How You Leave Home

by Alana Cash

I felt like I had just gotten to sleep. Headache. Dizzy. Sweaty. I jumped out of bed and ran down the stairs two at a time. On the landing, I saw Mom pulling on Dad's arm as he pushed Kenny toward the front door. I ran down the rest of the stairs, broke Mom's hold on Dad's arm, and pulled her into the kitchen.

This argument was about Kenny's hair. Kenny was lead guitar in a rock band called Cheese Enchiladas and his long hair, pulled back into a ponytail, signaled something Dad wasn't prepared to accept. He'd been in the military all his life. It was his life. His family was just an accessory.

Dad backed Kenny into the corner by the front door and punched him. Mom shouted again, but I gripped her arm and she stayed in the kitchen.

"Pack your shit."

Dad always spoke to us kids in short orders.

Mow the lawn.

Wash the car.

Make that bed.

This was a final order and changed everything.

"No!" Mom wailed.

Dad cocked his head and froze for a few seconds waiting for her to say one more word which she did not. Then he walked into the kitchen, through the back door, and out to the alley where the station wagon was parked. He was going to change the oil or check the tire pressure or tune up something like he did every Saturday morning.

Kenny was already headed up the stairs. Mom started to follow him.

"No, Mom," Kenny said, shaking his head at her.

Instead, I followed Kenny upstairs and into his room to watch him pack.

I had gotten home at 4:00 hours after a night drinking with my friend Mike. We were celebrating the swimming scholarship I'd won to UC Santa Cruz, and after I spent an hour or so puking out the window of his car which was parked outside the main gate, I took a nap. I woke an hour later with the dry heaves, fell out of the car, walked over to the guard, flashed my I.D., and stumbled home.

Sitting on Kenny's bed, my head hurt, my vision was blurry, and as sad as I was that Kenny had just got thrown out of the house, I really wanted to go back to bed. Kenny, on the other hand, was humming as he dumped the contents of his dresser drawers into a big suitcase.

Is this how you leave home? Travel with your parents to four different bases in four different cities and two different countries, and then get thrown. Can you ever come back? Are you allowed to visit?

"Where will you go?"

"I'll move in with Blake. We already talked about it anyway. His dad's paying for his apartment."

"Will you stay in school?" I asked.

Kenny had registered at a local community college where he majored in music management.

"I quit school two months ago. I've been faking it."

"Oh," I said, thinking how different he and I were.

Kenny was two inches shorter than Dad and 40 pounds thinner. From the time Kenny was six years old, Dad picked on him to muscle up. In high school, Kenny said he was going to the gym to work out, when he was really going to Blake's house to practice with the band. I was the one with the muscles. Big Soviet shoulder and leg muscles from swimming, which was an even bigger disappointment to Dad because I was a girl.

Mom appeared at Kenny's door. Kenny looked at her and quickly looked away because she was wiping tears from her eyes.

"Here," she said softly and placed a wad of money on his bed. "It isn't much. It's all I have."

Kenny didn't look up or touch the money.

"Well," she said wringing her hands, and when neither Kenny nor I moved, she left.

Kenny was Mom's favorite. She had given birth to him when Dad was away on an isolated tour at McAndrew AFB in Newfoundland, had him all to herself for over a year until Dad got stationed at Aviano AFB in Italy, where I was born. She never stopped worshipping him, mollycoddling is what Dad called it. I think that's why Kenny was the kindest person in our family.

I don't remember Italy, but Italian was the language I studied in high school. We transferred to March AFB in California when I was three, which is where I learned to swim. Every summer, from the time I was five, I was on a swim team. Kenny took swim lessons too, but he never competed.

When we moved from California, which is the first move I really remember, I looked out the back window of the car and started to cry as I waved goodbye to my best friend, Lindy.

"Stop crying and face forward!" Dad demanded.

I turned around and faced the front seat and he caught my eye in the rear view mirror.

"Now," he ordered, "I want you to tell me everything you see out the front window of the car."

"Sky, street lights, cars," I said. "Billboard, grass, bushes, red light.

The game only lasted five minutes because I got bored, but it took my mind off the past, and I never cried again. Ever. I remembered what he said every time I felt like crying and I faced forward and put my mind somewhere else.

When we transferred to Wright-Patterson AFB, I joined the middle school swim team. We had access to an indoor university pool all year round and I learned that swimming laps is the best form of facing forward -- the cool water, the lightness of my body, wearing myself out with the crawl.

I also learned to drink at Wright-P, which I considered the second best way to get myself facing forward. I went to a party at the home of a general's kid. Her dad was out of town, but his liquor cabinet wasn't. She offered everyone any kind of drink they wanted. I got sick on Scotch and never drank it again. There were no more parties at her house because her dad grounded her for what she'd done and they were transferred six months later. But, after that, a bunch of us stole beer from a local convenience store and drank on weekends. I'm glad I didn't graduate to drugs like some of the kids did.

