Paul was my first straight big-girl crush. He was a year older than me. We met in typing class because I was reading Spock Must Die. He had beautiful blue eyes, the color of a summer lake. The year of his senior prom, I was thrilled when he asked me to be his date. We doubled with Peter and Kathy.
After they picked me up and we went through the ritual of corsages, Paul suggested we take pictures of us all dolled up: they played into some sort of vampire fantasy of his. The location he had in mind for this photo shoot? The local mausoleum.
Prom Night was rainy and cold as only April in Michigan can be, when you’re desperate for summer to begin. We were kids, of course; none of us owned a wrap or a coat or a cape classy enough to wear over our high school finery. I had a lace shawl to drape over the chiffon sleeves of my dress, but it did nothing to fill the dress’s deep scoop neckline or to keep me warm.
Paul wore a rented black morning coat with black velvet lapels. With his black bow tie and cerulean eyes, he was the man of my fevered teenage dreams. The shame of it was that, at the time of the prom, Paul was fucking Brad, who was also fucking our double date Peter, Peter’s younger sister, and anyone else who succumbed to his power of persuasion. These were the days before AIDS education. Anyway, we all felt doomed in the stifling small town where we struggled to grow up. I had once given Brad an extremely inept blow job in the front seat of my mother’s car while parked at our old elementary school, but he didn’t come. The pinching he gave my nipples left me anything but aroused. After that, I kept out of arm’s reach.
Paul was much more of a gentleman, which is to say he had a prehensile tongue and very polite hands. I would have given him my virginity, all that was left after my inventive and deeply perverse girlfriend had gotten done with me. In those days, I held a strong conviction that all people were bisexual; some were simply more honest and adventurous. I believed that Paul wanted me. If we’d gone alone to that graveyard, I would’ve done everything to the best of my ability to prove myself right.
I don’t think words now can express how much I wanted—physically yearned—to fuck Paul. Except that you’ve been there, too: in love with the idea of someone, desperately craving his or her hands on your flesh. I thought if my skin were softer or more pale, if my hair was more silken, if my eyes flashed with the right radiance, he would find me irresistible. I hadn’t grasped that the more feminine I made myself, the more opposite I became to what he needed. In retrospect, the inarticulacy of youth is piquant and sweet. At the time, however, I suffered in a circle of hell and didn’t understand why.
Probably it was a blessing that we didn’t get to that graveyard alone.
Peter’s date Kathy, while just a sophomore, was one of those girls who could hold her tongue and destroy you with a disapproving glance. She was cuttingly intelligent and probably a little shy, too. I never got to know her, really, but my gay friends fluttered around her like moths.
Except that I didn’t yet know for certain that Peter was gay. Nobody dared come out in high school in those days. We had an unspoken understanding amongst ourselves that we were all queer to varying degrees, but Paul and I—I think—were still hoping it might not be true.
All I knew was that Peter drank, which seemed seductively dangerous to a sixteen-year-old, and that he could drive. He’d borrowed his aunt’s red Chevette to squire us around on Prom Night.
After we ditched the dance, our first stop was out on River Road at Sunset Hills. Tucked toward the back of the graveyard rose a minimalist gothic mausoleum. Peter navigated the slick blacktop to park at the base of the mausoleum steps. That meant we hadn’t far to run through the drizzle to pose for Paul’s point-and-shoot camera.
Unfortunately, the rain also meant that Paul couldn’t back up far enough to get much of the gothic entranceway into the frame. The bright white flashes in the darkness seemed risky, as if driving through the opened gates across from the cemetery office hadn’t been daring enough. Paranoia and the rain forced us back into the Chevette.
Paul was extremely disappointed. While Kathy and I fussed over our damp hair, Peter suggested another graveyard. This one was farther away, actually in Flint. (You’ve seen Roger & Me? That’s the Flint of the era I’m talking about.)
My mother had grown up in Flint and still taught there, but I rarely went there myself and never at night. Flint was what we small-town kids considered a big city: dark, hazardous, and mostly abandoned. I know in retrospect those things weren’t necessarily true, but there were certainly no lighted storefronts, no people strolling the rainy sidewalks on that Saturday night.
Once again Peter drove through the cemetery’s open gates—right past the caretaker’s house—and down into the valleys of Glenwood Cemetery.
For all the times I’d been driven by it, I’d never been in Glenwood before. I didn’t yet appreciate that Jacob Smith, the “first white settler” at the Grand Traverse of the Flint River, lay buried there, along with two of Michigan’s governors and thirty-eight city mayors. Peter reported that Charles Mott, benefactor of the local community college—which Paul would attend in the fall—was buried there, along with the Whitings (who’d founded the civic auditorium where we served as volunteer ushers). Harlow Curtice, one-time president of the General Motors Corporation and Time magazine’s 1955 Man of the Year kept company with J. Dallas Dort, co-founder of the Durant-Dort Carriage Company, which later turned into General Motors. One of the highways east of town was named for Dort. In the decades before we were born, when the auto plants worked 24/7 churning out cars to mobilize the American Dream, there had been plenty of money made. Glenwood was where the moneyed in Flint buried their dead.
Established in 1857, Glenwood was one of the first Michigan cemeteries to follow the garden cemetery fashion established by Mount Auburn in Massachusetts. The paths that meandered through Glenwood’s rolling landscape were intended to provide interesting drives for Sunday carriage rides.
On this gloomy night, the four of us succeeded in getting thoroughly lost. Although the neoclassical public mausoleum sat on the crest of the hill to the right from the entrance, Peter hadn’t wanted to drive directly there. The road ran along the fence, visible from the street outside. We speculated on the consequences of being caught in a graveyard at midnight, with a bottle of sloe gin stolen from Peter’s parents and a joint in my purse. At the very least, names would certainly be taken and parents called.
Peter insisted on driving with the headlights off. That made the deserted graveyard even scarier in the rain. Not only could we not see far ahead of the car, but the streets curved and looped amongst the shadowy grave markers. The little car’s tires kept slipping as Peter coaxed it up the inclines.
Freaked out by the lack of traction, Peter turned onto a dirt maintenance road. The soft loam was swollen with days of rain. The car tires made a plaintive sound as they drowned.
“Aw, shit,” Peter groaned. He threw the car into reverse and dug the tires in deeper.
“What are we going to do?” I begged. I envisioned myself in my prom dress, drenched with rain, wading through the mud in my open-toed pumps, creeping onto the caretaker’s porch to ask to borrow the phone to call my sleeping parents to rescue me. I would be grounded forever.
Peter refused to abandon his aunt’s car. “Come on, Paul.” Pete shouldered open his door and stepped out into the rain. “We’ll push it out.”
The rain slicked his dark hair into his eyes as he looked back at me. “You’ll have to drive.”
I had a learner’s permit, but no driver’s license yet. Fifteen-year-old Kathy hadn’t yet begun driver’s ed. I slithered out of the back seat and got behind the steering wheel without stepping out into the mud.
The guys moved into place behind the bumper and I gave the car some gas. It didn’t budge.
“It’s a stick,” Kathy pointed out. “You have to put it into gear.”
“Do you know how to shift?”
She shook her dishwater blond hair from her eyes and shrugged. We struggled to move the gearshift. The car promptly stalled.
Peter yanked the driver’s side door open. “What’s the problem?”
“I don’t know how to drive a stick.”
“Fuck! Get out.”
I climbed meekly out into the rain. My foolish white linen shoes sank into the mud. “Do you want me to push?”
“You can’t push,” Paul scoffed. He leaned against the car as Peter gave it some gas, but it only rocked forward before sinking back into place.
“Let me try again,” I begged Peter.
We switched places. Once I had a foot on the clutch, Peter leaned across me to put the car into gear. I fed the Chevette gas and prayed it wouldn’t stall again. I was soaked to the skin and shivering. My shoes and dress were ruined. How would I ever explain this to my mom?
Kathy said, “Doesn’t this seem like the time when zombies should come out of their graves? We shouldn’t be here. We’re disturbing their rest.”
I didn’t need anything more to worry about. The real-world consequences seemed grim enough. I stomped my foot to the floorboards. The tires spun. I heard the boys cursing, but the car found some traction. It bounced over the rutted track to the crest of the hill before stalling once more.
The boys bounded up behind us. Paul had been standing behind the back tire when the car began to move. His rented tuxedo was spattered with clumps of grass and clots of mud. He was furious.
The mood felt as wrecked as our clothing. As Peter drove us home, I drowsed against Paul’s shoulder so we wouldn’t have to talk.