I discovered the babysitter looking through a taboo photo collection with my five-year-old daughter as I stepped through my front door. My quickening heart beat faster and faster and, fearing it could explode out of my chest, I focused my sights on control. Gliding into the living room, I channeled my perfect Stepford-wife-voice, and asked, hey, how was your night? Trying hard to appear unfazed, I scooped up the offending photo album, not waiting for an answer, as I scurried into the kitchen to calm my nerves. I perched on a stool at the kitchen bar counter, stooped over with my head in hands, thinking out loud, Fuck... Now what?
As the saying goes, one cannot unsee what they’ve seen. I acknowledged that while feeling like someone in the witness protection program whose cover was now blown. Dozens of provocative pictures with other punks and skinheads. Yeah, me and my husband were hardcore punks back then in Philadelphia. Yup. Glossy black, white and color photographs featuring leather, studs, chains, spiked dyed hair in all our intimidating glory.
I feel lightheaded and drift into a Walter-Mitty escape, a daydream technique named after the main character in a book I read as a teenager. Although, unlike the book, I zone out into my real-life experiences.
My eyelids grow heavy as the kitchen counter stool disappears under me. I’m weightless. Cool breezes of island air sweep over me, moistening my skin with a salty sting as the Vespa scooter buzzes beneath me. As I hold on for dear life, twisting and turning through the narrow streets, sweet wafts of frangipani à la gasoline make me dizzy. The engine revs. I fly around a curve, speeding faster and faster, screeching to a stop at the top of a hill. As I look across the landscape, I take in a deep breath. There is a kind of holiness in this place. The dotted, white rooftops remind me of snow back home. I shiver in the tropical sun, turn around and coast back down the hill, slower now, taking in the idyllic view of the cyan-blue ocean caressing the pink sandy beach.
It worked. I’m back, sharp and alert.
Okay, have at it, I lecture myself. First, next time no sitter... Gigi doesn’t need one. She’s always babysitting the babysitter, as far as I can tell. A five-year-old. Why not? Oh right, ramifications. Shit. This sitter is fourteen years old... and isn’t fourteen the new thirty... or is it the opposite? Damn. And what of Gigi’s feelings? This could ignite small-minded gossip, which may prove harmful in this small town, with those that are unseasoned lacking a broader palate per se. Shit... Never mind the polite food analogy, this place is chock-full of Stepford-wife-soccer-mom types. And let’s not let the dads off the hook.
Reality beckoned as I glanced at the kitchen wall clock. It’s only a mere five minutes since entering the house. We’re good. I walk back into the living room. The girls are forebodingly sullen. Again, my superficial Stepford-wife-voice emerges. Gigi, let’s go drive Lindsey home, shall we? Jump into the Volvo girls and we’ll make the easy jaunt to drop off! The three of us dash toward the garage and embark.
Upon arrival, and before the words thank-you-so-much-Lindsey departed my lips, she’d exited the vehicle, making a beeline to her front gate, never turning back to even wave goodbye. I announce Lindsey’s first-place finish as she disappears through her door, looking like she’d escaped from captivity. Pretend that never happened, I utter under my breath. Frustrated, I declare, shit, that was telling, let’s cross Lindsey off the babysitter list! As I put the car in reverse, I glance in the rearview mirror. Gigi is sound asleep. Her tiny wispy breaths from her snoring grow louder, soothing my lessening anxiety as I drive along the rural road toward home. I knew in my mind the word would get out. I gave it a week.
Affirmation in ten days, I was only off by three. Marc, a professor on sabbatical I met only a few weeks earlier, revealed the nasty news. You guys have made the hit list! He reiterated the details... heard it at a dinner party... blah, blah, blah... super-eccentric-wild-punk-parties-all-kinds-of-crazy-artist-Irish-brain-surgeon-husband, blah, blah, blah. Marc laughed. They only got two things wrong. Your husband is from Australia, right?... and isn’t he an anesthesiologist? Yes, I giggled. Marc now crying. In between snorts, these people stepped right out of one of the Stepford Wives movies. The only problem is that I can’t decide if it’s the 1975 film or the newer one in 2004. As the words left his mouth, I became hysterical, telling him I wondered the same thing. We both laugh louder. I relayed the babysitter incident to him. We agreed it 100% was the reason.
A month later, the word had spread further. Gigi came home from school excited about inviting one of her classmates named Megan to our house. After expressing much enthusiasm, Gigi said there was only one problem: Megan may not come. Why is that, Gigi? And she countered. Megan says her parents think she’ll be afraid of the animal skulls and mannequins in our house, and she’s not allowed. Concerned, I asked if that bothered her. She blurted out, nope... I love the mannequins and animal skulls and if she acts like a baby, she will cry. That would not be fun.
