Battle Hymn Of The Teenage Girl: Part 3
So I made this separation the previous summer, when I was fifteen. I made peace with being my own person, whether the family gave approval or not, whether they included me as a full member or not. But the summer I was sixteen, the summer of Pete and Lisa, moved things to a new level. Aunt Ellen and Uncle Rich stayed mostly in Levittown, driving down to Oceanside only on weekends, if then. Without Ellen to behave for, Grandpop got more bellicose, saying I should give him board money, telling me he didn’t want me back next summer.Lisa wanted the house to herself and Pete was her minion. The relationship seemed to give him the gumption for a new level of nastiness towards the rest of the family. I heard him snarling over the phone to his blind brother, pointless insults. In the next year the storm in Pete would gather. Such vindictiveness towards the family, individual and collective, leaked out of him I was certain something was behind it, not just the usual young man’s rite of passage. But I didn’t know what.
After finishing their senior year in college, Pete and Lisa married, and he used the wedding for all it was worth to torture Ellen, and by extention Rich. She clung to the phone, trying to bring some sense to the situation, while he taunted her he wouldn’t tell her where the wedding would be, he wouldn’t tell her the time, she would only find out afterwards. She was quietly desperate, and John seemed to be loving his mother’s helplessness. Rich was furious, but helpless too. Pete told us about the wedding of course, and we all went. I watched him in a tuxedo in the front of the church, this tall young man who in the last year had unleashed a world of hostility on all of us. Lisa was ordering him around. I watched his whole body twitch in response to her smallest direction. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I thought.
I wasn’t Pete. I was determined to be my own person, but I wasn’t going to be rotten about it. Pete and Lisa were in a bit of a position with me in the house. They behaved as though I was a ghost, a presence that might fade away if ignored long enough. But this did put them in an awkward position in laying down the law. I wasn’t above a little guerilla warfare.
I stayed out a lot. I had a lot of friends was the truth of it. Dave, my boyfriend of the summer, was a 21 year old college graduate, in Oceanside for the summer on one of the many Christian outreaches for young adults. I also spent a fair amount of time with Dave’s roommate, a Haverford graduate who liked long theological discussions and wrote poetry. He finally told me, and I had known it for some time, that he wished I could have been his girlfriend, but Chris got to me first. Then there was my crush, a seminary student in his 30s, working an internship at The Boardwalk Chapel, an evangelistic theatre on the boardwalk. To Robert I brought all my real theological quandaries, poured out some of my troubles and pains. He treated me with a fatherly kindness that wrung my heart.
Elizabeth, who rented Aunt Emma’s old apartment upstairs, became my good buddy. The whole Boardwalk Chapel summer staff, college students mostly, welcomed me in. The director of the Chapel, Charlie Stevenson, watched over me, was always available for a talk, and gave me the title of “auxillary Boardwalk Chapel staff.” I sang in their group performances, acted in skits, worked the sound booth. Charlie Stevenson liked me to get walked home, though it was late when performances finally wrapped up, and I assured him I was fine to get home on my bike.
One morning I headed out of the house early, and Pete actually spoke to me.
“Where are you going?” I wasn’t dressed for jogging, and my shift at the pizzeria didn’t start for hours. Perhaps he felt some belated need to look out for me.
“A guy invited me to breakfast.”
“I met him at church. He owns a restaurant and he invited me to come before he opens for the day and he will cook us breakfast.” Maybe the intended dig that a stranger was making me breakfast when he and Lisa didn’t bother to see I got dinner hit its mark, because I was whizzing away on my bike before he could reply.
I met the restaurant owner with Charlie Stevenson, at some Boardwalk chapel get together. Charlie had worked with young people in Wildwood for years, he was a father of four, and he was no fool. He cautioned us about people who try to take advantage of Christians, told us war stories of the people who tried to scam him as he ran his ministry, told us things to look out for. A local magazine wrote an article about Charlie's work, calling him a "pretty hip preacher," a phrase that had the whole Chapel staff in hysterics.
