Maybe it began in the cool, green darkness beneath my mother’s rhododendron. Somehow I must have sensed, even at eight years old, that what I was doing was wrong. Forbidden. Wayne took my hand and parted the leaves with his other, tugging me into the hidden space that proved just the right size to hold us. Our palms perspired against each other; his skin beat with his pulse in the humid Virginia air. He smelled of sweat, dirt, and a scent I would come to identify as boy.
“Do you want me to kiss you?” he whispered.
I nodded. Ready. Primed for this moment by fairy tales, Saturday morning cartoons, and the soap operas my mother watched every weekday between noon and two. Wayne pressed his damp, closed lips to my own. He held them there for a count of three, then pulled away.
“Do you want me to do it again?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. We kissed. And then we kissed some more. We had never heard of tongues, but we knew to close our eyes.
Some innate, maternal homing device brought my mother to the front door; her voice pierced the rhododendron as though it were made of nothing but roots and air. “Melanie, I think you and your friend might be more comfortable on the back porch. Come inside and do your kissing on the sofa.”
Decades later, my mother told this story with a laugh. “I thought that would shame you into behaving yourself,” she said. “But darned if you two didn’t come indoors and kiss some more.”
What my mother didn’t understand was that it was Wednesday. My appointment with romance. Wayne Mitchell was the most popular boy in our third-grade class. All the girls were crazy for him, in spite of his reputation as a bad boy. Or more likely, because of it. He gladly parceled out his Romeo-skills to a lucky group of five girls. Each of us had been given a day to be Wayne’s girlfriend. On Wednesdays Wayne would visit me, but he belonged to the others the rest of the school week. Did I feel slighted because I shared him with four other girls? I don’t recall feeling anything but thrilled. I was among the chosen. I did my own sort of math: one-fifth a boy was greater than no boy at all.
One autumn dusk, I walked him halfway home to the clapboard bungalow he lived in on the busy main road. We passed an old house with a deep yard, and near the back of the property was an apple tree, heavy with fruit.
“Let’s take some apples!” he said, one leg already over the chain link. He was halfway up the lawn before I followed him. I watched him shimmy up the bark, crawl along a limb to where apples hung—small, green, and not ready. He plucked some and tossed them down. Suddenly, a gunshot rang out over the branches.
A man’s voice split the air: “Get the hell away from my apples!” Wayne plummeted to the dirt, grabbed two of the apples at my feet, and took off running. I ran, too, and another shot cracked the sky.
We hopped the fence at the back of the property, and ran for blocks, stopping at last to collapse behind an old shed, panting. My heart beat between my ears. Wayne’s face was covered in dust, his eyes brighter than I had ever seen them.
“Here,” he said, grinning. He held out an apple and I took a small bite. I had no other choice. I was learning my place in the world. Or rather, I was learning that there were two worlds. The one I owned because I didn’t know yet that I couldn’t—and the world I would spend the rest of my life in.
That may have been when it started. But if I slip even farther back, into a world I remember only in fragments, it might have begun with the train that ran through my earliest days. With two boys who dared that train’s velocity and power.
The Washington & Old Dominion Railroad tracks crossed my street, just four houses away from our small Cape Cod. I learned to listen for that far-off whistle and to run down to the tracks to wave at the engineer. Sometimes men rode in the open cars who did not work for the railroad. We called them hoboes, and they, too, would wave at us. In my memory it is always summer; my feet are always bare.
On the opposite side of the tracks, there was another block lined only with rundown rental homes. Two boys lived on that block named Chuckie and Bennie. They were older than me, and seemed to belong to no one. They were not brothers—one blue-eyed and blonde, the other with hair as black as oil and a skin tone my mother would refer to as Italian—but they roamed together as a pack of two, and they ruled through intimidation.
One afternoon I sat alone in the groove formed by two limbs of a dogwood that overlooked the tracks. I was waiting for the train. I saw Chuckie and Bennie too late. Had there been time, I would have fled, because they frightened me. But I sensed that to leave at that moment would only attract their attention. They seemed intent upon a mission. They hovered near the crossing sign, making plans. I heard them say that when the train came through, they were going to run beside it, and leap into an open car.
That plan was not an impossible one. The vagrants that hitched rides in those cars were proof enough that the train’s speed was not supersonic. Nonetheless, to leap into a moving train was no idle endeavor. The risk of disaster was very real; as young as I was, even I sensed that, and I gripped the dogwood harder, afraid that I was about to witness a calamity that I would never be able to forget.