Gigi twirled cheerfully, singing, risky... internal... to the words of the tune “Disco Inferno” that was playing on the radio. She twirled again. It was the lift I needed. I followed suit, dancing and spinning around the room.
My husband said life will go on, and... who bloody cares about gossip? He was right. Happy and content, we all relished living away from the fray, where gossip would never find us. Our family grew closer and larger with a bundle-of-boy, as I liked to call him, added to the mix. In the nearby city, Gigi and her brother attended a private school full of misfits. We all fit in perfectly. The bonus is I don’t remember meeting any Stepford wives there.
Secluded in our old farmhouse of creaky floors and drafty windows, surrounded by tall trees and pristine lake water, our reclusive blissful lifestyle worked best for all of us. We needed no outside intervention. We welcomed the deer each morning just as the glow of the sunrise swept across our lawn. As the sun shined low enough to highlight the glistening blades of wet grass in the spring and summer months, the flickering ripples of lake waters were a gift to behold. On a winter day, the sun will pierce through the thick cloud cover of grey and cast long foreboding shadows across the frozen tenuous lake in our backyard. The deer are smart and stay clear of the lake ice. They frolic playfully in springtime, announcing warmer weather has arrived. They’ll show off their new little ones while always concerned for their safety, even under the bright cloudless sky. The deer know all about the danger that lives beyond the safe perimeter of our woods and water, where the road of doom begins. It’s the same for all of us.
The babysitter incident was five years behind us when Gigi made another punk-world discovery. She found my stud-adorned leather jacket in an upstairs wardrobe. She held it up, crooning. Whose is this? Whoa, this is soooo... cool! Is this your punk jacket?? I addressed my ten-year-old going on twenty-year-old daughter while holding the jacket up as if it was a rare scientific lab specimen in a state fair display. I spoke in a sing-song announcer’s voice. It’s mine... ahhh yes... This jacket has extraordinary powers. It has witnessed many exciting events! It was there when I met many of the bands I listen to today. Gigi nodded. Oh, yeah!... Loud ones in your studio! I continued. Yes, yes, dozens and dozens of bands from the U.S., England and Scotland too.
I smoothed my hand over the broad skin of the leather’s wrinkled lines and folds, pointing out that each one held a secret, coaxing Gigi to feel the smooth leather. She patted her palms across the supple leather. I tapped the embellished shoulder lapels with the dozen or more chrome studs and metal spikes. Gigi began counting each stud and spike out loud. One, two, three, wait. She grasped one spike and spoke in a fruity, upbeat tone. Ohhh, it sparkles, but why are these spikes here? They are sharp. I touched the tip of one spike and explained. I placed these spikes here so no one would touch me. Gigi was confused, raising her shoulders. I told her it was because I didn’t want anyone getting too close for safety reasons.
Gigi looked pleased. Oh wow! I will put on this coat if someone gets too close to me when I don’t want them near me. After she said that, I officially dubbed it a magical jacket in a ceremonial announcement, asking Gigi to keep a promise. If she ever required it, she’d let me know first. Gigi agreed and skipped around me in circles, repeating her favorite poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” by Lewis Carrol. At first, it puzzled me when I learned she chose this poem to share with her class at school the following week. When I thought about it further, I knew it made perfect sense. Gigi has a gift for cynicism and a keen, sophisticated sense of humor. I felt reassured contemplating her bright, secure future. She will never be a fish out of water. Nope. She knows how to swim. Even upstream.
I heard Gigi recite the poem many times. It echoed in my head as she practiced reciting it again. The rhythmic rhyming prompted another Walter-Mitty escape. I stared off until my eyes became blurry.
Loud ocean waves crashing against the shore. Back and forth in a therapeutic rush. Sea air fills my lungs, and the sky is overcast, thick with fog. I pick up the half shell and examine it. Try it, you’ll like it, he says. I grimace, unsure of myself. Cold, slimy and rubbery, the oyster feels strange in my mouth. I chew it, then swallow. I ate the ocean! Salty, brined deliciousness.
Gigi’s voice redirects my attention just as she finishes reciting the poem.
o Oysters, said the Carpenter,
You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?
But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten everyone.
I’m impressed she memorized the entire poem word for word and shout, Bravo!... clapping my hands. Gigi rushes over, hugging me in her very grandest way, wrapping her arms around me and squeezing me tight. Then in her direct, bossy, but loving way, Gigi said, That’s that! I think we need a cup of tea.
