“I love it when they say, ‘no offense but,’ and then they say something totally offensive,” said Lindy. “And by ‘love’ I mean hate,” she added unnecessarily, Barry thought. Not that he was paying much attention to his cousin’s nattering, his mind intent on the farce going on in the basement rumpus room.
Lindy passed the joint to Barry. “I’m hungry,” she whined. “Should we go down and snatch some food?” Barry held his breath as he stared at her, and then blew smoke into the whirling vent above the toilet.
“I’m not going back down there. You go, if you want.”
“Come on,” she said, nipping at his elbow. “It’s your party.”
Barry snorted. Yes, ostensibly it was his 18th birthday party, complete with a vanilla sheet-cake and aunts and uncles and a table of wrapped sweaters he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing and the latest shit-pop albums he wouldn’t listen to, even with his parents’ ears. If that had been the end of it, it could have been almost tolerated. But to explain the kind of luck he had was to understand that his 18th birthday happened to fall on inauguration day of the 40th President of these, the United States of America: one Ronald Wilson Reagan. His parents, Ed and Flora, were the Tioga County Republican Committee co-chairs. As such, they had been chosen as delegates to represent the Great State of Pennsylvania at the convention in Detroit, and when Ronald Reagan won by a landslide, his father was the one to make the speech at the Rotary. He declared it the greatest day of his life.
The inauguration party started in the morning, while Barry and Lindy were still in school. His mother promised it would be broken up by the time Barry got home, so as to not interfere “with the Birthday Boy’s special day!” He knew that would never happen. There was red, white and blue bunting around the oak-cabinet TV and a slide show of Ed and Flora at the convention. The mayor was there, and business men and Ed’s law partners and women from the PTA. Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s flowed freely. And then, just to make matters worse, the hostages in Iran got released.
“Our parents are twats,” concluded Lindy when she finally got the lay of the land.
Also downstairs was the woman republican state senator who was rumored to have had an affair with Barry’s former history teacher, and whose Cadillac parked out front had a vanity plate that read: GOP PA, so that Barry referred to her as Goppa. It had been his interaction with Goppa that had sent Barry and Lindy seeking shelter in the bathroom.
(Her slinky arm around Barry’s shoulder.) “What a fortunate young man,” Goppa had said, “to have your birthday fall on inauguration day! What birthday is this?”
“Oh, well.” Barry moved out from under her arm. “You know,” she continued as Lindy made smooching faces from over by the freezer, “your parents are as responsible as just about anyone for so handily winning Tioga for us. They have been marvelous co-chairs for the county. Seventy-six percent to Carter’s twenty-four percent! Yahoo!”
“Plus or minus,” Barry said wryly.
“Oh, you!” she said, taking his hand. “You truly are your parents’ son! And now that you’re legal, I imagine you’re eager to get down there and register as a card-carrying republican!” Barry’s father caught his eye and he knew it was now or never.
“Actually, Goppa, I’m much more eager to know if you really shacked-up with Mr. Sheppard. He was my history teacher, and I liked him, and I’d like to think he was getting some good ass.” Barry motioned to Lindy and they darted away, Goppa’s mouth agape-a.
A knock came to the bathroom door. “Barry,” Mom said. “Everything OK? Is Lindy with you?”
“We’re fine,” he said.
“Why are you two locked in the bathroom? Don’t you want cake?”
“Lindy’s sick,” he said and Lindy stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes. “I’m holding her hair.”
“Oh, dear! Lindy, are you OK, dear?”
“I’ll be fine, Aunt Flora,” she said, effecting her voice like a suffering bullfrog.
“Well, OK. There’s Pepto in the medicine cabinet. I hope it wasn’t something you ate here.”
“I think it was your shrimp,” said Barry.
“Oh dear. Well, Barry, do come down soon. Everyone’s waiting for you to cut the cake and make a wish.”
“That’s it,” he said, hearing his mother’s retreating footfalls, “I’m outta here.”
“Please don’t leave me alone with these people!” pleaded Lindy.
They walked to the Dairy Queen where Lindy had three Dilly Bars and Barry had a Brazier Burger. They played Frogger until some of the high started to wear off and then they sat by the window and stared. The streets were bare, in part because it was January and cold as shit, but also because just like their parents, most of the assholes in town were celebrating the second coming in their neatly rowed colonials and split-levels with their neatly trimmed hedges and their freshly scrubbed driveways where their big America cars sat like lawn ornaments, announcing their secured position in the solidly middle-class. “What bullshit,” said Barry, his hands plunged into his ski jacket where half a season’s lift tickets dangled fashionably from the zipper.
