“blacklight” (a chapter from my feminist memoir/novel “whitegirrrl”) short fiction

Mona leads you down into her big sister’s basement hideaway.  Actually it is the garage, and she’s 18, and the walls are painted black.  She has blacklight posters and a lava lamp and pillows all over the floor.

This is where you escape your mothers upstairs — three girls sitting around listening to music.  They are older than you and your mothers work in fashion together.  Upstairs they are having cocktails.

All the kids have blacklight posters in the early 70’s.  Most of them have secret rooms too, and you have been in them many times.

“You could like, be in my band,” Alfonso says.

“Your hair is just like Janis.”

“I don’t sing,” you say, backing away shyly.

You listen to Janis all the time or Jimi in those days.  Your first records were ordered from the ad on the back of the magazine that slipped from the newspaper.  Thirteen albums for one cent.  It’s 1970.

“Have some,” Mona’s sister says, passing it to you.  The room is sweet and smoky with incense.  You’ve learned about this from the people on the Drive.  The kids, anyway.  The kids that you know, know everything.

You want to be cool, and you want to be able to sit on the lower field with the rebels at school but something about you is too grown up to try all the things they have.  You aren’t going to.

You have to learn the art of self-preservation.

You take one tiny puff.  It makes you laugh, like laughing gas.  It makes the room go in and out, or time go in and out, and you don’t like the feeling of loss of too much grounded reality.  Besides, your mother is upstairs and you are worried about how much she is going to drink and whether your little brother is okay, and what is going to be for dinner in the big white house on the hill that overlooks the city.

Summertime, the summer before 8th grade.

You are wearing one of your own creations — a dress designed from an Indian bedspread.  It is backless and has a leather thong that ties around your neck.

Everyone wears sandals.  Leather sandals or waterbuffalo sandals.  Everyone is flashing peace signs.

Mona’s sister turns on the strobe light and the walls begin to flicker and come alive with suns and moons and stars as you listen to the music.

Your best friend teaches you how to smoke a cigarette down on the pier, so you can look cool for the older kids you hang around.

You will use this as a foil, because, it is a way to say “no thanks” to the rest of the things they are passing around.

Nobody escapes the 70’s without scars.

Rudy dies of a heroin overdose.  He’s 13 like you.  And Davey manages to erase the contents of the order of his mind with one swift bad trip.  He never comes back to school.  His father is a music teacher at the university.  You see him wandering the streets mumbling to himself later.  He played the guitar like Django, once, but now that’s gone.  All gone.

There are shoals you will have to learn to navigate by yourself.  What you will or will not do at the parties, and in the rooms full of blacklight where people dance to the strobes.

At the Christmas parties the daddies drink in their music rooms listening to Benny Goodman, while the women congregate in other rooms, all fashionable in furs.

Evan takes you by the hand to lead you up to the rooms over the garage he shares with his brother.  It’s just like at Mona’s.

“Don’t go in there, ” he says.  “Don’t go in his room.”

What he doesn’t want you to see is the secret he and his brother are keeping from their parents.

The parents downstairs at the parties full of cocktails and chatter and no one sees what the children are up to.

It’s all just pop art flowers, big daisies people stick everywhere, and blacklight, and sound.

“Do you want some of these?” he asks.

“No,” you say, making a quick decision.

You can tell that he likes you because of the way he acts.  Protective, even though he has tried to kiss you once this year.  Thirteen.

You are all so little but you feel so big.  So grown up.

It will not matter how rich people are or how poor people are.  The things they are doing to themselves in the 70’s will be the great equalizer.

Evan’s brother will go to a series of sanitariums in those years.  His parents can afford it.

Others will just end on the street, curled up in doorways.  Like Davey.

You pick up a pen and start writing.  It’s the only thing that will end up sustaining you.  Or you draw.  Dozens of psychedelic pop art flowers all over your denim binder.

At school you escape in a class called “Individualised Reading.”

All the kids are left alone to choose books.  You all lounge around on couches and slip between the pages into other, older worlds.  The room is filled with hanging houseplants grown by the Botany department.  The Creeping Charlie is four feet long, and so is the String of Pearls.

The boys all grow their hair long.  As long as they can.

Your art teachers bring out the best in you.  Kasia with her fashion design.  Janice with her crafts.  Tony with his printmaking.

These will be the things that sustain you through the awkward years.

And the fact that you take modern dance or languages or creative writing.

Your mother is too busy to notice that you never manage to go to Science.

You couldn’t dissect that frog.  So, you never went back.

You ride your white Peugeot with ten speeds like a racer.  You stuff your ecology backpack full of books.

There are poems you will fall into, alone in your room at night.

The voices of other writers will carry you — lying awake listening to the voices of the adults downstairs.  Or their jazz.  And, your little brother is rolled up in his sleeping bag, just outside your door…

* * *

“blacklight” — copyright 2009 by Valentine Bonnaire — all rights reserved.

*author’s note on soundtracks for this era:

I think shows like “Laugh In” were on in this era and the Smother’s Brothers.  I remember watching those with my mom.  One of the reasons I am using the refs is to try and get the look and feel of all that swirly psychedelic time — but, we were just little kids?  We listened to this, but Janis, Jimi, and Jim Morrison were maybe 15 years older than us?  It’s interesting to think back to the cultural surround of thse times, musically.

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