I heard the train whistle, and the boys tensed, positioning themselves for their moment of bravado. As the engine passed, I was engulfed in its smoke and heat. It wasn’t until I could see the caboose that Bennie and Chuckie launched their bodies toward the train. Incredibly, Chuckie pulled himself into an open car. Bennie caught hold of a handle on the train, hung on desperately, twisting wildly, and then slipped, fell hard, and rolled away. Both of us watched as Chuckie’s face looked back at us, growing smaller, disappearing into the distance.
Bennie got up, unsteady, bleeding from his shoulder, and scanned the world around him to see who might have witnessed his failure. At last he saw me. I shimmied out of my tree and began to run home. I made it as far as the stone wall when I felt Bennie’s heavy clutch on my arm. He hung on hard, whirled me around, and knocked me backward onto the sidewalk.
“Where are you going?” he asked, his angry face inches from my own.
“Home,” I said.
“Don’t tell anyone about the train.”
“Or I’ll beat you up.”
I reaffirmed my promise. “I won’t.”
What power I had to malign Bennie or to get him into trouble was infinitesimal, if it existed at all. But for some reason, the threat loomed large in his mind. For weeks, he and Chuckie would look for me, and if spotted, they would chase me, knock me down, and threaten me with violence.
I learned to be afraid. Or rather, I learned that the world outside my doors was both tantalizing and perilous—and that however much I might crave the former, I must be always braced for the latter. I looked for ways to go unnoticed at the same time that I longed to be seen.
There was something called luck. My fate, and the fates of those I knew, were balanced precariously on something as rickety as chance, and I discovered how quickly all of it could topple.
That same summer, bulldozers roared and honked across the landscape that was Vernon Street like a herd of invading yellow beasts. In the months before, family after family, children I had played with, were forced from their homes—either evicted or bought out—to make way for the planned construction of Interstate 66.
One day they were there, running with me across their lawns, playing kickball in the street, and the next their homes stood tenantless, eerie, windows boarded, weeds growing over the bricks, in some real-world version of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
My house was spared, two homes above the highway commission’s swath of acquisitions, but my friends were not so lucky. Suzanne and her family were gone, leaving behind their enormous lot and the tire swing that swung dangerously over the railroad tracks. The Webbs disappeared, too—my playmates, Simon and Allison, along with their mother who hated me, who had once whispered to their grandmother in her clipped British accent that I was “the sloppiest, most poorly-bred child” she had ever encountered. I had left crumbs all over her sofa. I had chipped one of her fancy teacups. Now only the house was left, swept clean of crumbs, divested of fine china—waiting to be crushed to rubble. And I—the urchin, the delinquent—remained, to take possession of the gifts their bad fortune had bequeathed to me.
For a brief time that I will always remember as golden, the houses were destroyed, but the foundations remained. Basements were left intact and sometimes crumbling staircases descended into those stone-strewn, deserted realms. A passageway into a woodshop revealed a still-working vise, abandoned hammers, and nails. A rusting saw that could still reflect the sun leaned against a pile of bricks. A laundry sink, a clothesline, and a filthy mop waited through brutal heat and summer storms for a woman who was never returning to them. Against all odds, I found also a toilet and a ruined mirror that caught inside of it my cracked and eager gaze. At the back of one lot stood a wall covered in red wallpaper with Chinese writing and the faces of women with foreign eyes.
I haunted these spaces as they haunted me. It was here that my friends and I would steal away, hiding from our parents the truth of these subterranean playgrounds. But as parents do, they learned everything, and phone calls of complaint were made about the menace posed by these ruins. The bulldozers returned to destroy what was left; the clutter was scooped and taken away in the beds of dump trucks. All that remained was a vast stillness and great mounds of red dirt and gray clay.
Or so we thought. Weeds grew fast over the land that survived—so tall that they keeled over in the wet heat and made a carpet of straw for us to walk on. As we re-explored the world that was left to us, we found that not everything had been stolen. In a shaded garden, we found a stone fishpond, thick with reeds, and in its depths, quick arrows of orange fins and tails darted back and forth through the vegetation. Alive—against all odds.
We found pink roses in bloom, their scent heavy and sweet. They threaded through a white trellis, forgotten at the bottom of a hill. We found a small pile of stones beyond the trellis, and inserted into the stones, a marker with carved letters: “Skippy. 1962.”
And everywhere there were trees. The bulldozers proved no match for them. They rose defiant over the relics and the wreckage, and their cool shadows made a world to play in that was seductive, private, and ours. My favorite tree—a willow—hung its green hair low into the dirt beside the railroad, and created for me a hideaway sequestered from everything but my own thoughts. Here I was the maker of rules. No boys followed me into this lair. Fear found no foothold below the willow.
