I’ve been a reader for a long time. I read with the expectation of entertainment or enlightenment. I’ve been a writer for much less time, but readily acknowledge the monumental burden of these objectives.
Correspondingly, there are two kinds of writers. The first may be called responsible. These writers make primary the needs and desires of their readers. They use an outline and write with an organized plan. The second may be called cathartic. They write to cast off whatever is inside. They do not jockey their words to achieve a more advantageous position, they just run with them. They spit out their thoughts like tobacco out of a ranch hand-sometimes they get lucky and hit the spittoon. They tell their stories as they happened, just as I do now.
Life is filled with pivotal moments, and I can clearly recall one that occurred at the onset of my fourteenth year of life. Inadvertently and innocently, I saw something I wasn’t supposed to see; I witnessed something not meant for me to witness. But no one can un-see the seen. Oh, how many times I wished I could!
It was the middle of summer, my freshman year of high school was bobbing in and out in the water just a short distance away, and I was filled with both anxiety and anticipation. My best friend Cara Hale and I were spending the weekend at her lake house over the 4th of July. Her parents, whom I’d grown to love, were hosting a BBQ bash with music, fireworks, and all things patriotic. It was an adult party, so we were relegated to the upstairs which contained a TV room, small kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. We were armed with movies and nail polish and looked forward to “doing our thing” while the adults partied below. Cara even suggested we sneak downstairs and “share” a smuggled bottle of beer, our first.
It was pretty easy-peasy as all the adults were outside, sprawled across the lakefront, watching the occasional fireworks shooting their rainbow of colors over the water. We placed the abducted bottles in the mini-fridge upstairs and went outside to join the adults for the show and for me to say goodnight and goodbye to my parents and my Uncle Joe, who was Cara’s dad’s friend since college.
As the party dispersed and the noise below subsided with each crunching of the gravel drive, we locked the bedroom door, dimmed the lights, and opened our illegal booty. I realized after the first two sips that I would only continue long enough to appear to be sharing in the experience, and that became easier to do with Cara guzzling down her bottle and then “sharing” most of mine.
Fast forward, past the giggling and gossiping, and an hour or so later I found myself next to a snoring Cara while I lay awake wondering what high school boys would be like and how I’d wear my hair on that first day. I was so wide awake, in fact, that I decided to move out to the sitting area and start reading “The Odyssey.” I knew it would be assigned in freshman English, and I wanted to get a jump on it in order to make a good first impression.
After turning on the small table lamp, I saw the beer bottles standing accusingly as evidence of what we had done. We had never thought about how we’d dispose of them without getting caught, we’d only thought about how to acquire them without getting caught. I knew if Ms. H. saw them in the upstairs trash, Cara would be in deep. She had church-going, very strict parents (despite their own tendency to party). My life was a little more flexible.
I decided to take the bottles downstairs right then and there, while the house was asleep, so I wouldn’t have to worry about it the morning, especially since I wasn’t sure when (and in what condition) Cara might awaken. I gently opened the upstairs door and, almost without breathing, I slowly and quietly began my descent, one stair at a time. Halfway down, where the staircase turned towards the living room, I froze. It was the sound that first caught my attention; had it come from me? Then I saw them. The unmistakable face of Mrs. H. on the couch underneath the unmistakable melon colored polo shirt now pushed up to the shoulders of my Uncle Joe. The same broad tan shoulders that carried me on one too many long hikes with my outdoorsy family. Those iconic shoulders that would from now until forever be tainted with the vision of Mrs. H.’s bright red nails digging into them.
Lord, please erase this vision from my memory, I thought, as I remained wide-eyed and standing rigidly just long enough for the reality of what I was watching to settle upon me. Then, with trembling legs and a pounding heart, engulfed in confusion, I quietly back-stepped my way up the staircase, closing the door behind me-two beer bottles still in my grasp. I grabbed my jeans which were strewn on the floor, rolled a bottle into each leg, bunched them up, and shoved them into the bottom of my duffle. I crept into the large bed aside a semi-conscious Cara and attempted not to watch the vision that played mercilessly on the insides of my tightly closed eyelids.
What’s a freshly crowned fourteen-year-old supposed to do with a secret like that? Tell Cara, potentially devastating her family? Tell my father that his brother-in-law (and law partner) cheated on his own sister? Blackmailing the guilty parties wasn’t even a concept, and I knew enough about the school gossip network that if I told any one of my other friends, it would no longer be a secret. I was suddenly carrying around a burden that was thrust upon me, and I believe that to be the moment I began to slump somewhat at the shoulders.
I managed to survive the ordeal, feigning enough fatigue the next morning so as not to arouse suspicion, and made a quick exit. For reasons I cannot explain, instead of placing the empty bottles inside our household trash bag for next day pick up, I surreptitiously placed them into the recycling bin of the Baptist minister who lived across the street. There they sat, right on top of the plastic and cardboard, in plain view of the morning neighborhood dog-walkers. I often wonder what compelled me to do that. Was I attempting to shift any gossip that might ensue onto an innocent victim, or was it a passive-aggressive attempt to flip the bird at righteous adulthood? To this day, I’m still unsure.
Four years later, peering back over the horizon of my high-school years and looking forward to the college experience, I was filled with both anxiety and anticipation. I decided that in order to prepare for the next phase in my life, I needed to stand with my shoulders firm to the challenge. It was time to cast off this burden, to relieve myself of this involuntary and extremely heavy load. But in doing so, would I be putting it to rest or giving it immortality? Is my telling this story now responsible, cathartic, or both? That is my secret, not one I’ve been forced to carry, but one I have created of my own volition.