Issue Thirty-Two - Summer 2018

College Education or Desert Walkabout in Indian Madras

By Cynthia Stock

The night I escaped the sinewy charms of Don Baker, I ran down the rocky dirt road from the drive-in, dodged behind garbage cans, and sidled into the recessed doorways of a strip mall to avoid being seen when Don drove by in his VW van. I walked home from that very scary date and swore to myself “Never again.”

A sophomore at Arizona State University, I thought I knew everything about college, men, and, oh yes, life.

Then I decided to protest the Viet Nam War and met Mitch Zimmerman at a sit-in outside the red brick Old Student Union. Frizzy non-descript hair mobbed his head. Pale cheeks attested to his avoidance of the Arizona sun. A day’s growth of beard hid an anemic pallor. An abundant mustache wormed across his upper lip.

Mitch, a street tough version of the Jewish boys from my predominantly Jewish high school, resembled Allan Rosenthal, the class president, who wore classic khaki slacks, sweater vests, and rolled up the sleeves of shirts with button-down collars. Allan kept his hair short to keep the curls at bay and walked like a duck, with his feet pointed outward. He cursed being Jewish as much as I cursed being blonde and flat chested.

Mitch also inspired images of Judah Cohen, who crossed the lines of the school’s rigid social strata and invited me, the “shiksa,” to his Bar Mitzvah. Judah gallantly escorted me to the dance floor for the one slow dance Judah’s parents allowed the band at the ritzy St. Louis hotel to play. In gratitude for the invitation, I ignored the spittle ejected from teeth armored with braces when he asked me to dance. His soft belly overwhelmed his belt and pressed into mine, a comfortable barrier between two bodies changing with a speed unmatched by our adolescent brains. His blue eyes, the same color as mine, shone with adoration and assured me I belonged there with him.

In the soft light of sunset, shaking a “One. Two. Three. Four. We don’t want your fuckin’ war!” poster, Mitch looked wise. The epithet convinced me of his bravado. I smelled Mitch before I felt him press through the crowd and scoot next to me. The pocket liners of his grimy cut-offs hung below frazzled edges of denim. A sweat stained Led Zeppelin t-shirt didn’t quash my conviction that after the demonstration Mitch would return to wherever he lived, study, and ace any assignment or test he had pending.

For the demonstration, I wore the shortest dress I owned, hand-made, authentic tie-dye from West Africa, not the kind made with Rit Dye and rubber bands in the dorm wash machines. Golden yellow alternating with forest green formed concentric circles. A burst of color flowered in the center just over my navel. I sewed it on a hand-me-down Singer, a heavy-duty titan with all metal parts. Home between semesters, I couldn’t believe Mom helped hem a dress that barely covered my ass. One inch made the difference between ultra-short and over-exposed. Maybe mom vicariously enjoyed the burgeoning sexual freedom inspired by the war, the call for women’s rights, and music glorifying drugs, sex, and rock and roll. I never asked Mom about it, just accepted the bond born of such a simple task. Sitting cross-legged on the quad, I flashed fuchsia and lime flowered bikini underpants.

“Isn’t this great? My name is Mitch.” He grinned and elbowed me.

“I’m Cindi.” I offered my hand for him to shake. Instead Mitch took it, pulled me to him, and kissed my cheek. His lips grazed my skin, nothing more than a casual sampling of my body, but still, for some unexplainable reason, a violation.

Students drifted toward the angry blare of a voice issuing vitriol from a megaphone. Bodies heaved and shifted. Mitch lost his sign and toppled against me. His head slid down and brushed my breasts. With his head in my lap, he laughed and snaked his hand along my outer thigh. “Let’s get out of here. I hear they’re throwing chairs through the window of the bank on State Street.”

I picked up the protest sign, a souvenir of my first foray into rebellion against the establishment. I planned to tack it up on my dorm room wall among the bits and pieces of my changing world view. Posters, one the face of an austere, contemplative black man staring, no, glaring, at anyone who looked at him. Quote from radical militants. An American lawn flag half burned. Symbols of the person I was trying to become.

“Leave it. I can always make another.” Mitch snatched the sign and pitched it into a cluster of Prickly Pear cacti.

