Grass Through Pavement
It was dark on the Gulf of Tonkin.
No moon, no stars. If I were on a yacht in the Mediterranean, it wouldn't have been any different that night. An aircraft carrier surrounded by eight other American warships. Slishing of waves against the hull set my thoughts to Bridget.
Did she have the baby? Was it really mine? What did she do?
Was it really mine?
No way to get answers, questions remained. Couldn’t get them to stop rolling through.
Mom wrote that the state police were at the house again with an arrest warrant. Kept the blinds and curtains closed so it’d always look like no one was home. Most of the time she wouldn't answer the door. When she did, it was always the same:
“Statutory rape isn’t a joke, ma’am. Where is he?”
Rape?! The charges were the work of Bridget’s mom. Marry her or go to jail. Shotgun wedding if I hadn't disappeared myself into the Navy. Quick. Out of state, out of country.
My mind drifted to the first time I actually understood what sex was. Eighth-graders sitting on desktops waiting for the school bell to set us free for the summer. Desks empty, wastebasket overflowing, textbooks stacked neatly on back tables. Jokes going around. Most were funny only because they contained the f-word or the s-word and some kid was brave enough to say them out loud with the teacher right over there, just out of earshot.
Punch line of one particular joke made it all come together for my thirteen-year-old self.
“So the witness sez to the judge: 'Your honor, his pants were down below his knees. His balls were swinging in the breeze. His you-know-what was in her you-know-where and if that ain't fuckin'—I'll take the chair.”
Zap! A revelation. Painted a picture. The start of a search to experience sex for myself.
Succeeded four long years later at someone's house where Bridget was babysitting.
“Come over and keep me company, the kids are asleep.”
I’d never been there before. We were high school sweethearts. We started kissing, as we always did, but for some reason we didn’t stop this time. Rushed from couch to bed. Bridget’s first time too. Next day, when the people asked her about the blood on the sheets, she told them she’d had a nosebleed. Pretty flimsy story but I guess they bought it.
As I sat on the deck, my back against a bulkhead, reliving sex with Bridget, the ship made a sharp turn to starboard, creaking, as massive metal strained. Pungent exhaust smoke blew past, making me queasy and embedding black flakes into my sweaty face.
Everyone on board was working 12-on and 12-off shifts, which created plenty of ponder time. There wasn’t much choice. Sit by the rails, legs dangling over the side and watch the water, read a book or be awed by the sunset which was often spectacular at sea. Either that or get into bed. How many times could I put on my new, massive Sony headphones and listen to the same reel-to-reel music tapes, waiting for night to end, for the month to end, for my four-year hitch to end.
Across the black water, distant white lights sparkled from the nearest escort ship. Fully loaded aircraft carriers couldn't maneuver very quickly. Faster ships always deployed to protect in case of an attack. Was North Vietnam actually capable of launching an attack on the U.S. Navy so prominently present off its shore? Being part of a war hardly seemed real. I felt confinement, not danger. At sea for six weeks at a time. This was jail.
Memories of less constricted times took over: back in college, waking up after a night of excessive drinking. In those innocent days, just months ago, with eyes still closed, trying to piece together who, what and where I was. Whose room? Bed or floor? Open my eyes, cautiously, so as not to disturb the hangover, maybe puke and have to clean it up.
But this—the Navy, the baby—this was the worst situation by far I’d ever woken to. When we did go ashore for R&R, we were required to stay in uniform for our week in port. I couldn't even begin to feel the culture of the country we were visiting with a pocketful of mad money, sporting that ridiculous white sailor hat.
Not even the thrill of ten planes per hour catapulting off the bow—one every thirty seconds—could override the obsessions rolling through again: I don't want to be here. How did I get here? What did I do wrong? Not even the daring recovery of ten planes per hour on the stern of the flight deck with the ensuing gamble of each pilot misjudging and having to power through and come round to try again. The thoughts were always there along with an acid feeling in the gut. Walking foreign streets. In the massage parlor. On the tour bus rolling past famous ancient landmarks. Laying in my rack. What did I do wrong? Why am I here? FUCK!
My parents had told me over the years, if I were ever in trouble, I could go to them for help. It was a meaningless cliché until twelve months ago when Bridget tearfully revealed that our friend was now three months late.
Her period had been a week or two late a few times before, which so terrified us that for days we walked on wobbly legs. It was a desperately dire secret. And when our friend finally did show up, it was cause for celebration—more sex. It didn't seem real that we could actually make a baby.
Sex education in public school was nonexistent, except in girls’ health classes where they were taught about their monthly cycles. We were going on instinct and what we could pick up from random paperbacks or looking up “vagina” and “penis” in the encyclopedia and studying illustrations.