Across the street, a bus pulled into the Wellsboro station. The sign above the broad windshield read New York City. Barry flicked Lindy on the elbow and pointed, and then looked her in the eye and raised his eyebrows, hoping they were about to have one of those movie-ready moments when they simultaneously arrived at the same genius idea and wordlessly nodded.
Instead, Lindy looked at him blankly and said: “What? Do I have a booger?”
Barry had only been to New York City once before, when he was eleven, to attend the Radio City Christmas Show with his parents. That trip had taken nearly five hours in his father’s midnight-black Lincoln, and he had whiled away the time comfortably sunken into the car’s buttery leather seats, following the winter landscapes of Northern Pennsylvania as they zoomed by at 80 miles per hour to an Andy Williams soundtrack. He imagined how a trip with Lindy would differ, setting off from the Wellsboro bus station with a dozen or so other assorted souls in worn and sticky seats, through a landscape moonless and dark. He imagined their arrival in the middle of the night to a bus station so large as to make Wellsboro’s look like a flea on a horse’s ass, and where people of every possible persuasion, even at an ungodly hour, were on impossibly-near collision courses with one another. He wondered if Ed and Flora, if Uncle Pat and Aunt Patty, would have discovered them missing yet; he wondered who would have cut the cake. And then, divining their way through the insultingly cold wind and the hustlers and the whores and the addicts to the Howard Johnson’s where he and his parents had had lunch before Radio City, his mother clutching her purse throughout, they would sit at the counter and Barry would order a cocktail from a waitress with oily skin and a pencil tucked conveniently behind her ear, and Lindy would worry aloud about where they were going to sleep and if they had enough money, and then Barry would remind her, calmly, that everything would be OK. “Don’t you remember? Dwight lives here. All we have to do is call Dwight.”
As this played out in Barry’s mind, Lindy was staring at him blankly. He smiled at her and nodded his head in rhythm: “Tramps like us,” he said, to which Lindy replied: “Don’t deserve to have jobs?”
“Oh Christ, Lindy! Baby, we were born to run!” Caught up in the moment, Barry leapt from the table and turned to the window just in time to see the bus for New York pulling away. “Goddamn-motherfucker-shit!” he yelled. The Dairy Queen manager indicated it was time for them to take their leave.
On their slow walk home, Lindy suggested that they “fuck something up,” and Barry hatched the plan and instructed Lindy how to sneak in through the laundry room and get the sugar from the cabinet under the stand mixer. Barry hid behind the row of junipers next to the house until she returned and they danced, ninja-like, toward Goppa’s Caddie, its waxy surface gleaming even in the starless night. Lindy, all Keane-eyed and giggly, held down the rear license place while Barry unscrewed the lid and then poured half a bag of sugar into the gas tank. Just like that, it was done, and it left Barry feeling less than satiated. But then the front door opened and he and Lindy sauntered nonchalant up the driveway. “There you are,” said Uncle Pat upon seeing Lindy. He held Aunt Patty by the elbow, and her head bobbed as she tried to focus on them.
“There you are, young lady!” slurred Aunt Patty. “Your poor father’s been looking everywhere for you! There she is, Patrick.”
“Your mom’s sauced,” Barry muttered.
“No shit, Sherlock,” said Lindy.
“Come on, Lindy,” said Uncle Pat, dragging Aunt Patty along. “We’re going home!”
Lindy looked at Barry, who stared back with eyes that said: “Come on, Lindy, just once, figure out what I’m thinking!”
“Dad, Barry wants me to stay over.”
“It’s a school night. Come on.”
“I know,” Lindy whined. “But it’s a special night, what with the new president and everything. And it’s Barry’s birthday. We won’t stay up too late. Promise!”
“Get in the car, Lindy! I’m not going to say it again.”
Lindy crossed her arms in defeat. “Nice try,” said Barry. Lindy ran into the house to get her retainer she’d left in the bathroom.
“So,” said Barry, “you’re going to leave me all alone with these people. Nice. Really, nice.”
“I’m so sorry, Barry.” Barry shrugged; he could tell she really did feel badly. Lindy sunk into her coat pocket and produced the oregano jar that contained a half-smoked joint and handed it to Barry. “Happy birthday,” she said and gave him quick kiss on the cheek.
Upstairs in his room he felt pleasantly far removed from the party, still full of life in the basement. As he had mounted the stairs he heard a male voice – maybe the mayor’s – declaring “January 20th, 1981 the day that the United States of America grew its balls back!”
He sat on the edge of Dwight’s bed, wishing his brother were here now. He pulled the milk crate from under the bed that contained the albums Dwight had left behind. When he found what he was looking for, he put the record on the turntable and flopped down on his own bed with the Hunky Dory jacket in hand.
I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
He lit the joint and closed his eyes, and before the song got to the first chorus –
(Turn and face the strange)
— there came a rapid knock, and then the door opened. It was Goppa.