Suzanne’s tire swing still dangled from the huge oak’s limb, and we took turns pushing one another as high as our arms allowed. The bravest of us—and I was then among the brave—climbed on top of the tire to pump it with our bodies to even greater heights. We swung out over the forsaken tracks, remembering the dangerous thrill of days gone by, when our widening arcs lifted us above a speeding, smoking engine, instead of silenced rails.
I lived parallel lives. There was a Melanie who roamed the neighborhood, ungoverned, and there was the Melanie who boarded a yellow school bus each weekday to live within the walls of Page Elementary School. They looked like the same girl, but a chasm widened between the Melanie who entered the outer-world and the Melanie who came home each afternoon.
As a young girl, my favorite bedtime story was not one in any book, but instead the ongoing tale my father wove each night for my sister Terri and me, about four children in battle with a witch. The witch would contrive horrifying ordeals to torment the children, and each time, the children would outwit her. Although my father gave them dull names—Jimmy, Billy, Sally, and Susie—there was nothing dull about this foursome. Each was quick-witted and courageous, and Sally and Susie no less so than the boys. Perhaps my father made a conscious effort to develop two bold heroines to entertain his two daughters, but as big a contributing factor was the way he allowed us to become a part of his creative process.
“Make Susie trick the witch, and then lock her up and throw away the key,” my sister would suggest.
“Let Sally sneak into the witch’s house and scare away the guards so the witch has to face Sally all alone,” I would add.
Dad would dutifully incorporate our ideas, and with each installment, Susie and Sally grew larger, more powerful in our eyes. They became far braver and more resourceful than Billy and Jimmy. They were everything Terri and I longed to be.
Meanwhile, in school, I was introduced to the Scholastics Book Club. I looked forward to combing through each new catalogue. Did I order wild and rollicking tales of heroines at war with villains who threatened all that was good and just in this world? No. Were such books available for ordering? I don’t recall.
What I did order—in great quantities—were books more than one teacher told me were not appropriate for my age—books by the well-known author, Beverly Cleary. At age eight, I ordered Jean and Johnny, Fifteen, and The Luckiest Girl—seduced by promo copy that promised both romance and validation that my feelings of unworthiness with boys were shared by others—that I was not alone. On Amazon, these books—still in print—are described with lines like these: “Fifteen-year-old Jean is astonished when a handsome Johnny whirls her ‘round the dance floor. She’s never given much thought to boys before; now Johnny is all that’s on her mind” or “The most popular boy in school has asked Jane out…Stan is tall and good-looking, friendly and hard-working—everything Jane ever dreamed of. But is she ready for this?”
At eight, my interaction with boys had been limited to kissing Wayne beneath the rhododendron, but I was not content to let it end there. I read those Cleary books with a voraciousness for romance that must have unsettled my parents. From these I went on to other authors writing much the same fare—Senior Year, Going Steady, Sorority Girl.
The candidates I found in my own world to fill the shoes of the Johnnys and the Stans were poor substitutes for the crewcut-sporting young men in letter sweaters who drove hotrods and hung out at the malt shop. But I learned to make do.
A boy named Greg moved in next door who was three years older than me. It is only now that I realize how strange it was that a sixth-grader sought the company of a third-grader. Each Friday night, I was invited in to sit with him and watch our favorite TV shows. His mother would serve us ginger ale in champagne glasses, topped with a cherry or garnished with lime.
Greg wore horn-rimmed glasses with thick lenses and played the piano. He complimented me with corny jokes: “You’re awful,” he’d say, followed by a dramatic pause. “Awful pretty.” One afternoon he could not come out to play because he had been sick. We scribbled notes to each other on a piece of paper passed back and forth through the mail slot in their door: Do you like me?/ Yes. Do you like me?/ Yes. /How much?
Greg was a good boy. Certainly my mother would have concurred. But the boys who held the greatest fascination for me were never the boys who would earn such a label.
No boy was more popular with the girls of my fifth-grade class than David Tyler. He lived with an alcoholic father and no mother. Whether she had abandoned him or died, I didn’t know, but I assumed they were very poor, for David wore the same pair of pants and shirt every single day. On bitterly cold mornings, he had no coat, and bore stoically the biting winds that assailed us at the bus stop, making no allowance for the weather, beyond shoving his hands into his pants pockets.
