What We Thought We Knew
These were the facts about Lacey Chalmers as we understood them. She had short blonde hair, long skinny legs, green eyes, and shoulders that were perpetually slumped forward because she was embarrassed about her height. She had non-existent breasts, was a solid but unremarkable member of the varsity volleyball team, and had a smile that would sometimes come out of nowhere and suddenly light up a room. She wasn't cute per se, and she wasn't not cute either; she was what she was, and I guess for the most part we just didn't really ever think about her that way.
Lacey's birth had not been planned, and her parents were not young. Her father Frank was in his sixties when she was born, and her mother Annie was in her forties. They had not intended to have children, and really didn't even sleep together any more, except for the occasional birthday or anniversary celebration. Frank, however, had been regularly banging his youngish overtall blonde secretary Mary, and had gotten her pregnant. Mary did not want to keep the baby, but Annie talked Frank into talking Mary into having it. I want to raise it as our own, she said to Frank, in a way that made it clear that he had no right at this point to argue.
Lacey was in the Key Club and a member of the honor society. She had her heart set on attending Williams College and had no second choice in mind. Lacey and Frank played golf together on the public course twice a month when the weather was good, and Lacey and Annie watched the movie Mermaids together over and over again. While Frank may have had moments when he resented having Lacey around as a reminder of the things he wished he had not done, and while Annie may have kind of wanted to raise Lacey for just that very reason, it was still a happy, quiet house, where people went about their business undisturbed.
Lacey would have dated more, but people didn't really ask her. She did have her admirers though. There was Ted, for example he of the perpetually bad skin, bad hair, and Harvard ambitions. Ted didn't get out much, and while it was clear that this was due in part to his study habits, as well as his penchant for Dungeons and Dragons, the fact was his family was unusually close and his father Jonathan liked to have Ted and his brothers in the house doing family things when he wasn't at work. This seemed odd to the rest of us no one's family spent that much time together but Jonathan was from Australia and none of us knew how they operated down there.
When we were eight, and long before I had begun to truly worry about being cool, much less being around those I perceived to be cool, Ted invited me to sleep over at his house. We didn't spend that much time together, but the fact that he had just received a copy of the new Asteroids cartridge for his Atari trumped everything else, and we played until our thumbs were swollen and our eyes were blurry. At some point Jonathan told us it was time to go to bed, and after Ted kissed Jonathan on the cheek I started to follow him upstairs. Jonathan who had pale blotchy skin and thin wispy hair that hung across his face looked at me, looked at Ted, and then smiled and said, No one goes to bed in this house without first giving me a kiss goodnight.
If I paused, it was brief. Of course the request seemed odd to me, because it was Ted's dad asking for a kiss and not, say, Ted's mom, who you never saw much of anyway. But at that age, I would never have seriously questioned an adult's overtures of any kind; it would never even have occurred to me to do so. I quickly kissed Jonathan on the cheek, and the oddness passed. The next morning, when my dad came to pick me up and asked me how the sleepover had gone, I didn't say anything to him about kissing Jonathan goodnight. I didn't say anything at all really, but it didn't matter, because he was already thinking about other things.
I like a family that spends time together, he said, and I like seeing a father who seems to value that. I didn't respond to that either; our family didn't spend that much time together, and it was safe to say that wasn't going to change any time soon. Then again, what did I know about parents? Nothing. They lived in a different world than we did. I never slept at Ted's again, though, but then again never planned it on purpose either. At some point I think he just stopped inviting people to stay over, and if that is true it didn't matter to any of us anyway, not really. Ted wasn't that cool, and we were finally old enough that that mattered.
What we also knew was that Ted was in love with Lacey, and while she tried to keep her distance, he knew that after he convinced her to go to the prom with him she would love him as well. In fact, Ted was so sure they would end up together, he had already memorized the directions between Harvard and Williams because he also knew that he was going to be making that drive quite often. The way Ted envisioned it, if he could find a good-enough route, he'd be able to make it to Lacey's campus late on Friday afternoons, right before rush-hour started, and if she had a class he could just wait for her at the student union and do his schoolwork. When she was ready they would go have an early dinner before heading back to her room, where they would spend the rest of the weekend together lying in bed, reading, writing long romantic letters to each other and making love.
