1. Steve’s mother was a killer redhead. She had tresses so long and red I was sure she was Juice Newton. She was tall and lean in denim, with a slow and rusty voice. I wanted her armour armload of bangles.
2. They didn’t live far from our house, so I sometimes rode my bike over, with the pretense of doing homework. Janine was in the same math class and sometimes we even opened our textbooks. Mostly, I just wanted to moon over her older brother. Wished I could touch his curls. I loved watching Alice pick up the golden decanter when night started to fall over the scraggly pear trees just outside the window. I loved the smell of the gin and the cigarette haze.
3. She would drink and listen to Waylon Jennings records. Someone called us outlaws in some old magazine…It felt like a refuge from how my own mother was yelling all the time, belittling and blaming my patient, quiet father for everything, taunting him with her affairs. Someone else’s garbage always seems more romantic when you are only eleven.
4. One afternoon, I saw a man’s work boots outside of her door. Asked Janine if they belonged to her father. “I wouldn’t know,” she said, chewing on the end of her pen. “I’ve never met him.”
5. I was too young to ride on the back of Steve’s dirt-bike, but I went anyways. I felt my pulse quicken at the noisy rev of motor and the lightning jolt between his Iron Maiden T-shirt and my small hands. Thought about Alice’s blood in his veins, and it made me dizzy.
6. In the shed, that shallow barn now fallen to small finches and blackberry vines, Steve finally kissed me.
7. It was a brotherly brush of his new stubble against my cheek. It sent me flying. His lips barely touched me, a mile from my mouth. No matter. I carried that moment like a trophy for years to come.
8. That sprawl of freckles under his eyes.
9. There was no follow up kiss. No real kiss. Not for my lack of trying. Steve said he liked me, but I was too young. Then one day, he was taken off to juvenile detention. Alice didn’t seem perturbed or surprised. She just laughed in that throaty noise of hers, handed me her overflowing ashtray. Be a doll, she said, wiggling her pointy nails at the trashcan.
10. Janine cried, said there were B&E charges and a stolen car. Said now there was no one to make dinner, and she would have to learn to make sandwiches and use the oven.
11. For a year or so, I sent letters to Steve. He wrote out his affection for me and the mundane events of his days in stubby pencil scrawl. I would stand at the end of the gravel lane, camped out in the milkweed ditch, waiting for them.
12. When my breasts rose up overnight, I wept for want of showing them off to him. Imagined pressing them into his back on that bike, my hand finding the damp space between my thighs while I dreamed of it.
13. I didn’t see Steve again until I was seventeen. We had lost touch but after some old country records dusted off my memories, I tried to find him. By then, he was in the real prison. I was old enough, my folks decided, to visit him. I signed in on the list, sat in the strange glaring lights of the institution with the other jail groupies, until they called my name and led me through a maze of locked doors and metal turnstiles. The whole time, my father waited prayerfully in the parking lot for me to find my way back to him.
14. I went faithfully to see Steve, counting the days each week, counting the hours. I began to live for those thirty-minute sessions, separated by plexiglass. I wasn’t fazed when I found out Steve was serving time for stabbing a guy with an ice pick. I was safer with the outlaws than I was around my mother. Their kind of cruelty was visceral and predictable. They might even defend you. You knew where you stood.
15. One day, just like that, Steve told me he would stop writing and no longer accept my visitation requests. I died inside. When I asked if it was someone else, he shook his head. Told me he lived for my letters, kept my smile beside him when he slept. I was a beautiful young woman, he said, and it was wrong for me to waste my life waiting for him. He knew that it would hurt me, but also knew that one day I’d look back and see that he was right.
16. Years later, when I asked my father why he’d taken me there, he said he knew I would have gone anyways, without him. Daddy was at soul a preacher man, but he’d always told me there was more decency among cons than church men. He wasn’t surprised that Steve decided not to drag me under, the way he hadn’t taken advantage of me when I was just a kid, when he had the chance. The way he looked after his little sister.
17. I might still have them, somewhere, his letters.