I dreamily contemplated her directive. Hmmm... we need a cup of tea, both a proclamation and a therapeutic. A cup of tea provides a needed reprieve and a ceremonial healing. How apropos. It has come to my aid countless times. I prepared an entire pot of tea for our tea-party celebration. We cradled the warm, tea-filled cups in our hands. As I sipped the soothing golden liquid, I made a toast. Cheers to the oysters! Gigi giggled and chimed in. Cheers to the walrus, and the carpenter too! I ended with a final proclamation. Cheers to a lockbox for old photo albums! I laughed wildly and Gigi cheerfully laughed along.
My husband’s positive prediction of life carrying on continued to hum along like a spell cast upon us. Nature’s circadian rhythm guided our journey as we climbed and tumbled together. Seemingly impermeable, our world at the top of the lake, stitched together by the changing seasons, slipped past us. Nightly skies of blue-black velvet with the twinkling milky way hovered overhead. Snow mounds blanketing everything around us in white transformed our technicolor autumn into the long color-blind wintertime of anticipation. The brave violet crocuses pushed forth through the frozen earth, announcing spring’s entrance and rains soon to be upon us. Summer woods burst in greens of every shade, gardens overflowed, bloom by bloom, revitalizing us as newly born. On sunny days filled with bird songs, honeybees and butterflies, we splashed in the warm healing waters of the fresh lake. The dark woods lit up as fireflies sparked and flashed, signally the end of summer as autumn appeared all over again, a metamorphosis from green to red and gold. The pages of our history turned one over the other, a history book written with each new day. Layer upon layer. Year after year...
I look out of my bedroom window and spot a fawn leaping with its mother in the new green grass. I make a wish for their safe return to the wild lands across the road from whence they came. The fawn signifies that spring has officially arrived, and I laugh as I begin my ritual of spring cleaning. While organizing a closet, I come across the punk leather jacket. I can’t believe it was twenty years before that Gigi found and brought it to my attention. Wow, twenty years! I’m not surprised she never asked to wear it. Gigi found her own way, and like her father, is a doctor. And no, not a brain surgeon.
I carefully place the storage bag containing the jacket on the bed. As I unzip the bag, I sense an overwhelming mystique radiating from the jacket hidden away these many years while recalling the first time I saw it hanging in a thrift store window in Philadelphia. I was twenty years old, fresh out of art school, and ready for anything. I remember the first time I put the jacket on. It made me feel safe, cool, boss, as if it had a magical force field surrounding it that added an assurance to my persona. This treasure from my surreptitious history decades ago in the underground punk world is my last tangible souvenir of that inimitable lifestyle. I remove the jacket from its sarcophagus. Stiff with age yet sturdy in my hands, I embrace the worn leather close as if hugging an old friend.
As I look around my bedroom, the light filtering in from the sunny day outside makes me feel sleepy, and I sit down, placing the jacket on my lap. I close my eyes, facing the sun so it shines on my face, and sink down into the soft cushion of the chair, thinking back.
The powerful smell of cigarette smoke, sweat, beer, and body odor fill the room. Todd, the bouncer, pushes me through the frenzied crowd, leading me to the front row below the stage. No one fucks with Todd. He’s 6 foot 6 and all muscle. I look across hundreds of bodies crushed together in a massive gyrating mosh pit. I am energized! My favorite band, The Exploited, strut onto the stage above me. I’m only a foot away from Wattie Buchan’s face! His hot pink mohawk and red face make him look as if he’s on fire. He leans toward me looking straight in my eyes, screaming into the microphone, Punks-not-Dead!!!... My ears throb, ringing from the booming volume of the music; I’m pogoing to the beat of the drums, enveloped in fervor. Someone from behind picks me up and throws me into the crowd. I fall, get up, and slam my body hard against the guy next to me. My head is spinning, the music thunders.
I stand up, revitalized and wide awake. Ready to put the jacket, and this layer of my extraordinary life away, back in its hiding place, I stop. Instead, I put the jacket on, zip it up, placing my hands in the studded side pockets and stand in front of the full-length mirror, studying my reflection. The sun streaming in the window glistens off the spiked studs. I stand erect, with an air of defiance. Shit yeah, I look different now. Hmmm... that person looking back at me looks commanding and... in charge. Ferocious. Intense.
As I continue looking at myself, I feel a warmth over my entire body. My skin tingles, and I am mesmerized, spellbound, yet in the moment. Empowered, I bellow a primal howl as the glow of the burnt orange sky blazing in from the window veils me in light. I conclude decisively. She is indeed a punk. A punk like me.