Chapter 1: Matthew
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
This parable begins and ends at a fraternity house off Line Avenue. If you’re from Shreveport, you may remember the place and its broken down charm. When I close my eyes, I still see college students crowded onto its wraparound porch, big laughs, bottles in hand. I smell the beer and the mildew. Madonna is singing. It was a time when I believed frat houses were glamorous and life was akin to fairytales. As with the story of Jesus, there are twelve flawed men filled with good intention. Together they brought a message of salvation--but not the one you’re expecting.
I was born in 1966, at the height of what was dubbed the charismatic movement. It swept through the Bible Belt, and through my mother like fire, they said. On her twentieth birthday, she was filled with the Holy Spirit. I’ve yet to find anyone who loves the Lord more. Not Billy Graham. Not even Mother Theresa.
Jesus speaks to her frequently and even visits. Once he walked with her on the dusty side of a road, just as he had with the twelve disciples. She says his hair is lighter than most people think. Apparently, he does wear brown sandals. Needless to say, a confusing mix of evangelism, mental illness, and lack of attention complicated my childhood. That story led me directly to this one; it was inevitable.
And so it goes that in the summer of 1984, I met Matthew Adler at the frat house off Line Avenue. When my eyes close, I’m both frightening and beautiful again, so small inside my sleek peaches and cream skin. I’m self-indulgent, reckless, and sinful; don’t expect to like me.
On the night our paths crossed, I notice his legs just as I cross the threshold. They are long but not too long, and bowed just the right amount. They lead to a waist higher than mine, something I notice because I’m tall and have long legs. When I finally look at his face, it welcomes the smile I’ve wasted on all the others. If Jesus exists, he is weeping.
My mother thinks she understands why but she doesn’t.
“Nice legs,” I say, moving past as if I belong. I try to blend with the crowd while searching for someone I know. Anyone will do. I tug at the edges of my shorts and wonder if I still have lipstick on. Jungle juice flows from the nipples of a bald mannequin named Lolita. An ugly sign bears her name. I glance around the dark room searching for the guy with the perfect legs. He stands in the kitchen doorway staring at me over the 7-Up he’s drinking. He's perfectly still, a statue waiting for a pedestal. I stare back as if straining to receive a message, not realizing he’s only the first of twelve.
He looks as if he knows a lot. A sort of residual nerdiness overlays his handsome face. Nerds are big due to Revenge of the Nerds, and so I have a theory that there are two types. The first, call him Type A, is shy and intellectual. He’s socially unskilled on many levels and knows it. This may or may not be painful for him but he chooses not to fight it. Type B is also intellectual. He may not always be shy in social situations, but his ability to relate on a deeper, interpersonal level is lacking. For this type of nerd, there is most certainly a painful realization. Although he knows how he should behave, he can’t quite pull it off. I continue to stare, lost in thought, until he finally comes slouching toward me. Comfortable. Not like a nerd at all. Type B.
“Is that always what you drink?” I ask as we draw close enough to talk above the music.
“Yep,” he says. Then he asks me to dance with a silent cock of his head.
Excited by our obvious attraction, we move toward the dance floor on what seems a journey toward inevitable intimacy. But we’re soon blocked by the crowd and find ourselves staring at Lolita’s nipples.
“Cute girl,” he finally says in that awkward, charming way nerds sometimes communicate. In that magical moment, he glistens like a treasure hidden in a dark place only I can see.
I flash a smile and then fill a plastic cup with jungle juice. “I hear she has a great personality.”
He rocks toward me. “I like her,” he says, staring at me without a blink. I feel naked and bald and woozy as if I’m filled like Lolita.
Now I realize these fantastical moments in life are fairytales, perhaps the only ones we ever find. Who can fault the young for believing in them?
The dance floor is in the formal dining room. Thirty or forty posters of models and rock stars line the walls, and layers of wallpaper peel from the corners. The flat poster faces make the room appear more crowded than it is. Once at the edge of the dancing mob, we hesitate, waiting for an opportunity to fit in. I swing around to face him and then realize I don’t know what to say. He gazes at me until I feel silly. Then we quickly shove our way into the drunken crowd.
“I’m Peyton,” I shout above The Blues Brothers.
“I like you,” he whispers into my ear like a prince sealing my approval.
Hours later as the partiers trickle away, we sit on an old piece of yard furniture behind the house. The frat music meanders around us like a last call. The rusted latticework frame and its ugly green cushion are perfect. No deep conversation takes place; it isn’t necessary. That’s how it is when you’re seventeen still waiting for the depth to peak through.