* * *

Because I was a female, Mom expected me to look out for myself as soon as I started getting my period. I washed my own clothes and made my own breakfast. On their birthdays, she made chocolate cream pies for Dad and Kenny because that was their favorite. On my birthday, she made cupcakes. She never made lemon meringue pie, even though I asked for it every year.

I was invisible mainly. I could never make Mom or Dad proud by being visible. They never came to one swim meet. But I could embarrass them by getting pregnant or being a lesbian or having a bloody spot on the back of my pants -- anything that pointed to my being female.

"You want these?" Kenny asked, throwing a pair of John Lennon-style sunglasses on the bed.

"Sure," I said and put them on.

Kenny threw the money and a notebook of songs that he'd written into the suitcase and zipped it closed.

"You can have the rest."

The rest included his old stereo and two dumbbells.

"See ya," he said.

He turned to pick up the suitcase, and I could see the red mark on his jaw where Dad had punched him. I wondered if it would swell later on. Kenny would be proud if it did. He leaned to one side as he hoisted the suitcase, picked up his guitar case, and went down the stairs one step at a time.

I went back to bed. I could hear doves cooing in the bushes down below. Noise. Light. Heat. Sleep.

* * *

When I went downstairs at 14:00 hours, Dad was watching an Astros game in the living room. Mom was gone to the commissary where she shopped every Saturday afternoon for the weekly groceries.

When Dad saw me, he said "Get a job."

Then he took a sip from his Lone Star longneck and returned to the ballgame.

I didn't explain that on Tuesday morning I would start my summer job as a lifeguard at the NCO pool. I had secured that job in March by applying with Sgt. Jackson at the Rec Center. The sarge made me swim 20 laps as he ate donuts in his office. He also demanded proof of CPR training and a Life Saving Certificate, which I managed to supply by the middle of April. That was the thing about jobs on base, once you got a qualified applicant, it was first come first served.

I hadn't told Dad about my scholarship either. I tried not to risk talking to him directly. Mom would tell him, and then we'd see if he approved that I was going so far away or if he turned it into another mistake that I'd made. Or if Mom made it one of those things that you don't tell Dad. In which case, he would just have to notice that I wasn't at the supper table in the fall.

* * *

Being a lifeguard was a perfect job if you had a hangover. I didn't start work until 11:00 hours and wearing sunglasses all day was natural.

There were very few rules:

once an hour everyone had to get out of the pool for five minutes so we could scan the water for turds

anytime there was lightning or the sky got cloudy, the pool was cleared

no running around the pool

no sitting on the rope that divided the shallow and deep areas

only one bounce allowed on the diving boards

no glass containers

at 17:00 hours when the military work day ended, everyone had to get out of the pool and salute the flag as it was lowered and "Taps" played over the loudspeaker.

And there were perks. Before the pool opened, I played volleyball in the pool with the other lifeguards, and I could swim laps for half an hour after the pool closed.

One afternoon, Airman First Class Seabrook offered to buy me beer if I agreed to skinny dip with him after dark. The lifeguards weren't trusted with keys to the pool, so three or four nights a week we climbed the fence to drink and swim. Seabrook was a good swimmer and Saturdays when he came to the pool, he did triple flips off the high dive. He wasn't just any airman, which is why I had sex with him in the pool. I didn't want to be a virgin when I left for college, and I didn't want to be in love either.

The first time hurt like hell, and I really didn't know why any girl would want a second round of that, but Seabrook convinced me that it would feel a lot better the next time. And it did.

The MPs patrolled around the pool at night, using flashlights aimed through the fence to see if anyone was inside. We were careful to get into a corner at the deep end and keep quiet when we heard them coming. I don't know what would have happened to me if we'd been caught, but he would have been court martialed. I was still seventeen.

* * *

Kenny came to visit me on Tuesday afternoons after he'd been to see Mom and before he started his shift at Rosa's Pizzeria. He brought hamburgers that he bought at the Operations Cafeteria, which everyone simply called Ops. It sounded like the name of a trendy restaurant, but it was actually the flight line cafeteria across the street from the pool. Filled with crew and pilots and the airmen who repaired their planes, it sold the best French fries ever made -- thick cut, they steamed in the middle when you broke them open.

Kenny and I ate in the lifeguard office, which was a small eight foot by eight foot unairconditioned hut with a window through which I checked I.D.s and took money for people entering the pool area as guests. Kenny talked about the band and sang songs he had just written. He didn't pull his hair back anymore and it flew out loose and bushy, which made him look even thinner.

I felt sad that Dad would never hear Kenny's music. He wanted to impress Dad, but he didn't have the stuff in him that could do that. Kenny had never played sports. Never hit anyone.

