The History of a Secret
There are many memories I have that, though I cherish them and love to recount them, I wouldn’t want to relive. Some thirteen or fourteen years earlier I stepped through that basement door and into a memory that falls into that category.
Paul and Erica used to visit their grandmother annually for a week or two during summer. My sister and I would spend time together with them, since there were no other children our age on the cul-de-sac where we grew up, and we enjoyed each other’s company, playing games, talking, and chasing each other around for hours. Mrs. Smith was always a sweet matronly figure who loved to have children around and doted on us regularly.
Back then Paul was short and round with dark wavy hair and always bore a distant and aloof expression on his face. I would tease him, pushing his buttons, getting him irritated, just to see if he might crack. I’d usually succeed, since he was a rather emotional and sensitive child.
One summer day, while swinging on Mrs. Smith’s porch swing, I teased Paul rather maliciously and he ran off crying. My sister, always the comforter, ran off to see if he was all right. The two ended up sitting on a bench in our backyard, and my sister talked to him quietly. While sitting there, Paul boldly leaned over to kiss my sister on the lips and she nervously acquiesced.
All the while, Erica and I peaked our heads over the fence and spied on this affair. We gasped and giggled. Then, we ran away hastily when we thought they might have caught us watching.
The next day was hot and sunny. Erica and I ran through the sprinklers to cool off. Our clothes were dripping as we went inside for a drink of water. Erica told me she had to change, but instead of going upstairs to her bedroom she went downstairs, into the basement.
I waited for a few minutes, until I heard her calling to me from the basement, shouting, “Donny, can you come down here?”
I approached the basement door and opened it, walking down the wooden stairs, which creaked and sighed with each step. The main room of the basement was cluttered with piles of old stuff.
A light was glowing from a side room off to the left. I turned the corner and there was Erica standing with her back to me wearing a long bathrobe, much too big for her. She turned around and gave me a sidelong smile. She then told me, “Donny, I want to see what you look like under your clothes.”
I didn’t move, unsure what to do. Erica had to urge me on, opening up the bathrobe to expose the shear gown she wore underneath and saying, “Come on. It’s only fair. Just pull down your pants and show me.”
Silently I unzipped my pants. I quickly pushed down my underwear, exposing myself, and then, with the same shyness, quickly pulled them back up. She gestured for me to turn around, and demanded, “Now show me your butt.” I obeyed, exposing my behind just as briefly.
As I zipped up my pants, she moved towards me and dropped the bathrobe to the floor. The shear nightgown she wore was also much too big for her, and beneath it I could vaguely see her body, which was pale and bony.
She then crawled on top of a table and stretched her body out, laying down on her back and closing her eyes. She moved her hand along her body and breathed, as if she was mimicking something she’d seen somewhere. I wasn’t quite sure what she was doing, and in retrospect, I don’t know if she knew what she was doing either.
I was confused, but tentatively tried to do what was expected of me. I reached out to touch her skin, which I briefly felt beneath the fabric, but she grabbed my hand and moved it away.
I leaned towards her face, to attempt a kiss, but at that moment, I heard a sound in the distance. Her grandmother had entered the house and was closing the front door and calling out for Erica. I heard her moving towards the basement door and start to open it. Without thinking, I abandoned Erica, walking quickly towards the stairs with my eyes lowered. I passed Mrs. Smith on the stairs and continued walking without looking up.
At the top of the stairs I heard Erica’s grandmother screaming at her, “What are you wearing?” but I didn’t wait to hear more. I ran as fast as I could back to my house without looking back.
That would turn out to be the last time Erica and I would speak, until the funeral. The next few days, Mrs. Smith took her two grandchildren elsewhere during the day, and then kept them inside during the night. Paul climbed out his window and managed to see my sister twice. He was in the dark about why his grandmother had become suddenly so protective, but assumed that his sister must have, as usual, done something inappropriate. My sister and Paul exchanged addresses so that they could write to each other.
The last I saw Erica was when she was bringing her luggage out of the house to the car. She packed lightly, carrying only two small bags. Her platinum hair streamed and the wind pressed her clothes against her body. I looked longingly down on her from my window and whispered repeatedly, “See me. Look up here and see me,” hoping she would turn her blue eyes in my direction, but she didn’t.
Paul and Erica’s summer visits with Mrs. Smith were suspended from then on. Paul and my sister continued, dutifully, to write to each other. They established a close friendship — writing quite intimate epistles, in which they poured out the details of their lives to each other with unabashed openness.
I, on the other hand, forgot about Paul and Erica, and mostly about the day’s basement embarrassment, until my reunion with Erica after the funeral brought it all back.
In retrospect, it seems now that the affairs between Erica and I immediately after the funeral, which I will now relate, were essentially an aftermath of that childhood experience, not in the sense that things inevitably flowed from it (I am not a fatalist), but rather that it was the principal catalyst behind that which followed.
After closing the door to the basement, Erica and I were plunged into darkness, and she hesitated a moment before she turned on the light.
“You remember this little room, don’t you?” she asked me, slowly walking down the stairs.
The room was even more dusty, unkempt and cluttered with junk than I remembered it — Mrs. Smith’s detritus had been mating and reproducing over the years behind her back.
“My mom and my uncles, you know, are going to have to go through all this junk and divvy it up between them. Or throw it all away, I guess. They’ll probably just throw it all away, considering the type of things old people tend to accrue over the years. See anything you want for yourself?” she asked with an amused grin on her face, picking up an old portable cassette player and then tossing it aside.