The dorm elevator sped to the seventh floor. Mitch and I faced the front of the elevator, neither touching or speaking. I thought of the crowd of students marching, protesting a war I hardly understood. A picture from the news scorched my dreams. A child running naked down the road so fast the tears ran back toward her ears, her mouth gaping in a silent scream. I heard the sound. Mournful. Frightful. Never ending. The image compelled me to stop dating a guy in R.O.T.C. who took me to a formal dance. When the cadets sang an original song about the virtues of napalm sticking to kids, I refused to dance with him. I never saw him again.

The elevator shuddered to a stop and opened. I led the way down the hall and knocked before unlocking the door to my room. I called my roommate’s name. “Gina?” Please be here. Then I remembered, I hadn’t made my bed. I could hear my mom nagging me.

Mitch followed me in and locked the door behind us. Without asking he began to examine every nook and cranny. He checked the titles of my text books and allowed a muffled laugh when he noticed the portable black and white television crowding the typewriter on the dual study desks. He scrutinized the poster on my side of the room. “Eldridge Cleaver? Never would have picked you as a fan. ‘The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.’” A smirk warped Mitch’s face. “Did he really say that?”

I wanted to tell him how Cleaver’s face exuded sexuality and power, how his eyes spoke to me when I judged or doubted, how they followed me in the room, how the words inspired me to choose affirmation versus denigration, not only for others, but for myself.

“Do you have anything to drink?” Mitch asked. He plunked his ass, housed in filthy cut-offs, on my bed where cosmic flowers bloomed across pink sheets. Dirt outlined his fingernails. Drops of dried paint speckled his hands and forearms.

I pulled out a chair. It wobbled when I stood on the seat. I grabbed the shelf divider to steady myself and fumbled around for the bottle of Wild Turkey Gina stashed behind some books. I deliberately delayed discovery. How did this tremendous day of political activism mutate into an afternoon of drinking?

Stepping down, I gathered toothpaste streaked glasses from the bathroom and poured a bit of the potent bourbon in each. I handed one glass to Mitch.

“Top it off a little, will you?”

God, Gina was going to kill me. “Sure.” I dribbled more golden-brown liquid into his glass and sat on one of the desk chairs. I sipped just enough to coat my lips. They burned, not unpleasantly, but I didn’t dare take a full swallow. Living at home, I never felt sheltered or over-protected. Away from the familiar, every situation infected me with uncertainty and self-doubt. I needed to stay in control.

“So. This is how it is.” Mitch’s gulped a shot and tried to hide a wince. “If you want to date me, you have to be on birth control. If not, well that’s it then.” He emptied his glass.

Mustering the greatest restraint, I denied my instincts. The expensive bourbon remained in its glass, but I imagined it dripping off Mitch’s face and telling him to go take a shower. How I wanted to throw a superhuman punch destined to connect with the smug seam of condescension that was Mitch’s mouth. This isn’t free love. That’s about choice. I’m not hearing choice here. I remembered my first boyfriend, how just being with him sparked the urgency of desire and sent my body into a state of heat and wet and breathlessness. Mitch’s words stopped me dead in my tracks. The unity and sexual tension forged by the thrill of making a statement. turned stone-cold. “Well okay.” That’s your line in the sand. I had time to draw mine.

“I’ll pick you up about 6 o’clock Friday. There’s a place called Pepino’s Patio out in the foothills. They make great enchiladas.” Mitch set his glass on my dresser. The sour smell of sweat flooded my face as he strutted by and left.

A dusting of pale brown left two rounded impressions on my sheets. I stripped the bed and hauled them down to the laundry room. I added water to the bottle of Wild Turkey and finished my drink, milky now from the toothpaste dissolving off the inside of the cup. I could always change my mind about Friday, but I didn’t have Mitch’s phone number. Letting him know would be the polite thing to do. My mom’s lessons in manners forever imprinted. I knew how to set the table for a formal dinner, that a lady never walked down the street smoking, and that a bra was a lady’s essential garment. What I didn’t know was how to say “No.”

I had backed out of dates at the last minute before because of old-fashioned lack of confidence complicated by free-floating anxiety, the source of which remained a mystery. Left alone, I filled empty time tormenting myself with the “What ifs?” I needed to grow up.

