We were in my brother-in-law's car. A big, German, expensive car which my grandmother would have called "fancy." My brother-in-law, Ike, was driving, his apricot toy poodle perched on his forearm, front paws on the open window. His favorite CD, The Best of Air Supply, was playing and Ike belted it out in his nasally, off-key New York accent, And I need you tonight, and I need you more than ever, and if you'll only hold me tight, we'll be holding on forever. . . . My husband David was in the backseat making multiple calls on his cell-phone. Our young daughter, Ella, was asleep in her car seat, head dropped forward like a drunk, a ratty barfed-on-then-washed stuffed dog still clutched in her hand. I was in the front seat, watching Ike sing-singing along with him-watching David make calls, watching Ella sleep and watching the seemingly undulating ocean of jewel-colored cars that surrounded us as far as I could see in the distance, front and back. We were stopped, completely halted, on a ninety-five degree day on the Long Island Expressway: The L.I.E., as I learned that day.
Every now and then Ike would turn down the music, mid-song, pick up his cell phone and make a call. He and David both speak loudly, so they were screaming, their voices filling the car and almost harmonizing, as they repeated the same phrase over and over, "We're sitting on the L.I.E."
"What's the L.I.E.?" I asked. I'm from a small town in Southern California that has one freeway: 101. You take it north or south and that is the end of your choices.
David and Ike yelled at me, "THE LONG ISLAND EXPRESSWAY!"
"Where the fuck do you think we are? " David was smiling, not mad, just astounded by my lack of knowledge concerning the roadways of the greater tri-state area.
Every now and then, when I'm in New York, or New Jersey, or even Baltimore, where I currently live, I look around at the trees, the cars, the people, and I think how odd it is to find myself here-this place where there's snow, and salted roads, and tolls, and expressways, and people with trucks that don't have surfboards in the back. Thunder still awes me-it never rained in California and we certainly never had thunderstorms. I am often stunned by the level of discomfort people tolerate on the East Coast: humidity, mosquitoes, potholes in the roads. I've traveled abroad hither and yon, I went to college in Northern California, then graduate school on the east coast, I lived in Canada for several years, yet I still, often, feel like some beached California girl who's suddenly been snapped to the wrong place. Like Darren in Bewitched, finding he's in a medieval village instead of Mr. Tate's office--the result of Endora's flaming temper or his wife sneezing the wrong way.
So I was feeling that Bewitched-snapped-to-the-wrong-place-sensation as we sat on the L.I.E. waiting, like everyone else, to get to the beach.
The air conditioning was off and the sunroof was open. Maggie, Ike's poodle, wore curled pink ribbons on her ears that sagged in the windless heat. I stood up on my seat and stuck my body out the sunroof-a sorority girl in a limousine, a teen on prom night. I scanned the L.I.E.--so many dark cars, not too many convertibles, lots of sedans. David and Ike both looked up at me, David still talking on the phone, Ike still singing: turn around bright eyes, turn around . . . .
I was wearing a tube top. Yes, a tube top. But not a Texas tube top-a structured one, with bones, seams-it was long, covered my belly. Ike's phone rang, he answered, "We're stuck on the L.I.E.!" I could hear them both, these New York boys on their New York phones talking to other New Yorkers on their New York phones, everyone in New York cars with Empire State plates, what seemed like most of the state's population parked on the L.I.E., headed to the beach with nary a surfboard in sight, the smell of Mr. Zoggs Sex Wax nowhere, the heat making visible waves off the backs of cars like floating oil, and I reached for the hem of my tube top and yanked it down. Down. Down to my waist where it sat like a corset below my bare breasts that seemed to look out at this strange roadscape with as much wonder as I.
David and Ike both hung up their phones, stared up at me and laughed. Deeply. Solidly. Hysterically. They grew up with an indoor pool where no one ever went naked swimming. They took family vacations on cruise ships, or resorts in the Caribbean where one never leaves the guarded, gated grounds. They had Bar Mitzvahs with professional photographers who made photo albums that had wooden covers with burned edges as if the album had been rescued from a schooner fire at sea. There was nothing in their history that included girls in tube tops who showed their breasts.
I stood there for three or four seconds at the most (one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four). Then I ducked down and pulled my top into its right place.
"Why did you do that?" David asked, they were both still laughing.