Dad liked to fish and hunt. He was on a bowling league and had won golf tournaments. He went to football games at local high schools, worked on the car, and repaired the plumbing. Dad didn't know how to swim. Swimming was for sailors. And he didn't care anything at all for music. That was for fairies.

Mom didn't come to the pool, although she knew how to swim. She spent her days keeping the house spotless. Besides an annual inspection, the Base Housing Office held surprise inspections, so she had to keep the floor under the stove and refrigerator clean and the glass in the oven door had to be shiny. If the inspectors found dirt on the sill above the back door or a screen was torn, they put a note in the file. If they found cockroaches, our family would be ordered to move out of base housing.

After she finished cleaning, cooking, shopping for groceries, getting her hair done, and visiting the neighbors, Mom liked to have a couple of ounces of peppermint Schnapps that she kept hidden in her dresser drawer and take a nap. She was always up and preparing supper by the time Dad walked home at 17:15 hours, and the food was served at 17:30. Fried chicken on Monday. Pork chops on Tuesday. Meatloaf on Wednesday. Chicken fried steak on Thursday. Shrimp on Friday. They ate at the NCO Club on Saturday nights. Roast beef on Sunday.


* * *

There were two lifeguard high-chairs facing each other on opposite sides of the pool. The little umbrella stationed above the chairs didn't provide much shade anyway, but sitting on the south-facing chair, there wasn't any. I got a really bad burn that first week. After I tanned from my first sunburn, though, the job was a piece of cake. An hour on the chair. An hour walking around the pool twirling the whistle around my left index finger.

The south-facing chair was up high enough that I could see over the cyclone fence that had been lined with pale blue slats to keep the pool area private and keep the airmen from ogling the girls and cracking up a jeep. From up there, I had a view of the street and the flight line behind it. By mid-afternoon, the heat came off the tarmac in waves. There were mirage pools everywhere.

At 16:00 hours a convoy of Army ambulances drove down the street. There were always four, but sometimes as many as seven ambulances travelled past. They drove onto the flight line, then parked on the tarmac. Waiting.

The first time I saw them, I stood up on the lifeguard stand to watch. I didn't know what was happening. Why were Army ambulances on our Air Force base?

A little while after the ambulances arrived, several transport planes landed and taxied near where the ambulances were stationed. Army crews dressed in green fatigues and high-top black boots unloaded their special cargo, wounded soldiers, and wheeled them on gurneys over to the ambulances. The medics opened the back doors and loaded the patients inside.

The victims were covered in white bandages that were so bright in the sunlight, glowing almost, that they looked like something holy. The soldier's heads were sometimes visible, but more often they were bandaged too.

The war. This was about the war. It hadn't touched me till then. Air Force personnel were on alert and scrambling my whole life. I grew up thinking that the world could end any minute, on the one hand, and the complete safety of living within a patrolled compound on the other. I walked down the street any hour of day or night without thinking of harm. Who is going to steal your bicycle if they can be seen riding it around base?

The airmen had jobs with Ordnance, Supply, Operations. They painted the lines in the middle of the street, painted the curbs, painted the chapel, and repaired bomber engines. I didn't know what my dad's job was. I didn't care either. Everyone looks alike in a uniform. You serve.

As for the war, I just expected that the Air Force gave air support to ground troops -- flew the planes, dropped their issue on the target and came home. They weren't supposed to fight on the ground getting wounded and paralyzed and burned up. They were in the air. If they crashed, they usually came home in a body bag. Or they just never came home.

So now, here was the Army, bringing the war to me, and I could hear sounds flung out on the air, words to sentences that I couldn't make out because they were so far away. But I knew there was no laughter.

When the transport planes were unloaded and the ambulances loaded, the convoy drove down the street past the pool in the opposite direction toward the main gate. The patients rolled away to get lost in the V.A.

This ritual was reenacted seven days a week.

The first time I saw it, I thought that if he'd gone along with Dad's idea for his career, Kenny could have ended up like those guys. Next time I saw him, I told him about it. He said he went to the V.A. Hospital on Sunday afternoons to play his guitar and sing for the guys. He said they were from all branches of the military because war was not picky about who got hurt.

I felt bad when he said that, and that night I took a walk. I wove my fingers into the chain link fence that separated the flight line from the rest of the base, just looking. I saw where the transport planes had been parked, where the soldiers with voices I never heard had rolled gurneys, where the wounded had been loaded into ambulances. I saw all of it while I listened to the roar of jet engines being repaired in the big hangar across the runway.

These soldiers had done their duty. This was how they came home. Burned.

* * *

I saved a little girl from drowning that summer. She was right at my feet, going under, and another kid yelled up at me to help her. I climbed down from the stand, pulled the four-year-old out of the water by her arm. As I carried her to the lifeguard office, she puked water all over me.