Once, walking home from school, a seventh-grade friend surreptitiously showed me a ragged porn photo. Old-school sleaze: tiny, 2” x 3”, black and white, naked woman lying on a small folding canvas cot—black bar across her eyes to hide her identity, but it didn’t. A man wearing black socks and nothing else straddled the cot looking down at her with his back to the camera.
My friend mocked me as I tried to make sense of the photo, “Ha! You don’t even know what sex is.”
He told me I didn’t know what marriage was, either. He said if you wanna get married, the husband has to give a blow job to the priest.
That same year, my classmates played spin the bottle at a birthday party. When it came time to kiss, we went into the coat closet for privacy. A girl who liked me at the party later invited me to her tiny apartment while her mom was at her job. I wore my tough-guy motorcycle jacket with zippers and snaps. Her chest was as flat as mine, but she answered the door wearing a thin white blouse highlighting a bra that she wore for the occasion. Seduction. She made the first move, but I insisted on going into the closet to kiss. Then I left, terrified.
In my white lower-middle-class family, sex wasn't talked about unless accompanied by a smirk or a joke. Which is exactly what happened when I sat my parents down one night around midnight, as we were all heading for bed. I was home from college for the weekend. Bridget was still a senior in high school.
“What is it, Lucien? Is everything okay?”
“Remember you told me if I were in trouble I could come to you for help? I need to tell you something.”
“Yes, of course,” they said simultaneously, nodding in agreement and glancing at each other.
“Bridget’s pregnant,” I blurted out for starters.
Mom was puzzled. “Okay. Who’s the father?”
“Me, of course.”
Mom was worried. “But you've been away at college, it could be anyone.”
“No, it’s me. I’m sure. I know her.”
This was news to her. “You mean you and Bridget have tried sex?”
At three a.m., when we were talked out, my forty-year-old dad, after years of holding back, now felt he could share a dirty joke with his nineteen-year-old son who had a seventeen-year-old pregnant ex-girlfriend. The joke was about a man who’d gotten pregnant because his wife had insisted on being on top during sex. It wasn't even close to being funny. It’d only served to point out, glaringly, Dad's sexual immaturity. My sexual inheritance had become clear. I felt obligated to laugh because I loved my father warmly, but inwardly I was appalled, incredulous and embarrassed.
After we laughed it up, he came out with: “Well, son, at least I know you’re not a queer.” He was proud of me. We said a happy goodnight and headed off to sleep. The moment I’d dreaded for weeks was over and had left me dazed.
Bridget and I never talked about sex either. We just did it. That’s what we called it: doing it.
Bridget: “Hey, wanna go to a movie? Let’s see what’s playing.”
Me: “We could, or we could go to your place and do it. Your mom won’t be home for another two hours.”
But that's not all we did. We also talked about the miracle of being alive, living on a planet circling a sun. How amazing Bob Dylan was, how humans become a speck while looking at the vast, starry sky and how unfair some things are—like the fact we couldn't live together even though we loved each other so much.
After our you can come to us for anything meeting, my parents went to a lawyer, a cousin, for advice. The advice came quickly: join the military and get out of the country. Escape the state’s legal jurisdiction. Since you’ll most likely be drafted soon anyway, why not enlist and have a choice of assignment? Don’t tell anyone. No one!
No one could know where I was. The State would be looking for me.
My heart pinged. The world vaporized.
I went to a Navy recruiting office and signed up. In no time at all, I was at Great Lakes Naval Station boot camp, head shaved, shouting yes sir.
Neither friends nor relatives knew where I’d gone. I was just gone. The one exception was my new college girlfriend, Annie. I got special permission to stay in touch with her, as long as she was sworn to secrecy. Annie was named after the patron saint of sailors, of all things, and she was a firebrand like Annie Oakley.
It took about a year.
On a ship with three thousand men and boys, I finally confided in one person. Davey was from a small town in Georgia—Athens. He had a thick southern accent, the first one I’d heard up close in real life. Surprisingly, coming from such different places, we had a lot in common. We were vital nineteen-year-olds plucked from our life and dropped into the South China Sea. We both hated being in the Navy and weren't afraid to say so.
The Vietnam War was escalating and developing a huge appetite for young men like us. Fear of the draft loomed large. Draft avoidance became an art. You could proclaim you were gay. You could take drugs and stay awake for days at a time to fail your physical exam. It was a frenzy. Or you could enlist in the Navy or Air Force—anything but the Army—to avoid being sent into the kill-or-be-killed jungles.
Keeping the reason for joining the Navy to myself was becoming impossible. I was about to boil over. On a blue-sky sunny day, Davey and I sat in a gun tub near the flight deck leaning against a large gun—a cannon, really—bullshitting and reading our backlog of mail that’d been disbursed. Mail got to us about once a week, in accumulated clumps. Occasionally, a soft spray of sea mist wafted across us when the hull slapped a wave just right.
