We were on our last lap, so close to the finish line…
Read part two of this saga here.
The fighting started almost the second I walked through the door. It was one of those days, dark days, when Betty didn’t care who she hurt or why. Her mother, a frail wisp of a woman, didn’t bother trying to explain as she didn’t speak a lick of English. She simply put her hand on my shoulder, looked at me with eyes of sapience, and put a bottle of tequila in my hand.
In the time it takes to drive from Soundview to SoHo, I finished the entire bottle, by myself.
The problem with love and infatuation is they feel the same. The only way to tell the two apart is the effect each have on your life. Love tends to make you stronger, faster, smarter, taller, more ambitious, a better lover, a better friend. It has a quantifiably good impact; you lose your gut, improve your credit, hone rough edges and tighten up the loose ends of your life, because love makes you want to be a better person.
Infatuation tends to have a debilitating effect; you don’t call your mom as often, you don’t see your friends, you show up late for work, your bills pile up, and you become unreliable. You display all the characteristics of an addict, and your whole life falls apart, because you can’t tell affection from obsession.
Or in my case, you drive drunk. With minors in the car.
My dad was a jazz musician who had a standing gig at a Cajun club in the Village called “The Gator.” Every Saturday night at eight and ten, he and a half dozen other octogenarians would tear up the stage like it was the last show they’d ever play. I made it a point to go every week; it was my Saturday night thing. I’d show up, grab a bucket of crawfish and a Corona and look for my mom, who would invariably be sitting front row center, blowing kisses at my dad as he played.
This particular Saturday I decided I was going to bring Betty with me, along with my nieces, who were twenty-one and eighteen years old, respectively, at the time. This is how I found myself flying down the FDR, doing ninety miles an hour with the top down in Veronica; bottle of tequila in one hand, steering wheel in the other, Betty in the passengers seat, and my beloved nieces in the back.
Not the smartest thing I’d ever done, by far.
By God’s grace we arrived downtown without incident, my notoriously high tolerance for alcohol having been stretched to the limit. We got to The Gator, found our seats, and as we looked at menus, I discretely handed the elder of my nieces my car keys.
“I am drunk” I informed her. “When it’s time to leave, you will drive yourself and your sister home.” I then excused myself, made my way to the bathroom, and with all of the dignity I could muster, puked my guts out.
Several hours and quarts of water later when it was time to leave, Betty was baffled when my elder niece got into the driver’s seat—nobody drove Veronica except for me. I pointed to the empty bottle of tequila on the backseat and collapsed into her lap. As the girls drove themselves home in silence, Betty realized that for all of the wild adventures we’d had, she’d never seen me intoxicated before.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” she asked, as she stroked my hair. I looked at her incredulously.
“You.” I said. “I’m doing this because of you.”
Sobriety had mostly reclaimed me by the time the girls were home. I drove Betty home, grateful for the night air on my face, delivered in a way that only a convertible can. We parked in front of Betty’s building. Seeing me infected with her madness clearly had gotten to her.
“I’m bad” she said. “I’m so bad, you have to be better. You have to be good, good enough for both of us.” And then she took my face in her hands and kissed me.
She was right and I knew it. Whatever we thought we felt, we were having a destructive effect on each other. If it was going to change, it had to start with me.
I took Veronica to see Frankie.
“Moolie, where’ve you been? And what the hell have you done to my car? Lookit what you’ve done to her. You shouldn’t have been born. You should have been swallowed.”
Frankie was right…about my car, not about me not being born. Ronnie needed so much work; so many things had gone wrong that I’d ignored—I just kept driving and asking more and more from her. No more; I was going to treat her the way she deserved. New shocks, new starter, new alternator, new carburetor, new muffler—the works. Nothing was too good for my baby and it was time I started showing it. I’m certain I paid for a full college semester of one of Frankie’s kids that summer, but it was worth it. One month in the shop and Ronnie was purring like new. I topped it off by treating her to a new pair of fuzzy dice.