David was strikingly handsome and attracted attention from all of us. He was the leader of every game, the instigator of every act of bullying. He paid me special attention whenever the class played dodgeball. He hurled the ball with incredible fury at my cringing body, and the stinging whack of the ball against my skin seemed harsher, more forceful than the hits he scored against other children
He was mean to me. At best, he was apathetic. And yet, I adored him. I had a white diary with a small lock and key into which I poured out my longings that year. My entries were full of him, punctuated with hearts doodled across the pages, filled with the initials “M.M. and D.T.”
When the class held its Valentine’s Day party, I eagerly opened my cardboard mailbox, and in the midst of the many small cards, I saw an enormous envelope with my name on it. Across the back flap were flecks of glitter.
I was thrilled that someone thought I merited a special card. My heart beat fast, and I tore open the flap and pulled out a large valentine, on the front of which sat a queen in a red cloak and sparkling crown. I have forgotten whatever appeared on the front of the card—probably something corny, such as To a queen of a valentine—because what I read on the back forever supplanted any other message with its hand-lettered viciousness: To the ugliest girl in our class. That was it. Nothing more. It was signed, David Tyler.
My nose stung and my eyes filled with tears, which I blinked away in an effort to hide my shame. Was he watching me now—and laughing? Did others know what he had written? That valentine spoiled for me the happy afternoon—and I suppose, in some way, it spoiled for me a great deal more. My self-confidence, which had never been high, took a dive so deep that it would be years before I found a way to resurrect it.
I learned that year who the beautiful and the worthy girls were. And I learned that I was not one of them.
There was an oak tree in one of the vacant lots that invited courage. Its lowest branch was in reach of my arms, and I found that I could hang from it, swing my legs up, and hoist myself into the tree. From there, climbing was almost effortless. The branches were posted as predictably as ladder rungs.
One windy dusk, alone and restless, I began to climb into the leaves I saw far above me. Never before had I climbed so high. I kept my gaze tilted upward, and soon found myself far above the ground. My perch bobbled beneath my feet. At last, I let my eyes travel back toward the grass below, and I felt a lurch of terror.
At that moment, my mother called out from our front door to come home for dinner. She could not see me, but I could see her, a tiny figure many lots away. I froze, unable to answer. She went back inside, but minutes later, returned to call me again.
“Mom!” I yelled loudly, my voice full of terror. She heard both the voice and the terror. She ran toward the sound, and soon stood below me at the foot of the oak.
“Come down from there this minute, Melanie.”
“I can’t,” I sobbed. “I’m afraid.”
The teenaged brother of one of my friends wandered over and my mother enlisted him. “Freddy,” she said. “Please help Melanie get down from this tree.”
Fred was a handsome Eagle Scout, who had never spoken a word to me in all the hours I had spent playing with his sister, Stephanie. But now he swiftly launched himself into the tree, and easily climbed until he was right below me.
“Reach your foot down to the next branch,” he told me. “It’s very close.”
“I’m too scared,” I said.
“I’m right beneath you. I’ll catch you if you fall.”
His commanding voice was soothing. I reached down with my right foot and felt it meet the lower branch. Step by painstaking step, Fred coaxed me down, until finally, I jumped the last distance, my body trembling.
After thanking Fred, my mother turned on me, both relieved I was safe and angry with me for doing something so foolish.
“Let that be a lesson to you!” she said. “Don’t you try anything like that ever again.”
I nodded, embarrassed. It was a single moment in a life, and certainly not something I dwelled on after that day. But nonetheless, my mother’s words stuck. It was indeed a lesson to me: Be careful about trying anything you are not sure of. Danger awaits you if you step outside of what you know.
The vacant lots were where I felt most free, most like the Melanie I was when I was young, but they were not without their perils. One hot day, my sister pushed her baby buggy across the uneven ground, rolling directly over a nest of yellow jackets. Her screams echoed for blocks, and her body swelled from dozens of stings. I noted the spot and avoided it ever after, but I couldn’t avoid what the incident taught me: I was never wholly safe. Terrors lurked for those who were not cautious. It was best to move slowly, deliberately. To stay always on the tested path.
If one followed the swath of vacant lots over five blocks, one reached a path that led down a steep hill toward a creek. I had been warned by my parents to stay away from the hidden green world that waited at the bottom of that root-riddled descent. Sometimes I would slip and slide my way to the bottom and find myself utterly alone, the creek beside me flashing in narrow slivers of sunlight. But more than once I made the descent to discover that I was not alone at all. Sometimes I would see a group of men, huddled near the creek, around a small fire they had built to cook something. They never spoke to me, but they eyed me intently. I would grow uncomfortable that no one could see me down there—no one but those men. They did not appear friendly. On such occasions, I scrambled back up the path as fast as I could, heart pumping, fueled by adrenaline.