“How did you know my name?” I ask, still amazed that that I wasn't .a stranger to him.
“I’m a smart guy,” he says, running a hand through his super-short hair as if worried it may be out of place.
“You’d be surprised what a person can learn through simple observation.”
I reach up and smooth a stray curl pointing off the side of his head. “Have you been spyin’ on me?”
“Would that be so terrible?”
The idea is appealing. I picture him lurking in dark corners, creeping down alleyways. “I’m just surprised,” I say. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before. I wouldn’t forget those legs.” I smile.
“Maybe you saw me with pants on. My great legs were a new experience for you.”
“It’s possible,” I say just as he kisses me. Afterwards, I snuggle close until it becomes awkward. “So what else have you observed about me?” I finally ask because I feel compelled to bring some noise into the silence that has lasted too long.
“Well, I know you started school in January. Your hair keeps gettin’ shorter. And you’re a loner.” My eyes widen as he tells me about myself.
“I hardly ever see you with the same people.”
A crack opens and I wonder if I can close it before he notices. “What do you mean?” I ask.
“I think you have a quality that attracts people, but you don’t seem to hang around with the same crowd for too long.” My lips slowly part along with the widening cleft. “I think there’s more to you than meets the average eye, somethin’ a little dark.”
I stand up. Part of me wants to cling to him as if he’s divine; I want him to come into my heart and save me. And I want to say something equally perceptive, but instead the part of me that feels compelled to run falls back into the shallow flirtatious mode that I’m so good at. “Well, I’m clearly at a disadvantage here.” I sink down into the ugly green cushion.
“Depends on how you look at it.”
I suddenly feel damaged and unbelievable. I want to kick myself.
“Just so you don’t feel too invaded,” he says, scratching his head, “I'll give you a little info. My parents are from New Jersey but moved down here before I was born. My dad went to MIT and teaches at the Med Center. That’s my life in a nutshell.”
“Well, that doesn’t tell me much,” I say, squinting as if it will help me understand who I’m looking at.
“My detailed bio is on a need-to-know basis.”
“What’s the big secret?” I ask. “Do you have a police record or somethin’?”
“You’re tough,” he says, shaking his head.
There’s a long silence; I hear crickets.
Then finally he says, “Somehow I skipped second grade and I’m startin’ med school in the fall.”
“Aren’t you young for that?”
“I’m in the six-year program.”
“Oh,” I say, realizing he must be extremely smart. “What is that exactly?”
“You apply in high school,” he says as if it’s embarrassing. “You have to do two years of undergrad and the regular four years of med school. I’m just finishin’ year two.” He pauses, and then says, “So far, I’ve made it farther than my sisters.”
“What happened to them?”
“My oldest sister was also in the program but dropped out to get married. That’s when my dad had his first heart attack.” He pauses again to swat a mosquito on his regal calf. “My other sister was a career college student. She went on and off for six years and ended up with nothin’. She’s a secretary at the med school now. I don’t think my dad claims to know her.” He smiles. “I’m their last great hope.”
Suddenly feeling smarter, I say, “Well, believe it or not, I graduated from high school early, too.”
He raises his eyebrows, impressed. “So we have somethin’ in common.” He doesn’t ask for the details and I decide they’re on a need-to-know basis. I left high school to preserve my sanity. Although I was in the right crowd, a cheerleader, a good student, none of it mattered. Matt’s right. I have a knack for attracting people, especially guys. But once they realize it’s a trick they leave me behind, watching as they search for something real.
I don’t know how to make it real. I don’t know that trying so hard to create reality usually puts a lethal bullet through its head. Real is supposed to be easy; when it’s not, the question is why not how.
“You must be a genius to be in that program,” I say. “I’m not exactly Einstein.” It’s an apology for not being as smart as I want to be.
His eyes narrow, and he asks, “What was I drinkin’ tonight?”
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said. What was I drinkin’?”
“If you remember that, you’re smart enough for me,” he says, grinning like a kid. I suddenly think of the old Jeep I walked past on the way to the frat house. Its crude bumper sticker flashes through my mind. The only parking place I could find was three blocks away. I managed to maneuver my tiny Honda between a black Nova with flames painted on its hood and a Jeep with a bumper sticker that read, “Stay back! My daddy didn’t pull out on time either.” The Jeep’s lights were on and the top down. And although I decided the owner probably deserved a little divine retribution for being so crude, I couldn’t resist reaching in and flipping the switch.