"I don't know," I said, and at the time, I didn't.
When I hear the R.E.M. song Nightswimming, I think of naked swimming. We did it all through high school at the beach in the dark, black waves suddenly covering us like wet capes; in the mountains in swimming holes and streams, standing on rocks slick as oil from the mossy fur that grew on them; in backyard pools while parents were out of town, or sleeping two floors above; and once in the pool of a retirement home in the middle of the day (they weren't using the pool, we reasoned, why shouldn't we), no one called the police or the supervisors-the only witnesses were a few old people who stood at their balconies and, if I remember correctly, smiled down on our tan, slick forms. We jumped fences at country clubs and swam naked laps at night, sat in the clubs' Jacuzzis naked and, once, talked to the police who never arrested us and only casually chatted as they watched us dress. Boys changed from their shorts into their wetsuits on the beach--completely naked for thirty seconds or so, my girlfriends and I watched until we knew their bodies so well that it didn't occur to us to watch.
In college, at Berkeley, there were three swimming pools. One indoors for athletics, water polo, laps. One originally funded by the Hearst family-outdoors with statues and marble works. And one up the hill by the stadium, in a place called Strawberry Fields, where many people, and especially the European students, sunbathed topless while smoking cigarettes casually snubbed in the grass before a leap off the diving board. There was a year when I didn't own a bathing suit and simply wore my black underpants as my roommates and I spent our afternoons doing homework at Strawberry Fields.
So nudity and toplessness, and beach-weather nudity especially, wasn't as jarring to my sensibility as it was to my husband and his brother. Or New York. Or the drivers on the L.I.E. (and I will write L.I.E. here many, many times, as each time I do it's like practicing a foreign word or phrase, my brain trying to get it just so in my vain attempt to pass myself off as in insider, someone who really knows.)
The traffic started moving, slowly. The cars began shifting, everyone trying to duck into the same empty space-it was as if a giant hand were playing that game where, with only one slot open, you slide the squares around to reveal a picture of a panda or a lion cub. We weren't going more than ten-miles per hour when a big red truck pulled up beside us. There were two white guys in the truck: chunky heads, necks that bulged out so wide they were in line with their ears, faces as pink and shiny as nacre.
David was back on the phone, giving the update to the family we were meeting at the beach. Ike was feeling rejuvenated by the little movement that was occurring, he turned up the CD and gleefully belted out Lost In Love . . . I'm lost in love and I don't know much, was thinking about, fell out of touch, but I'm BACK ON MY FEET . . .
Ike changed lanes and the truck followed, somehow keeping just beside us. Their windows were open, the driver had a sunburned arm dangling out as if it were broken. The passenger leaned forward and licked his lips; they both grinned. David yakked. Ike sang. We moved ever more slowly.
The passenger, still licking his lips, lifted his tee-shirt a bit, indicating what he'd like me to do. I turned my head and didn't look over, but I could feel them there-not laughing, not playing along, but pursuing me.
I turned back and the driver pumped his fist in the air while baring his teeth my way. It looked like he had a rolled-up sock under the skin of his upper arm. David yakked. Ike sang. I turned down the CD.
"Hey guys, I think these two boys are following us."
My bespectacled husband looked over. Ike shifted Maggie onto his lap, stroked her head and looked over. The red-faced boys gave Ike and David the chin-up, Hey-Dude nod.
Ike casually rolled up the windows, shut the sunroof, turned on the air conditioning.
"What can they do?" David asked. He's bigger than Ike, about six inches taller and brawnier.
"They can kill us!" Ike wailed. "They can kick our asses. They probably have guns!"
I slouched down in my seat and didn't look over. The cars were picking up speed, we were up to twenty-miles per hour and the truck was right there, dodging around slower cars, sticking to our side.
"Why did you do that?!" Ike snapped, and he swerved into the breakdown lane, put the perks of his expensive car to use, and successfully out-dodged them.
When the music was back on, David placed another call, Ella continued to sleep in her carseat, and I stared out from the chilled car and thought about California--a place where I'd probably never again live, but would carry inside me with a fierce sort of nationalism, a foolish pride that would, most likely, get me nowhere.
Causes Jessica Blau Supports
Baltimore School for the Arts, 826DC, CityLit Project.