By the age of twelve I had discovered the allure of Gothic Romance—initiated by the classics, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. What was it about Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff that I found so enticing? They were brooding and mysterious, seething with a repressed passion or anger that made them both appealing and frightening. I understood the attraction inherent in that dichotomy, and I sought out more of it in popular fiction. It was easy to spot my genre of choice. The covers always displayed a beautiful woman fleeing from a gloomy mansion, looking over her shoulder in terror. In the background the man could be seen riding a shining black stallion. His face would be scowling, revealing his anger that a mere woman had made him vulnerable, had caused him to feel tender emotions when he had banned such weakness from his life.
Maybe this is what I saw in Bill Prince—a boy with black curly hair who was already growing dark whiskers at the age of twelve. He wore white t-shirts dingy from under-washing, and rolled a pack of Marlboros into one sleeve. He smelled of tobacco and sweat, and he cussed with abandon. He hated me for some reason I did not understand, and I hated him back. Despite my disdain, he commanded a great deal of my attention because he was forever threatening to beat me up, and I lived in dread of his eventual success. He called me unkind names that cut me to the quick: Shnoz, because I had a big nose, and Baboon, because my mother forbade me to shave my legs.
Each day on the school bus he warned me, “You better run like hell when this bus stops because I’m gonna come after you.” I sat close to the driver, and when the doors opened, I leapt out so fast no one saw anything but my hair whipping behind me. For a long time, I outran Bill, but one unlucky day I got a slow start. He tackled me, and I fell to the dirt, the wind knocked out of me.
He turned me over, his breath in my face. A drop of sweat rolled off his nose and fell into the hollow below my throat. I tensed, waited for him to sock me. He hesitated, then lunged at me, kissing me hard on the mouth.
I was shocked. “Why did you do that?”
He looked as stunned as I felt. “I don’t know.”
I shoved him. “Get off of me.”
Overcome, I suppose, with the realization of his own vulnerability, Bill jumped up and ran away.
The unthinkable had happened, and I had survived it. Though Bill watched me furtively after that, he never threatened me again. The dynamic had shifted. I knew something about him that made him appear weak. His native defensiveness made him even more sullen, angry. My steady gaze let him know I had not forgotten. Bill out-Heathcliffed even Heathcliff. I was intrigued, but not intimidated.
I was not powerless. I was not invisible. I believed I had a say in what happened to me. It was a heady epiphany, but its power did not linger as long as it should have.
For years the vacant lots lay fallow. More than 500 houses had been destroyed. The people who had been banished in 1964 had been cast out too soon. They might have lived on in their homes for many years. My mother told me the story of an elderly couple who had been forced to sell. Starting over in their eighties, first the wife took ill and died, and then immediately after that, the husband. “He couldn’t go on without her,” my mother said.
For seven years, the Highway Commission stalled, lacking the resources to complete the road as planned. Unattended, the leveled land grew wilder, more beautiful. The bottom of my street was an uncivilized place to which I retreated whenever the real world seemed too much to bear.
But finally, in 1971, the Transportation Authority announced its readiness. Construction was approved. Neighborhood groups filed lawsuits to block the next step. The highway would forever alter our tranquil community. Noise and pollution were cited as reasons to prohibit its development.
Citizens marched in protest. My father, one of the most impassioned, helped my sister and me create signs to carry during the demonstration. Hundreds of people marched along the tracks of the railway that had not seen a train since 1964.
I was fourteen years old. It was my first protest. I believed with all my heart that my sign-waving agitation would make a difference. That our raised voices would be heard, and that the land that meant so much to me would not be turned to concrete.
The protests failed. But my father would not live to see the construction begin. He died when I was sixteen, when the wilderness I loved was still mine to wander in whenever I needed it.
On that day, my mother phoned the school to tell me Daddy had died, to come home immediately so that we could meet with the minister to plan his funeral. In deep denial, I wanted to avoid her summons and the truth that awaited me when I complied.
For hours I hid at the bottom of my street beneath the willow I had not visited for many years. Crows and cardinals attended me in the branches, and the solitude there was deep and long. The winter sun dropped low in the sky, turning my sanctuary golden.
That day in 1973, I still had a choice. There were no guideposts, no set routes, no speed limits that had to be abided. I could move slowly. I could take my time.
All that is changed now, so many years later. The world I knew is gone.
Today there is a road.
And, most days, I travel it.
© Melanie McCabe
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Melanie’s interview]