Ted knew these things would happen, because he knew that nobody understood Lacey like he did. Certainly no one had studied her quite like he had, but that made sense because no one else felt about her quite like he did either. For example, did anyone else know that she was obsessed with Barry Manilow and that she drew his picture over and over again when she was upset about something? Probably not, but they probably hadn't watched her during study-hall quite as intensely as he had. Did anyone else know the route she took to get home from school, the exact route, including the walls she walked along, the backyards she cut through, and the bushes she jumped over? Definitely not, but who else had repeatedly followed her home, from a safe distance of course? No one, that's who, nor did anyone else know that late at night, when everyone else was asleep, she violently danced to the Ramones in front of her bedroom window. But how could they? How many of them had actually witnessed it?
Ted had never even kissed Lacey, but he knew he would, because while Ted had never discussed the prom with her, he knew it was just a matter of time before he did. And once he did, he knew Lacey would go with him, they were meant to be together, and that he knew without a doubt.
One night there was a party at Johanna Levy's house. Johanna's parents were never home on the weekends; it was something you could count on like clockwork. You also knew you could always count on someone's older brother or sister buying you beer; and that at some point the combination of the party and the alcohol would provide you with the chance to hook up with someone. There might only prove to be a small window of opportunity to do so, but there would definitely be one at some point, something we knew to be true, regardless of how successful we actually were.
Oddly enough, Lacey was at Johanna's that night. They were not friends, but they were neighbors, all the way back from being kids, and nothing particularly negative had ever occurred between them. Like Ted and I, Johanna and Lacey had gone off in different directions at some point; you weren't sure why, but you knew that Lacey was Lacey, that she wasn't that cool, so you knew it had something to do with that even if you didn't exactly want to admit to it.
When I first saw Lacey she was at the keg. We were not that friendly, but we weren't unfriendly, and she always had a smile for me. Hey, she said a little unsteadily. It's going to be my birthday at midnight.
No shit, I said. Great. Happy birthday.
Yeah, she said, nodding to the music and looking down at her cup. So, you know, maybe you'll give me a kiss at midnight?
Um, sure, I said, taken aback for a moment. Anything you want.
Cool, cool, she said, still nodding, suddenly walking away without saying anything else.
She was joking, of course, had to be, or else was so wasted she would never actually remember the conversation by the time midnight rolled around; I didn't even consider actually kissing her later. But I would, I definitely would if she wanted to, if she asked me in a way that was real, that she would remember.
At midnight I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Lacey. You didn't think I was joking, did you?
Kind of. We barely ever speak.
And who's fault is that? she said. We remained silent for a moment, then she said, Are you going to kiss me?
I leaned in towards her and she responded in kind. Her lips were warm, electric, like fresh fruit. We started to kiss, slowly, softly, then faster, and harder. I pushed into her and she moved with me. I buried my hands in her hair and she grabbed my neck, pulling me closer to her, and then closer still. I paused, panicked by the intensity. I pulled back. She smiled.
Thank you, she said, walking away.
And that was the moment I became a lifelong admirer of Lacey, though always from afar, too scared to know what to do about it.
Lacey had one other admirer as well Mr. Elmo, the music teacher who was youngish and desperate to be hip, with his longish prog-rock hair and tasteful little beard. He was married to an even younger woman of indeterminate Asian descent, who never left their little house and was rumored to hand-stitch his mainly hemp clothes. It was said that they spent their weekends getting together with faculty couples from the local college, getting high, watching porn, and swapping wives. But no one could confirm this. What we could confirm was that Mr. Elmo's slightly pudgy frame sweated a lot, and we knew this because each and every time we had music class, we would have to watch his hand-stitched hemp clothes became saturated over the course of an hour.