Charlie knew this local restaurant owner and clearly liked him. At some point, after chatting, the man gave me his restaurant’s address and the invitation. When I arrived, the place was bigger than expected. Wildwood was home to a hundred scrappy little diners, but this place was nice. He had the homefries on the grill when I got there, and cracked the eggs after greeting me. Mostly he talked, about the young people at the Boardwalk Chapel and the other outreaches in Wildwood, how great it was to see them, year after year, always new young people doing the Lord’s work. He expected nothing but to get to make a nice breakfast for one of the young people. This was something I had discovered in the church: many people got genuine pleasure out of doing something for you just because you were a fellow Christian. There was goodwill to be had for free.
The next day Pete had his thoughts together, and had the longest conversation with me of the summer.
“Did you go to that place?”
“What was it called?”
“The Purple Onion.”
“That’s a weird name.”
“Yeah.” He was steamed, and my heart was starting to pound, but I was in the right, and I wasn’t going to back down.
“Where was it?”
“Lincoln and 11th.”
“What was the guy’s name?”
“The guy owns the place?”
“Yeah. It was bigger than I expected. A big building. Painted purple inside.”
“He made a really nice breakfast. Home fries, eggs, sausage, orange juice. We had some prayer time.”
Chew on that one Mr. Psychology Major. Who supposedly wants to work with troubled youth. Your wide eyed 16 year old cousin is getting lured off you don’t even know where to meet strange men in large empty buildings. Think you have some time and energy to spend on this one? Of course not. Lisa’s got you dancing attendance on her 24/7, and that’s way more important. Just so we know what’s important to everyone.
He didn’t have time to spend on actually dealing with me, but he wasn’t quite done with what had turned into a quite lengthy exchange by his standards.
“You know there was the time you met that hobo up on the boardwalk? And you bought him a sandwich?”
Feeding the destitute. What a character flaw.
He went on, “You know what your problem is? You trust people too much.”
The anger and callousness in his voice had me choked up, but I swallowed hard and forced myself to look at him. “You’re wrong,” I said. “I don’t trust easily.” I doubted he had the sense to know I meant him, probably he didn’t care.
He never spoke to me again about where I went.
I knew his anger with our family was growing, that he had his reasons, that they probably hadn’t been there for him or helped him the way he thought they should. But he was no better than the rest. He wasn’t even trying to help me, not now and not all summer. In my book he lost the moral high ground right there.
The hobo was a little scary, but as far as I was concerned, that was none of Pete’s business. After wolfing down the sandwich in a way that argued he wasn’t exaggerating when he said he hadn’t eaten in days, he developed an intense interest in me, trying for lots of eye contact, asking questions. I walked in the opposite direction of my family’s house, toward the Boardwalk Chapel, where I knew I would find help. Charley Stevenson was there, and sized up the situation in a second as I came in the door with the hobo in my wake.
“This is Herbie,” I introduced, smiling at both of them. “He needs help. He doesn’t have food.” Charlie smiled widely at Herbie, flicked his eyes toward the back seats for me to wait there, clapped a hand on Herbie’s shoulder, and steered him away. It ended with Herbie going off in a bit of a huff. Charlie walked back down the chapel and sat next to me.
“You were smart to bring him here.” He paused. “Now listen, I don’t want you talking to him again.” He softened this with a warm smile. “It’s not just you. I would say the same to any woman.” I nodded happily. He called me smart, he called me a woman. And I was only 16. “A guy like that, he gets women to feel sorry for him. That’s his game. If he needs something, he can come here and talk to me. I told him so. He didn’t like that. Now what does that tell you?” He shook his head, gave me his exasperated look, then leaned back and laughed quietly.
“I made sure he doesn’t know where I live,” I piped up. “I headed in the opposite direction.” I felt ridiculously grownup and competent over this situation.
“Very good. You know what to do. Keep it up.”
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