I knew what it felt like to be stranded.
“You don’t happen to drive a bumper-stickered-up Jeep, do you?” I ask.
He shakes his head, puzzled. “Actually, I came with my friend, Pete. He left a while ago.”
The house is now quiet and still. The music died sometime between our first kiss and the realization that I’m not sure what real is.
“I guess I’ll have to take you home,” I say, excited but a little sad, worried that my past will be repeated.
As we walk down the shabby street to my car, I realize my departure feels much safer than my arrival. It’s an older section of town, a sore spot. Poor blacks and southern white trash line its streets. But I think it gives Shreveport depth and character. The people who live in the broken down homes have little means to hide behind, but they have each other. Upon my arrival, Grandmas, teenagers, and toddlers sat, ran, and stood on dead grass and porches whose peeling lead paint infects their unsuspecting minds. I wonder what infected mine.
The children made me sad.
For the most part, Shreveport gives the illusion of peace. There are truckloads of religious people and we certainly have enough room to seat them all. There’s a Protestant church on every corner, and a Catholic one here and there. On most afternoons, billowing white clouds hang in every direction. Like angels of mercy, they offer shade to those who long to recapture what is invariably stolen by our stifling climate.
The people who stared at me earlier are gone now. It’s no longer obvious that I don’t belong, that I should feel guilty for having more, or that I’m alone.
Matt’s presence in my car is so intense that I can’t speak. I roll down the window letting in the thick, southern air. Soaking in it together, I’m sure some part of him will mingle with my sin, and perhaps, baptize it away. I don’t consider that he could become part of it.
The drive is relatively quiet; he finally says, “Turn left at the next light.” The light is green and I drive through the intersection.
“Sorry,” I say with a weak laugh.
He smiles and runs his hand over my head until he touches the back of my neck. “You know, you’d make a perfect dumb blond if your hair wasn’t so dark.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
“It’s just that your eyes are so ... babyish.”
“You mean empty?”
“No,” he says. “And everybody loves babies, right?”
“I guess,” I say, but I’m not sure. I realized early that people want to believe the mind behind my eyes is equally naïve and empty. I hate it, but sometimes it works and I take advantage of it. The dumb act is part of my contrived charm. I turn the car around, but as we approach the intersection, I drive through it again. This time he stares at me as if finally questioning my intelligence. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know what my problem is.” I can’t concentrate. I turn the car around again, and for the third time, approach the intersection. The light is red.
“Now turn here,” he says, wide eyed, as if speaking to a two-year-old. I laugh, but keep my eyes on the road.
When we finally arrive at his apartment, I stare ahead, afraid to look at him. When I finally do, he takes my head in his hands and kisses me with open eyes. I’ve kissed a truckload of guys but their eyes have all been closed.
For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil.
Sneaking in late makes me feel bad but it’s worth it. Besides, my parents never wait up. They trust me, or perhaps they’re too busy with their own contorted lives to worry about their teenage daughter.
Somehow we all believe I’m an adult.
I scurry up the stairs to my bedroom but freeze as my hand comes down on the railing. A cockroach nearly two inches in length teeters on the round wood. I don’t move, afraid he’ll fly at me. I’m used to roaches. They live beneath our home, climbing through the walls and hanging out inside our dishwasher. As a Southern rule, we have our home sprayed on a monthly basis, but they can’t be extinguished, only contained. Yet out of sight seems enough and we relax, pretending they aren’t really there. We’re good at pretending.
In a swift, spontaneous motion my free hand smashes the roach. His guts ooze between my fingers, thick white juice, like semen. The tiny limbs squirm. I can’t run or cry out. My only option is to freeze. Disgusted. But finally there comes a quiet emptiness, and after several moments, I wipe my hand on my shorts, decide to pretend it never happened, and tiptoe up the stairs. As I reach for my bedroom door, I feel something on my neck. Another roach. “Peyton, it’s me,” my mother whispers as her arms enveloped me. Her coarse, dark hair brushes against my cheek. As a small child, I clung to her long, hard hair as if it were a rope holding me steady. I reached for it throughout my childhood as it shrank. Now the pointy ends sting my face.
“Are you okay?” she asks, hand on chest as if to slow her heart. “You scared me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be late but I met someone and we were …”
“I’m so thirsty,” she interrupts as if I hadn’t said a thing. “I was just goin’ to get some water. Come on down and we’ll sit a minute.”
I follow her through the kitchen and into the living room, thinking I’ll tell her about my night, assuming she’ll want to hear. We finally sink into our cozy sofa, sitting unnaturally close.