Three sleepless nights later, I waited for Mitch at the drive-way in front of the triad of dorms. Desert sand turned his sleek white Plymouth Fury a dull beige.

“How do you like Snowflake?” Mitch said. “That’s what I call her.” He surveyed the inside of the car as if it were a treasure. His smile wavered between pride and satisfaction.

I slid into the passenger seat. Oval push buttons replaced the standard on the column gear shift I drove. Warp speed, baby.

Mitch eyed my Indian madras maxi dress while navigating the traffic. “You look like you just got back from The Haight.”

The elastic beneath my breasts and scoop neck drew attention to my cursory valley of cleavage. I fingered the peace beads around my neck. The black and white beads contrasted with the brick red and gold of the dress. In the heat of the desert, my sweat liberated the faint smell of dye from the fabric.

“Is that a purse?”

I carried an old metal lunch box, decoupaged by Gina, with pictures from current events. A flower planted in the barrel of a rifle at Kent State. Richard Nixon captured in one frame speaking to the American people on television. Flowers. The chemical formula for Lithium. More flowers. Keys and some spare change clanked around in the bottom. I always carried a pen and small spiral notebook to chronicle great moments in the life of Cindi. “Yeah. My roommate made it.” And I’ll hit you with it if necessary. I chastised myself. Where did that come from? Where are your fucking manners now?

The jagged teeth of the mountainous horizon devoured the sun. Deep purple overwhelmed the pale blue of daylight. White pinpoints flickered and hinted at stars. The headlights provided the only scenery, a two-lane black asphalt road.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked Mitch. Through the rear window, a halo glowed where the Tempe should have been. Joe Cocker sang about a letter, and Ike and Tina wanted to take me higher. I’ve done it again. Backed into a corner without an escape route. When am I going to get it right?

“It’s not much further. We’re stopping at my ex-girlfriend’s place. I’ve go to pick up some things and I want you to meet her.”

Warning. Warning. Not part of the plan, Mitch. I wanted no part of a syrupy trip down memory lane or, even worse, to see the standard by which I would be measured. Just another acquisition to ultimately gather dust on the curio shelves of Mitch Zimmerman’s life. In the middle of nowhere, backed into a corner with no escape route, I felt a corrosive sorrow. I didn’t know for sure what I had lost. But, I saw a small and powerless me.

Mitch turned down a sandy road, I clutched the lunchbox against my ribs. The tires spun and jettisoned a rare pebble from the loose loam. Mitch down shifted. “There it is.”

A porchlight illuminated a lighter-than-pastel pink stucco house surrounded by scrub and saguaro. Ancient windows complete with hand cranks on single panes opened at thirty-degree angles. I recognized a table cloth from the campus junk store cut up and used for drapes. They fluttered and twisted in the breeze.

“Come on.” Mitch said.

Suddenly the lunch box felt clunky and childish. I left it on the floor of the car. Mitch held my hand. He walked right into the house without knocking. Maybe I was naïve and inexperienced, but I did recognize the smell of marijuana. Mitch was already in the open space of the kitchen, his forehead pressed against that of a waifish pale woman. Thick braids, coiled like cinnamon buns, sat behind each ear. A loose tunic of pale green gauze cascaded over an earth brown long skirt. They whispered. She turned her head once toward me. Mitch and the woman shared a joint. I didn’t hate Mitch or his girlfriend. I hated myself for being stupid, for feeling as out of place as my lunch box, for assuming people were who I wanted them to be. I felt the shame of being unable to trust my own judgement.

“Come here. Have a toke. Meet Sheri.”

I choked on Mitch’s enunciation. Not Sheri, but Sher-eeee. Would he deface the sound of my name the same way? Not Cindi, but Cindeeee. “Sure.” I’ve got to get out of here. I moved slowly across the room. My ambivalent arms dangled at my sides.
Sheri wrapped me in a full body embrace. “Mitch has told me all about you.”

What? What did Mitch tell her? He knows nothing about me.

Before Sheri released me, she shot-gunned a blast of smoke into my mouth. “Relax. You’re among friends.”