It all came out. First of all—I was no virgin. Neither was Davey. Big proud knowing grins on our macho boy-faces. Davey lit up when he said how much he loved to eat poontang. I’d never heard the term but instinctively knew—sailor to sailor—what he was talking about. I made a mental note to try it myself sometime.
Davey told me about his summer jobs picking watermelons and throwing them onto the back of a truck in the hot Georgia sun. They were sold for five cents apiece to wholesalers. When pickers got thirsty from hauling those melons, they’d accidentally drop one and scoop out the sweetness from the split-open center. He said they dropped a lot of watermelons in a day. Heavy watermelons for a nickel. Amazing. They ended up costing two dollars at the big supermarket near my house eight hundred miles from Georgia.
It was the continuous dribble of these little eye-openers that educated me. Watermelon-picking. Poon-tang. Davey told me in the south cock meant pussy. He said he found it odd that Yankees called people cocksucker as an insult because it was a compliment to him.
He called his morning wood a piss hard.
I discovered that people from Georgia, Alabama and a lot of other places still hung the rebel flag and said: The South will rise again. And they were heavily invested in it.
I learned the comeback: “Yeah, because shit floats.” I couldn’t understand when I saw their blind, inbred denigration of Black sailors.
The people who gave me my day-to-day orders—First Class Petty Officers and Chief Petty Officers—achieved their rank by virtue of time in service, not skill. Some thought the Navy was the best thing that had ever happened to them.
One guy from Oxford, Mississippi, said he loved the Navy because he never had to worry about where his next meal was coming from; he always had a bed and the pay was more than he could ever have hoped for on the outside. He not only supported his wife but also sent money to his parents. His name was Bill Brown (aka Willie), a Chief.
When I became friends with Jack from Detroit, it was Willie who said, “If you’re gonna be friends with the niggers, you’re gonna git treated like a nigger.” People routinely used that word, but it offended me to my core. Jack and I were assigned a lot of shit jobs together—garbage-hauling, ceiling-painting, brass-polishing, deck-waxing—which only bonded us further.
“I feel like I’m in prison,” I told Davey.
“Yeah, me too.”
“Yeah, I know. But for me, it’s more than being trapped at sea for months at a time. I feel like I was sentenced to jail time for getting Bridget pregnant.”
“You mean Bridget who writes you those long-ass letters every day?” Davey said. “Man, you’re lucky. My girlfriend only writes twice a month. And it’s usually only one or two pages telling me about the business. She drives me crazy with this perfume. Here, smell.”
I smelled the pages and said, “Whoa! Me, too. Try mine. Makes me want to be home really bad.”
Davey sniffed the fifteen-pager I offered him. It smelled like flowers and sex.
“Man!” he said. “Why do women smell so good? It’s torture to smell that and not be able to go home and fuck. Right?”
“I know. I know. But these stacks of letters are from Annie, not Bridget. Annie’s the girlfriend I met after I broke up with Bridget. Bridget can’t write me ’cause she doesn’t know where I am.”
“Bridget’s the pregnant one?” Davey asked.
“Yeah, my parents’ lawyer told me to join the Navy so I wouldn’t have to marry her.”
Part of this confession was me bragging about being sexually experienced. But most of it was my guilt about running out on Bridget.
“I hate this ship. Hate this war. Just wanna be home with Annie.”
“Damn. I never would’ve guessed that about you. I knew there was somethin’ goin’ on. Thought maybe you stole some money or embezzled or something.”
“I think Annie and I’ll eventually get married. It’s amazing how much we love each other just through letters. We just wanna be together. Can’t wait to get the fuck out.”
“What’s gonna happen with the baby?” Davey asked.
“I don’t know. No idea. Don’t know what to do. Maybe it’s lucky I’m trapped here so I don’t do somethin’ stupid. Maybe that dumb-ass lawyer was right.”
“Me and Julia gonna get married when I get out. Not sure if I’m ready to, but fuck, gotta settle down sometime, right? We’re gonna take over Dad’s siding business someday. Have two kids.” Then he remembered my predicament. “Sorry—didn’t mean to mention kids.”
“It’s okay. Doesn’t even feel real. Any of this shit.”
“You must really love Annie. I watch you when we go ashore. You get messed-up-drunk with everyone, but you never fuck any of that Oriental pussy,” he said. “That must be hard to do. Holding back like that. I’m getting it out of my system while I’m still single.”
“No, it’s easy. I just wanna be with Annie. We trust each other.”
“Must be really good in the sack.”
“Yeah, she is,” I bragged, but I didn’t know if she was or not. I was just happy she'd have sex with me.
If I would’ve thought more deeply about it, I’d have maybe realized I needed this close connection with Annie to keep my loneliness and guilt and sorrow from overtaking my sanity. Instead, my deepest feelings were like earth paved over by a parking lot.
Telling Davey about Bridget was a delicate blade of grass pushing up through the asphalt.