I said the little girl's name over the loudspeaker, and as soon as I had finished, her mother rushed into the hut. When something like that happened, the family had to leave for the entire day and we were supposed to write up a report which would go through channels and whoever was the active duty member of the family got a lecture or some kind of strike against them for not looking after their kids. It was not the responsibility of the lifeguards to babysit, and someone dying on base was not tolerated, unless it was an absolute accident. Like the guy who did die at the pool.

It was the last day that the pool was open for the summer and we were closing up. A really large man was lying on a towel near the fence at the deep end, while every other swimmer was packed and leaving. I whistled to get his attention, but he didn't move. I whistled again. He still didn't move.

I told another lifeguard to go wake the guy up because I was in the pool about to unhook the rope and put it away. All of a sudden there's a yell, GET A MEDIC. I ran climbed out of the pool and ran to the phone and called for an ambulance.

It was too late. The guy was dead. We were told later that his aorta had ruptured and there's no way he could have been saved no matter what we did.

* * *

The night before I left for Santa Cruz, Mom and Dad and I ate fried chicken. It was a little weird because I hadn't eaten with them since I got the lifeguard job and didn't get home until after 19:00 hours. On my day off, I ate at the Rosa's Pizzeria where Kenny worked.

Mom and Dad talked about a car accident that Sergeant Greeley had in a staff car and what would happen to him because he ran a stop sign and hit an officer's Lexus. Sergeant Greeley and his family shared our duplex.

I had spent the day doing laundry, ironing, cleaning my room, buying toiletries at the Base Exchange, and packing. I boxed up Kenny's stereo and shipped it in care of my dorm at Santa Cruz. While I was at the base post office, I realized that I had never packed unless the family was being transferred. I had never thought about returning to a house I had lived in like it was home. Home was where I unpacked my stuff. So, would Santa Cruz be home or here? I started to feel a little panicky when I thought about moving to a new place and being among civilians who grew up in one city with lifelong friends. But then I realized they'd be lonelier than I was and have more trouble making friends.

Face forward!

When I got back from the post office, I called Seabrook at his job in Ordnance to say goodbye. I wasn't in love with him, but I felt close to him when I was lying underneath him on the diving board.

My call freaked him out, because our agreement was no phone calls, no nothing that would make anyone think we knew each other. In our very short conversation, he managed to tell me that he was being transferred to Alabama in October. I didn't know if that was true, but I knew I would never speak to him again. I felt a little guilty, maybe a little ashamed when he brushed me off, but I then realized that it was because he felt guilty and ashamed and not because I had any reason to. I hadn't gotten caught, which would have made me visible, and I hadn't gotten pregnant because the military doctor at the dispensary had dispensed birth control pills to me when I explained that I was a lifeguard and wanted to have small periods that wouldn't trail around in the pool.

At supper, Dad asked if I was all packed and I said I was. After I cleared and washed the dishes, I stared at television with them. I could feel a tension among us, and I wanted to say that I would miss them, but then I might cry. So I said nothing.

When the news came on, Mom and I went out to the front porch. We sat on the aluminum lawn chairs in the thick humid darkness. When she got bitten by a mosquito she sprayed us both with the can of OFF that sat on the little table between the lawn chairs.

She asked me if I had everything I needed. I hoped when I told her that I thought I did, that she would give me a wad of money like she gave to Kenny, but that didn't happen. I asked her when Dad found out I was leaving, since he hadn't said anything. She told me that he had known since June. Then she started talking about Kenny and how much she worried about him.

She didn't say it, but it was implied that she wondered how he would ever have enough money to get married. I wondered if Mom would lose respect for Kenny if he married a woman who made more money that he did. Dad didn't have any respect for Kenny so it wouldn't make a difference to him. I wanted some peppermint Schnapps.

We heard the television go off and I got up and went inside.

"I guess I'll see you at Thanksgiving," Dad said to me.

Since I was leaving on a Tuesday, Mom was driving me to the airport.

"I guess so," I said.

"Call on Sundays," he ordered.

"Yes sir."

He nodded his head and went upstairs to get ready for bed, and I went outside again. Kenny drove up just as I was sitting back down. He knew Dad went to bed after the news. He got out of his car and walked toward the porch. Mom stood up like she was going to offer Kenny her seat, but just as Kenny reached the steps leading to the porch, we all heard a sound that made us freeze. A strange, eerie sound. A sound that was very frightening and very confusing at the same time. Kenny, Mom and I took turns looking at each other. Then Kenny stepped backwards into the front yard. Mom went down the steps into the yard, and I followed her. We all looked up.

The windows to Dad's bedroom were open and the sound that we heard was coming through them. We could hear Dad bawling like a little kid in mournful, desolate sobs.

BIO: Alana Cash is an award-winning and published short story writer and a documentary filmmaker. A native of Texas, she currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with her two cats, Agnes Hershkovitz and Bob Ling.