Betty was next. I got her a computer and started teaching her Microsoft Office. I arranged interviews for her with my contacts on Wall Street. If her life was ever going to get better she had to get out of the G-string and into a legitimate job. In the meantime I had her open a savings account; like most dancers she didn’t have a dime to show for all the money she’d made. She needed plans, short and long term. After all, no one wants to be “old gal at the club.”
We spent less time partying at Mach 2 with our hair on fire and more time with our families. We bought—and played—board games. Most importantly I just got my own shit together and tried to set an example worth following. To my surprise, she did. The result was less alcohol, fewer arguments, and more honesty.
We celebrated her birthday that year quietly in my home. I cooked; mussels in Corona beer with sea salt, crushed garlic, bay leaves, and habanero peppers, and tiger prawn in a garlic butter white sauce with farfalle. We lounged in a bubble bath, smoking Cuban cigars and drinking Spanish brandy. We enjoyed each others bodies in ways both sacred and profane.
As always, pillow talk followed our play. She was uncharactaristically unguarded and spoke tearfully about her life’s letdowns; her fathers death, her mothers failure to protect her from abuse, her sisters betrayal, her miscarriage with her ex-husband, the crushing heartbreak when her first real love treated her like all the others. I had never seen her more powerful or beautiful than she was in absolute surrender.
“I can’t change any of what came before me,” I said, her face resting on my chest. “You don’t have to be a prisoner to your past, and if there is anything in your present that would make you smile, all you have to do is ask me nicely, and I’ll make it happen. And for what it’s worth, your ex will spend the rest of his life regretting losing you. I don’t care if I can’t be your first love.”
“I want to be your last,” I told her.
The year ended with Betty promising it was her last in the industry. She went home for a long vacation, with the intent of clearing her mind, cleansing her soul, and coming home ready to start her new life. I decided her being out of town was the perfect time to finish the bodywork on Ronnie; by now she was practically a new car inside. I was leaving my parents’ house in Jamaica, Queens, and heading back to Brooklyn, making plans to go see Frankie. I would never get the chance to see Ronnie fully restored.
Someone ran a stop sign.
Everything moves in slow motion during a car accident. I saw the car run the intersection; I tried to swerve out of it’s way. I heard the crunch of metal as his vehicle slammed into Ronnie; had anyone been sitting in the passenger’s seat, they would have been killed, instantly. If I wasn’t surrounded by two tons of American steel wrapped in canary yellow paint, I would have been killed too. I remember spinning backwards and headlong into oncoming traffic, and trying instinctively to steer out of the spiral in vain. I remember the look of the driver’s face as he slammed unavoidably into Ronnie, the force of gravity doubling and then doubling again as I screeched to an abrupt stop.
I hopped out of Ronnie, miraculously unscathed. I checked to make sure everyone else in the accident was unharmed, including the moron who hit me. And then I turned my attention the mangled hunk of metal that was my darling Ronnie. The damage was catastrophic. How I survived without a scratch is God’s own private mystery. We’d come so close, and now everything we’d worked so hard for was gone, in a moment. I sat on the street, and sobbed.
In comparison to Betty’s return, this was actually the high point of my year.
Betty came home from vacation relaxed, refreshed, and rejuvenated. There was only one problem: she was pregnant.
It wasn’t mine.
The sound of tires screeching and metal crunching suddenly sounded like a Brahms symphony. Unlike Veronica’s untimely death, I would not escape this miraculously unscathed. I bled tears for months.
In Nascar, a red flag is waved when those officiating deem driving conditions too dangerous to continue. “Too dangerous” to men driving deathtraps at speeds in excess of two hundred miles an hour. When a red flag is waved, the race is over. Had I observed the red flags right from the start, I might not have allowed my idea of who I wanted someone to be, blind me from seeing them for who they really were.
© Jackie Summers 2012
—Photo FeierAbend Bastel Verein / Flickr