. Of this, Kyle was glad; it gave him an excuse to be rid of her. It meant Kyle and I spent a lot of time together (which, oddly, led to my eventual career in IT; Kyle was the first computer geek my age I'd met).
It wasn't long after, though, that Jennifer became romantically involved with first myself (surreptitiously, of course), then Matthew, then me again, then, in far too serious terms, with my brother (which would prove to be my brother's least finest hour, the repercussions of which haunted him for years).
All that was years later, though. Right then? Right then, I'd had a lawyer, my first, defend me. I'd had my stepfather, who wasn't someone that ever showed any affection, defend me, loudly. To be fair, he was defending himself as much, if not more, than he was defending me, but it was a heady moment, watching him take down an opponent in no uncertain terms. It was one of the strangest things I'd experienced.
Yesterday, Jennifer emailed me.
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