“I met this guy named Matt. He’s goin’ to medical school in the fall. It was weird; he knew thangs about me.”
She stares at me, but looks straight through. “Peyton, what do you think of panelin’?” I wonder if she has a hearing problem again but I know that’s not the issue.
I squint, looking around the dark room. “Depends on what you’re panelin’. I thought you liked this color,” I say, squelching my frustration.
“I do, but I’m thinkin’ of doin’ the downstairs hallway, and eventually the stairway and the hall upstairs. The whole kit-n-caboodle.” She flings her arms out like a backward hug that shoves me farther away.
I’m glad to hear that it isn’t the living room. My father painted our living room six times since we moved in, almost once a year. He never complained. Not about painting, hanging wallpaper, moving furniture, or about my mother’s obsession with Simon Taylor, the pastor who delivered her from mental illness when he gallantly exorcised her demons. This exorcism took place in 1974, a year after the release of The Exorcist. My father was expected to rejoice.
“Are you gonna make Dad put it up?” I ask.
“I know he can do it.”
“I guess it’ll look all right but it might make the house dreary,” I say, realizing it’s too late. It’s already dark and sad with the exception of my bedroom, which I struggle to fill with cheer.
“Peyton, what are you thinkin’ about?” She caresses my neck with her manicured fingers.
“I was just thinkin’ about how much I love my room. I wish Dad could trim that tree outside the window so I can see out again.” I enjoyed watching the pink Crepe Myrtle grow over the years but now it blocks my view. It surprises me that something so beautiful grew into an obstruction. I wonder how I can suddenly be so willing to chop down something I love due to a larger need to see the world beyond.
“But it’s gorgeous. You don’t need to see a thang behind that tree,” my mother says, making it a fact.
“I guess you’re right.” My eyes fall and I struggle to shift my attitude. “I wanna tell you about my night.” I know what’s coming by the look on her face.
“I’m so tired and it’s late,” she says. “Can you just tell me tomorrow?”
“But tomorrow’s Saturday and we can sleep late,” I whine, hoping to change her mind, not because we can sleep in, but simply because she loves me.
She reaches for the hand that killed the roach. Her narrow fingers feel warm and right holding it. Throughout my childhood, she warned me about sin, preached of avoiding injustice, and instructed me to turn the other cheek; however, as I was thrown into the real world everything changed. She evaporated along with her unrealistic advice. I look at her, holding my hand, and all that I’d once seen in her is gone, partly because it no longer makes sense and partly because I’m angry about it. “Okay, tell me all about him but don’t take too long. I’m pooped,” she finally says, grabbing her head as if in pain. She does this so often that it lost meaning years ago. “What’s his name? Did you say he was gonna start school soon?”
I tell what happened but the words seem shallow, not at all how I want them to sound and nowhere near a reflection of what I feel.
She suddenly says, “You know, that’s really how it was with Simon.” I freeze, face blank. “He would never admit it, of course.” Her voice trails off but just when I’m sure she’s going to stop, it rises again. “The first day I went to see him, he just stared at me. He practically begged me to come back for more counselin’. He thought we should pray together. Little did I know! But he knew. He knew exactly what I needed. When I left that day he stood so close to me. You know … awkward close. He put his hands on my shoulders.” She squirms as if chilled. “He squeezed ‘em and said he’d be there for me. It was embarrassin’ because I was literally shakin’. I’ll never forget
the look in his eyes. Nobody ever, ever looked at me like that.”
As the fairytale pours from her mouth, it ties knots around me. I’ve heard it a thousand times. “It’s not the same,” I say. “This is different.”
She pats my leg. “I know you don’t like to talk about all that, but you could really learn a lot from my experience.”
I feel sick. “You’re right. I don’t care about that experience.” Neither of us moves, glued together by an unbreakable bond. One she created and one I don’t recognize as unhealthy.
“Then you cain’t expect me to care about yours. It’s the same thang I’ve been tellin’ you for years,” she says, her eyes full of concern that looks real. “How do you think any boy is really gonna care when you continue to be so self centered?”
Watch for more of BOUNDARIES next week.
BOUNDARIES is a work of fiction written by Penelope Przekop. It is the first novel Penelope wrote and is based on a true story. Since writing BOUNDARIES, she has completed two novels. Her novel, ABERRATIONS, was published by Greenleaf Book Group in 2008. Her novel, CENTERPIECES, is currently being considered by several publishing houses. She is currently working on her fourth novel, DUST.