We also knew, or thought we knew, that he seemed to like young girls. And it wasn't because he clearly smiled more when they raised their hands, or that he liked to rub their shoulders during class, or even how he was forever offering the girls rides home from school in his beat-up VW Karmann Ghia, because he just happened to be going that way. No, it was the way he looked at them when they didn't know it, like a panhandler staring through the window of a restaurant at a hot, open-faced turkey sandwich. There was a raw hunger in his eyes when he thought no one was looking; a desperate, churning desire to devour the girls in one big cartoonish bite.
And we knew, at least heard anyway, that Mr. Elmo had been asked to leave other schools for exactly this kind of stuff, and that his wife was in fact a former student of his, a woman who had gone on to be a student-teacher and then found her first husband in bed with another man. Everyone knew this, it was the word around school; and if the information wasn't entirely accurate, there was certainly no one around who could dispute it either.
*Of course, that was what we thought we knew. What we didn't know is that Lacey had slept with Mr. Elmo. It had happened on a class trip to Quebec that Mr. Elmo had chaperoned. Mr. Elmo had plied her with her raspberry wine coolers one night and told her how beautiful she was, had told her that he was lonely and that his wife didn't understand him or his dreams of being a full-time musician, his dreams of getting out of this endless rut of teaching a bunch of sullen spoiled teens who don't give a shit about art or beauty or truth.
Lacey was impressed, and admitted that her parents didn't understand her either, slurring as she related their latest argument. Why do you need to go all the way to Williams?' they say. Why not stay with us? We love you. Aren't we all happy here? Why ruin that?' But that's exactly why I want to go away. I feel smothered.
I know, I know, Mr. Elmo said. Like, just loving someone isn't enough. They need to understand your dreams as well, and support those dreams. Without that, how can you even call it love?
Yeah, totally, Lacey said. You really get me, don't you?
I do, Mr. Elmo said, opening another two wine coolers. I really do.
Moments after they were done having sex, Mr. Elmo said, You better leave my room now.
Don't you want me here?
Sure I do. But I'm a chaperone and you're a student. He ran his fingers down her cheek. You don't want me to get in trouble, do you? And she didn't, and so she left.
The next day, when Lacey tried to walk with Mr. Elmo through the Local History Of Labor Museum, he kept finding various ways to ensure that the two were never left alone. It remained this way for the rest of the trip, and when returning home the incident was never spoken about again.
While we did not know that Lacey had slept with Mr. Elmo, what we also didn't know was that Ted had gone on the trip to Quebec to be near Lacey, that he had followed Lacey to Mr. Elmo's room, listening to all that had gone down. Nor did we know how much rage Ted felt about life in general those days that he cut himself regularly, tortured small animals, wrote stories of mutilation and violence that he feverishly hid away in a box under his bed. If we had known this, we might not have been so surprised when eventually learning that Ted burned down Mr. Elmo's house. But we didn't know these things, just like we didn't know why Ted's Australian father was so gung-ho on being inside the house with his sons all the time. We didn't know that he had been sexually abusing them for years. We didn't know such things even happened. Not really, anyway.
And the fact that Ted was essentially let off on juvenile probation; the fact that Mr. Elmo and his wife quietly moved away a few weeks later; the fact that Ted's father permanently left the country the year after that; the fact that Lacey did not get into Williams after all; none of that seemed to mean all that much when everything was said and done. What we thought we knew wasn't very important, because the fact was that we didn't know shit, and you never do.
words: Ben Tanzer, Chicago (This Blog Will Change Your Life)
image: V. Ulea, Pennsylvania (Ulita.net)
"What We Thought We Knew" is an excerpt from Ben Tanzer's recently published e-book: "Repetition Patterns - a story cycle" ( CCLaP Publishing, 2008). the story was originally published in the magazine RAGAD.
another thought of knowing:
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