“Oh, Barry!” she cooed in mock surprise. “I’m so sorry! I was looking for the bathroom. I must have taken a wrong turn.” Barry was far away enough that she couldn’t see his eye rolling, but he wouldn’t have cared if she could.
“Downstairs,” he said, returning to his album jacket and dragging on the joint. She came in anyway.
“So, this is your room, huh?” Barry didn’t answer. “Quite a nice party they’re throwing for you downstairs, and on such an historic day!”
“History is overrated,” said Barry. “Didn’t Mr. Sheppard teach you that?”
Goppa paused before Barry’s posters of Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground and the Clash and pretended to be taking them in. “There’s a saying: those who deny history are bound to repeat it.”
“Look, lady, I’m an 18-year-old from Wellsboro, PA. This crappy little town hasn’t offered me the chance to lay the tracks of my own history, so there’s nothing to repeat. I am a blank slate, desperate to be etched upon.”
“Oh my, so dramatic!”
“What do you want with me?”
“I want to know why you don’t like me.”
“You’re what Holden Caulfield would call a phony.”
“Bully for Holden. But what I want to know is what Barry would call me.” Barry opened his bedside drawer and fished around until he found his roach and then clipped the joint and took another long drag. Goppa approached and snatched the roach from him and took a drag herself. Barry laughed.
“So that’s supposed to make you all cool now, right? I’m supposed to be like, ‘oh wow, she’s not anything like I thought. I totally had her all wrong!’” Goppa sat on the edge of the bed and slowly looked around the room as she exhaled.
“You know, I think I’ve been in this room before. Dwight – he’s your older brother, right? Yes, it was a July 4th barbeque your parents threw, about four years ago, during my first campaign. Where is Dwight these days?”
“I guess he must be around twenty-two now?
“Yes, I remember. Dwight invited me up here to see his record collection.”
“Liar. Dwight has better taste than that.” Goppa smiled.
“Your hostility intrigues me, Barry. I don’t remember Dwight being quite so angry. In fact, I’d say Dwight was more of a lover than a fighter. Are you anything like your brother, Barry?”
Barry sat up and swung his legs around to be sitting next to her. He took the joint and tapped it out on the heel of a shoe that was lying on the floor. He stared at her a moment and then put his hand on her breast.
“Your parents,” she said.
“They haven’t been up here since Dwight left a year ago.”
Goppa leaned in and kissed him, gently at first and then with her tongue. She pushed him to his back and got on top, removing her blouse to reveal a black, lace bra, which she then unhooked from between the cups and pulled over her arms. Barry noticed her breasts were uneven and was mildly surprised by such a thing. He wondered if Dwight had noticed that; or had Dwight been all business, taking command and really giving it to her? He tried to envision giving it to her himself and decided he would let her think she was in control just a little longer before turning the tables, and turning her onto her back, and showing her just what kind of lover he could be: a lover and a fighter. The sound of her moans that bordered on screams, the feel of her nails digging into the taut muscles of his back, the way her pussy chomped hungrily at his cock, warm and moist and, surprisingly, tight, and his own brow beaded with the sweat of his passion …
But no, he simply could not get the sugar in her gas tank out of his mind, and it rendered him completely distracted by guilt and practically numb to her touch and, most embarrassingly, utterly limp-dicked.
Barry wasn’t sure if it was two minutes or five or ten before Goppa finally gave up. She audibly sighed, dismounted and gathered her bra and blouse from the floor. Barry watched as she reassembled herself, and despite his better judgement, he eked out an “I’m sorry.”
“Hell kid, forget about it. You know the funny thing is, I always figured you for a queer anyway.” Barry sat up.
“Come on, don’t get all sensitive on me now. Where’s that tough, morose kid I fell in love with?”
“I’m not a kid, and I’m not a queer.”
“Just impotent? OK, whatever’s your preference.”
“You know what? You’re not phony. You’re just a cunt.”
As Goppa headed for the door, Barry took the shoe from the floor and threw it at her. He hit Patti Smith instead. Goppa turned to him and gave him her politician smile. “Welcome to Reagan’s America!” she said. “It’s really going to be something, Barry. You don’t know how lucky you are.”
“You don’t know how lucky you are I don’t have another shoe to throw.”
“Goodbye, Barry.” She turned to go.
“Oh, Goppa? One thing.”
“Well, it’s just that I have this strange feeling all of a sudden that one of us is going to get fucked tonight after all. Funny. Well, never mind. Just, you know, have a good drive home, that’s all.”
The door closed and Barry reached over and turned the stereo to 10 –
It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
— then he lay back and smiled.
Header photograph: By White House Photographic Office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons