Chapter Five: I’m The Guilty Party And I Want My Slice, Mid to Late October 1980

And as the flight touches down my watch says 8:02,

But that’s midnight to you

–Graham Parker

It was fall, 1980, and with the coming of October, so came the encroachment of my eighteenth birthday. Eighteen: adulthood, the end of childhood. Jimmy Carter was campaigning hard to hold onto the presidency against arch-conservative Ronald Reagan, former Hollywood B-actor, and governor of California. I wasn’t very cognizant of politics at the time, but the liberal democrat, borderline-hippy environment I grew up in engendered in me an instinctive post-Watergate distrust of anything associated with the party of Nixon. The politically charged atmosphere of the election, along with the ongoing Iran hostage crisis, caused in me a slight quiver of the pen hand, as I signed the form for the Selective Service. I was eligible for the DRAFT. The idea scared me.

Other concerns nagged at me too. Since settling the questions about returning to Boston, a great void seemed to open up before me. What was I to do, really? I was out of high school, finally a legal adult–and I still had no plan for my life. At the time of life when most kids are going to college as a more or less knee-jerk reaction, the idea of higher education seemed to be drifting farther and farther away from possibility for me. Film school scared me–I was not good enough, I feared, to weather the intense competition for the big schools. Hell, I wasn’t even in the running for the little ones. Eric was busy filling out college applications and stumbling over essays that Frank joked would get Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola into UCLA–but not Eric. Mom ended up rewriting them, invariably putting words in his mouth. The fact that he, my younger brother, was ahead of the curve from me on this activity was more than a little embarrassing. And that embarrassment just made the idea of college, and all the other things I felt were supposed to be a part of my life, even farther out of reach. Eric had friends, was applying for colleges, had a girlfriend, Brigid–and I was still just working my job at Ozzie’s. I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet. I had to rely on Eric, who was driving and had access to Mom’s 510, if I needed a ride anywhere, and that was beginning to become a source of tension between us. My frustration at not being able to kick-start my adult life was made even more bitter by the fact that I was barely aware of it: all I knew was that I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied.

This particular descent into angst reached its nadir on the 15th itself: my birthday. Mom, Eric,and Frank had set up a birthday dinner for me that night, with cake and streamers over the dinner table and the proverbial whole nine yards. I was having none of it. I had no desire to celebrate whatsoever. Their insistence on trying to get me into a festive mood only further angered me, and I did something which I very rarely do: I blew up. I shouted in anger that I didn’t want a party, I tore down the streamers and stalked mordantly out of the house.

I walked down to the beach. By the time I reached the water’s edge, I had lost track of exactly what had set me off. I didn’t know why I didn’t want to celebrate my birthday. I didn’t really know what I wanted. Did I want a happier family, a better job, a slot in film school, a girlfriend? Something to show that the passage of another year in Chris’ life was worth acknowledging and celebrating? Did it matter that this was the year I graduated high school, that I had finally achieved my goal of life on the west coast, that I had at least made a few autonomous decisions? Was it that I could no longer keep on pretending I was still a kid–a kid on a protracted summer vacation? Would it have made me happier if Kim showed up, or the Fuckheads came around to take me on a wild night in deepest, darkest Orange County? I didn’t know. But these waves of disgruntlement came in with the same regularity as the waves out before me. I didn’t know what was on the other side of them. The other side of the ocean waves were much more transparent: the oil-rigs and Catalina Island were silhouetted cleanly against the violent orange of the sunset.

I was getting tired of this chronic dissatisfaction—with everyone around me, with life, with myself. I was also tired of being angry. My anger, anyhow, had subsided into a smoldering embarrassment. But dissatisfaction, anger, and embarrassment were only things I had apparently mastered of late. Now, of course, I would have to go home and apologize to the folks. Which is exactly what I did. I allowed them to give me a little party–but because of what I had done, it felt awkward, forced. But I knew they did it because they loved me; who was I to take that away from them, simply because I hadn’t learned to even like myself yet?

Whatever it was I came out here to do—I had barely even begun.

***

Mine was not the only birthday party to occur at 142A West Seventh Street that month. One afternoon, I was home in the kitchen with Mom, and Eric walked in from work in his brown poly Taco Hell uniform, smelling of refries and onions.

“I was just talking to Jim Holtz,” he said, “and he wants to know if he can use our place to throw a birthday party for Debbie Garvey.”

That stopped us.

“I guess his mom’s apartment is too small,” Eric went on.

I knew Jim from the night of the all-night Plan 9 viewing party. As an HB Theater alum, he was known to associate to the Fuckheads (although he wasn’t one, officially–the group did not baptize itself thus until after his graduation), so I knew him though my outings with Eric’s friends. From what I knew, he and Debbie had dated for about a year. Their recent split was apparently one of those “let’s just be friends” breakups, but I got the distinct impression that Jim wanted her back. I had never been to his house so I couldn’t fathom why he would want to use our place to stage a party for his ex-girlfriend, but I certainly had no objections.

I guess I was into parties after all—provided that they weren’t mine.

Fortunately, Mom had a to-do up at the Healing Light Center (a New Age outpost up in Pasadena), so we were free to use the house as we saw fit on Debbie’s special night. So Eric called Jim back and arrangements were made: we would have a low-key get-together at our house, then head out to the Art Theater in Long Beach for the Halloween double-bill.

The day arrived with Jim showing up early, fretting over details. He brought a few carefully wrapped gifts, and a single layer cake–the fluffiness of which was called into question by the solid thunk it made when it hit the dining room table. Jim was good-naturedly defensive; he had made the cake himself. Above all, he was nervous.

The other guests arrived: Eric’s girlfriend, Brigid; Rich Jackson came with his girlfriend, Glynis, a bubbly and outspoken blonde. Although I suspected that most had come on the promise of a fun night out at the Art Theater, all brought gifts or cards for Debbie. All but me, that is. After all, I had never even met her.

Jim left to pick up the Birthday Girl, and came back with her about twenty minutes later. I was immediately impressed. She was slender and pretty, with light brown hair and big green eyes. She was intelligent, poised with a sense of humor. I got a sense of why Jim liked her so much; I liked her too.

When the cake was finally cut, it confirmed my suspicions regarding its un-fluffiness. Jackson busted Jim’s chops by taking a piece of it and pretending to bounce it off the floor like a Superball. Everyone laughed; Jim smiled and shrugged it off. Debbie seemed happy with the company–though I couldn’t see that she quite acknowledged that this gathering was Jim’s doing. She seemed to include him only peripherally in her attentions.

Once the party formalities were behind us, it was time for us to head out for the double-feature. The seven of us piled into Jim’s deep red ’68 Chrysler Newport land-yacht (which, I later learned, his mother had named Wicca) and hit Pacific Coast Highway, northbound towards Long Beach. I sat in the back, with Rich and Glynis. In the front, Brigid sat on Eric’s lap, with Debbie between them and Jim.

This was an already well-meshed gang, and an easy sense of familiarity pervaded. We were two established couples and one pair freshly parted. Then there was the odd element: me. For once, though, I didn’t feel like an interloper. I felt included, incorporated into the group dynamic, and I was having a good time. To use another Werner-ism, I felt as if I had “gotten off it,” stopped waiting for someone else to make me feel included, and simply included myself, surrendered to the light and the space of the event. The whole car seemed bursting with youthful exuberant energy. The radio was turned up loud, and we all had to yell to make ourselves heard over Rick James’ “Superfreak,” and Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” I spent most of the drive leaning over into the front, alternately chatting with Debbie then giving Jim a hard time at driving.

The double-feature was a classic late-October horror line-up, starting with The Exorcist. The house was packed and appropriately geared up for serious screaming. We had all been initiated into playful interaction with the movies we watched; through our Rocky Horror experiences, we were completely unafraid to make our presences known–to practically scream at the filmmakers themselves, through the veil of their own works. We played our parts enthusiastically.

During the intermission, while most of the audience milled about, stretching their legs, hitting the rest rooms or concession stand, I remained seated. Debbie moved down the row and stopped, leaning on the back of the seat before me. We started talking again and the conversation soon turned unexpectedly flirtatious.

This was an event:  I had felt the rush of a good flirting buzz exactly twice in my life up to that point, and what Debbie and I launched into was akin to a young wine enthusiast tasting his first high-caliber vintage. The flush I felt went straight to my nerve-endings. I had somehow gotten deliciously out of my own way, and the perfection of everything that came out of my mouth was mirrored in the glitter of Debbie’s eyes, in her slightly-naughty smirk. It wasn’t long before I had, without quite knowing how charmed her into my lap. We sat this way for the balance of the intermission, exchanging quietly dangerous discourse, my fingertip tracing the ridge of the inseam of her Jordaches.

At the edge of my thoughts, I was aware that Jim had returned to his seat, but I was so caught up in our banter that I gave it barely a thought.

When the lights dimmed, Debbie returned to her seat next to Jim, several seats down. The second feature was a current gang favorite, The Shining. During the film, my thoughts and eyes kept drifting towards Debbie. Her eyes caught mine a few times and she would smile. Jim seemed not to notice, but he looked a bit tense.

After the show, while Debbie stayed close to me, Jim rushed ahead of us and out to the street. I felt ill at ease over this. Was he upset because I seemed to be hitting it off with his ex-girlfriend? I couldn’t tell, but neither could I bring myself to fully care, as intoxicated by Debbie’s attentions as I was. When we caught up with him, however, I was certain that something was up.

We came out of the theater and Jim was parked across the street. He was up on Wicca’s hood, jumping up and down. Was this simply more youthful exuberance? The high-energy of late adolescence? Or was it something else? It was: he dropped from the hood and climbed into the car, slamming shut the door. He scratched at the glass of the driver’s side window, grimacing, shouting mutely from inside. Jim was pissed.

Uh oh.

My buzz dissipated like dry ice fog. I suddenly felt it necessary to withdraw from whatever was happening here. It was closing in on midnight. I told Jim to drop me off at the UA6. I would take in a showing of Rocky Horror and walk home from there.

We climbed back into the car.  I followed Rich and Glynis into the back and Debbie followed me–right back to her spot on my lap. As we rode and the radio blared, Debbie echoed the words of Diana Ross’ “Upside Down” into my ear.

Upside down, boy you turn me

Inside out, and round and round…

Jim covered his tension with jokes, but I couldn’t help continuing to enjoy myself–and besides: I did like her. But, noticing Jim, I suddenly wondered at her motivations. After all, I was the only other non-pair-bonded guy in the group besides Jim–her ex-boyfriend.

What was really going on here?

We came to the UA6 and Jim pulled the car to the dusty shoulder of PCH, just across from the theater. As I said my goodnights and got out, Jim jokingly said, “Make sure to come around the front of the car so I can run you over.” Laughing, I did exactly that. As I stepped into the headlight beams Jim gunned the accelerator, startling me. The engine revved loudly for a moment. I stared at the windshield but the glare from the headlights prevented me from seeing inside the car. I stepped aside slowly. Jim threw the shifter back into drive and sped off, his spinning tires sending up a dusty plume in his wake.

As I watched his taillights fade, it began to register loud and clear that I had done something uncool. Then, I suddenly realized that what had happened had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with Debbie and Jim, and the unresolved business between them. Whether Debbie’s actions were solely to make Jim jealous I couldn’t tell; I was too naive in those days to believe that I had been used–and besides, I wanted to think that she and I had exchanged something pleasant, and authentic.

I slid back into my familiar feelings of isolation. I now felt very much the interloper, but one thing, this time, was different: I knew that I needed to do something about it. Making a promise to myself, I headed across the street towards the theater.

***

Two days later, I came home from my shift at Ozzie’s to find Eric, Brigid, Rich and Glynis sprawled out on the living room shag, studying for a test. I took Eric aside and asked him for his address book, and told him what I planned to do. He told me where I would find it and wished me luck.

I went up to our bedroom, found the book and picked up the phone. Nervously, I punched the numbers. On the other end of the line, after a few rings, Debbie answered.

The conversation was short but friendly. While we were both in agreement that our interactions the other night had been very enjoyable, and that neither of us was adverse to the idea of doing it again, we both knew that it was not advisable. At least not until she and Jim had worked things out. Still friends? Sure. Movies again soon? Absolutely. Can’t wait.

I hung up feeling a wave of relief, which geared me up for the second, more challenging call. I picked up again, took a deep breath, and dialed Jim’s number.

I had felt I had less to apologize for with Debbie; we both felt a twinge of guilt over what we had done. But I made no bones about making my apology clear to Jim.

“Oh, that’s all right,” he said, jokingly. “Fool around with my ex-girlfriend anytime you like.”

I felt that he understood how difficult this call was for me; he understood and appreciated. I hung up feeling my connection with him solidify.

I returned downstairs for a glass of milk, and Eric explained to the gang what I had just done.

There were no illusions among the group that I had anything to feel sorry about. They had all known what was going on. My biggest crime was not recognizing that I had stepped in something while my foot was still in it. Live and learn. But everyone acknowledged the decentness of my gesture. I smiled and downed my milk, feeling good.

***

Later that week, I made another decision. I had saved a bit of money and had yet to spend my birthday money. I thought it was time for me to buy myself a belated birthday present.

Frank took me out to the photography department at Montgomery Ward’s and after some browsing, some hemming and hawing, I bought myself a Canon 514XL Super-8 movie camera, a tripod, and a few rolls of film.

I brought it home, unpacked, and loaded it. I fooled around with it in our room: Eric gesticulated wildly for my lens.Jackson was over that afternoon and I shot him nervously calling home to say he was sleeping over; I executed a luxurious pan up along my Linda Ronstadt poster and executed some dramatic zoom outs of Eric and Rich standing in front of the Jake and Elwood poster.

I don’t remember the first time I ever picked up a crayon, pencil or paintbrush. But I remember the first time I put images on celluloid in my very own camera as vividly as I remember writing my first short story. I had made films in high school, but this was different: this camera was mine. And the images I would capture, I felt, would guide me to a new world of creative expression. I was armed for bear; I called Jim and invited him over to help me break in my new toy.

Next month: “Girls On Film!”

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