I coughed and sputtered. My throat burned down to my toes. Tears straggled down my cheeks. Either because of the pot or past experience, the urgency to escape intensified. “I’m so sorry. I think I’m gonna puke. I’ve got to get some air.” I excused myself and staggered out the front door. “I’ll just be a minute.” Sitar music drifted out the windows, too low and gentle to cover the sound of their laughter. It was high school all over again. Me, standing alone, not in sync with the culture around me.

I inched over to Mitch’s car. When I opened the passenger door, I knew the sound awakened every creature in the desert. I picked up the lunchbox. Gina warned me not to lose it. The porchlight reflected off a Sun Devil key ring still in the ignition. To buy some time, I took the key and dropped it in the sand once I’d walked far enough to see paved road. I had drawn my line.

A recent rainstorm sculpted a deep gully on the side of the road going toward Tempe. I debated which side I’d take to get home, but the depth of the gully and an abundance of scrub offered cover if I needed to hide. I didn’t know how long it would take Mitch to realize I’d left or to find his keys. I didn’t think about scorpions and the reptilian snakes inhabiting the countryside. From them I felt no threat.

Headlights glared from the first car I’d seen since I started walking. I jumped off the road and slid into the gully, crouching, waiting for the car to pass, judging distance by the fading sound of the engine. An owl screeched. Something skittered over my hand. I shook it like it had been scalded and sucked in a burst of cool desert air. The surrounding darkness harbored an ominous absence of odor. When I stood up the hem of my dress caught on something. I hadn’t noticed the giant saguaro standing sentinel behind me. It held me captive by its spiny armor. I tugged. The fabric ripped. I staggered forward, then righted myself. Stepping back on the road, I picked up my pace. I checked over my shoulder and celebrated the black tableau of the desert at night. Any headlights would be visible for miles. I sang a Joni Mitchell song. “Fear is like a wilderland Stepping stones or sinking sand.” My voice cracked on the high notes, but the lyrics soothed me and stoked my courage. I kept moving.

Another pair of demon eyes approached. The driver flashed his headlights twice. The car slowed. I positioned myself at the very edge of the road, ready to dive in the gully. The dome light of the car glowed. The electric window thrummed, an expensive car compared to the tomato red, stick-shift Falcon I’d inherited. I’d seen movies where hookers leaned into windows and made deals. I stayed a full lane away.

“Do you need a ride, young lady? What are you doing out here by yourself?”

I thought of my mom, who, in moments of extreme exasperation, addressed me as “young lady.”

A man rested his arm on the door, leaned toward the window, and smiled. Close-cropped, neatly coiffed, salt and pepper hair, contrasted with his tanned face. He wore a suit like one my dad wore when he wasn’t working in the operations plant of his chemical company. A perfect nose segued into an easy smile.

“You’re going the wrong way. I’m a student. I’m going back to Tempe.” I tried to sound matter-of-fact, like I was on some science project. “I’m okay. Really. The walk will do me good.” What a stupid thing to say. I shrugged. My lunchbox bumped my hip.

Are you sure? I’ve got a daughter your age. I wouldn’t….”

“It’s okay. I’m good. Thanks for the offer.”

“Okay then. Be careful.” The car sped away.

Before the taillights disappeared, I felt, rather than saw the car slow. The rush of air around it faded to a whisper. I heard the slide of tires executing a controlled U-turn. The car coasted up beside me and stopped. The passenger side window opened. So close, yet this time I didn’t notice the sound. I balanced on the soft shoulder of sand. The car door disengaged with a metallic bark. Slowly, smooth as a lazy yawn, the door opened.

“Get in. I’ll take you to the dorm.”

I banged Gina’s lunch box against my thigh in time with an inner mantra: Not again. Not again. My most precious possessions rattled in protest. The faded lights of the city seemed a universe away. Maybe I imagined a whiff of Dad’s Barbasol drifting from the car. I climbed into the front seat. Perched on the edge, I wrapped my hands around my lunch box and gripped it like an oversized baseball bat. My teeth chattered. Beneath the thin madras, my body shivered. “I live in Palo Verde East.” And I am going to get there.

Copyright 2018 Stock