I followed her through the main room and to at side room. There were two chairs there and the same table I remember seeing last time I was in this space. She plopped down on one of the chairs and a cloud of dust rose into the air, which made Erica cough as she fanned the dust away with her hand.
“You and I now have a chance to be alone and talk in private,” she began, “How do things go, Donny?”
“It’s Donovan,” I corrected her.
“Well then, how has life been treating you, Donovan?”
“Good,” I said, “I’m engaged to my girlfriend of nearly five years, and I’m just about to begin a PhD in History at the University of Chicago, and am quite happy about that.” Erica nodded politely while I spoke.
“You know what, Donny?” she cut in suddenly, her polite smile starting to fade, “Sorry to interrupt your nice little monologue. But I was thinking back to the last time I saw you.” She stood up and passed a hand across the table, creating a line in the accumulated dust that lay atop it.
“My last memory of you is you leaving me behind, here,” she continued, “I still can’t believe it. The reason I brought you down here today is because I’ve been wanting to ask you ever since: ‘why?’ Why did you abandon me here? What type of man are you? What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking, I just reacted. And I wasn’t any type of man, I was a little boy,” I responded. I certainly wasn’t proud of what I’d done so long ago, and blushed with a little embarrassment when I thought about it.
“And besides would it have made it any better if I’d stayed? What could I have done? What could I have said?” I asked.
“You could have protected me from mean, mean Beatrice Smith, “ Erica said, a plea for pity in her voice, “You know what she did when she saw me? In a rage, she savagely tore off my clothes, and spanked me on my bare little bottom with all her strength.” Erica leaned over a little and lightly spanked her bottom for illustration, a tantalizing smile spread across her face, “You could’ve been there to watch.”
“I can’t imagine your grandmother would do that,” I said.
“She might have, though. Nothing could’ve stopped her, without you there,” Erica reprimanded, adding, “And I didn’t escape unpunished. You know that. Paul and I couldn’t see you and your sister anymore, and she took us to those dreadful museums, and to parks and to the zoo. I was bored to tears. And she did this because she wanted to protect us. She thought I needed protection from you. She probably thought your whole family was corrupt, and that both you and your sister were secretly planning to rape us in our sleep. She thought I was just some innocent victim of your childhood perversions.” Erica then confessed, “Admittedly, that’s exactly what I told her. I was always good and pure in her eyes, and I couldn’t let her think otherwise.”
Erica was close beside me now and stared up into my eyes while she spoke, “And you can’t imagine how being deprived of your influence changed me. Imagine if I’d been raised under the love of a good boy like you, maybe I would’ve become a good and pure young woman. Unfortunately, since you weren’t the boy who initiated me into womanhood, I had to find other less savory boys to do it, and I never turned out the sweet and tender girl like I should have become.”
“So, if you’d lost your virginity to me?” I asked, “You’d be pure and sweat.”
“Yes, but instead I lost it to a rough, bad boy, who threw me around and seized my virginity. It was quite wonderful, actually,” she said, “Such a pity you can never do it the first time again.”
Erica spoke seductively, gradually moving in closer towards me as she continued, “You weren’t even my first kiss. Though you should’ve been. I’ve been curious to know what it’d be like to kiss you. I’ve wondered how you’d kiss.”
Her lips were close but she stopped just centimeters away, waiting for me to broach that last gap. I hesitated.
“If you wait too long, you might lose the opportunity,” Erica said.
I then hastily leaned in for a kiss.
It had been many years since my lips had touched another woman’s lips besides Melinda. Before Melinda, the last woman I had kissed was Kim, my previous girlfriend, who I’d broken up with about five years ago. Five years ago Melinda’s kiss was something entirely undiscovered, something new to take me away from the lackluster tedium of Kim. And now, kissing Erica, I remembered that newness all over again, lips, that are shaped and move and kiss differently than what I’m used to, like being that little child touching something for the first time all over again.
Melinda’s kisses were quiet and slow, compliant and eager. Melinda always followed my lead and moved with me. But Erica opened her mouth wide and plunged her tongue into my mouth; she rocked her head forcefully; she grabbed my hair and pushed me into place. My heart palpitated with excitement, and I pulled away from her breathless.
Erica breathed heavily as she looked at me and smiled. She said: “You have lipstick on your lips. You best not let your loving family see that and get word back to your fiancé. It could eradicate your soon to be happy marriage.”
I shrugged my shoulders dismissively, and she asked, “Would you really want to throw away a lifetime of happiness, over some lipstick?”
“I’d throw it all away, for your kiss,” I cajoled, leaning toward her again.
She laughed loudly at this, and then pushed me away, saying, “Wipe your mouth off, you silly boy, and lets go back upstairs before we’re missed.”
I did as I was told, and followed her up the stairs.
At the top of the stairs, I grabbed her arm from behind, before she opened the door, saying, “Where are you staying tonight?”
“Here,” she said. “They have a couch just for me, in the living room, she nodded in its direction, “Do you want to sneak in and ravish me there, while everyone sleeps? Is that what you have in mind?”
“Can’t you sneak out?” I asked.
“I guess I could. It’s not as exciting, and a lot less risky,” she conceded, disappointed-sounding, “But you won’t get to have sex with me.”
“I can handle that. I already have a fiancé. But when do you want to meet?” I asked.
“You give in so easily,” she chastised, “You’re not going to fight for such a worthy gift?” She smiled coyly, pausing to see my reaction, then continued, “Eleven! The island! If you’re late, I leave you. And give your lips another wipe — there’s still a little red.”