Image by Dawn Estrin
…about the summer of ‘77 is that in June after graduation from high school Kerry and I shared a double bed in her parents’ home as we had nearly every night of our senior year.
Her father joked about claiming me as a tax deduction. My mother, distracted by a new life with a new husband, would have put up little argument. Kerry was the sister I never had; I was the sister she wished hers had been. Sheila had let her down by getting pregnant during our sophomore year and marrying the boy their father warned them about. Sheila moved out of the house, out of Kerry’s bedroom, out of her life, leaving a hole for me to fill.
Neither of us cared about college back then. We were planning to share an apartment at the end of the summer. Kerry worked in customer service at a department store. I worked as a veterinarian’s assistant and for six months had cleaned dog cages, assisted in surgeries, and enjoyed sex romps with the vet, who was ten years older with a pregnant wife.
After work, Kerry would race home to hear about my day at the clinic and I would describe things like the large animal call at a dairy farm the vet, Billy, had taken me to. How the black-and-white Holsteins were lined head to tail in a narrow pen. How I leaned against a fence post, watching Billy roll his sleeve above his thick forearm, listening to him discuss with the farmer the weather and the alfalfa until Billy’s bare arm disappeared into the vagina of a cow, all this reminding me of my first pap smear three months earlier, the humiliating chitchat of doctor and nurse between my open legs.
And after palpating thirty-some cows, Billy had driven us to an inn for turnip greens and cornbread. The drive back included a stop for missionary sex on a scratchy wool blanket in a meadow off the Blue Ridge Parkway, just beyond the view of tourists and my mother who traveled the Parkway every evening on her way home from work. The day before, sex had been over the grooming table at the clinic. Two days earlier, in a bed at the Motel 6. But Kerry knew all this. I was sharing everything with her.
Kerry was still a virgin, although she’d come close one night in May with the lead drummer in our high school band. She blamed herself for Bruce joining the army instead of sticking around to take her to the senior prom, so I canceled my prom date to spend the night with her. While our classmates partied in hotel rooms with bathtubs filled with gin and tonic, we got drunk on Malt Duck and drove recklessly through peach orchards, dodging trees as if they were demons on our trail.
One Saturday, we bought Cosmopolitan, candy bars, and Mt. Dews. Kerry dangled her bubblegum pink toenails out the window in time with KC and the Sunshine Band. I was driving the ’61 Ford Falcon, the one I had just learned to shift in the pasture behind my mother’s mobile home, stalling in the ruts, nearly throwing us through the windshield.
In Kerry’s backyard, we spread her grandmother’s patchwork quilt. Our bodies, oiled with cocoa butter, turned and basted on the half hour. We flipped through magazine pages, Kerry preferring ads that revealed the best lip-gloss while I read articles about becoming a worldly, sexy Cosmo Girl.
Her father was weeding the vegetable patch and caught my eye. Hi, Mr. Jones! Kerry’s father liked me; I made him laugh, like scolding him for voting for Carter because, on a tip from the Marine recruiter when I’d sneaked downtown to check out my options, Everyone knows Democrats start wars. I liked her father’s deep chuckle, this man who slept every night in the back of his pick-up truck under the camper shell, rather than in the bedroom with Kerry’s mother, this man who was so right about Sheila’s boyfriend, but who could never be right enough for his wife.
Kerry and I discussed sex, Billy, and his wife: the other woman. Correction. I was the other woman. Have you seen her lately? I told Kerry how she had dropped in at the clinic. Don’t you feel funny around her? Strange, I said, but seeing her never bothered me. She just…is, I had said; I just…am. And I explained about how sex was about, well, sex, and how marriage was about the commitment stuff, like with her parents. Kerry quietly mulled this over. But don’t you think about how things are when he’s not with you? Doesn’t it drive you crazy? Above us, clouds were forming into shapes my mind was refusing to recognize. I closed my eyes. Yeah, I said, sometimes it bothers me a lot.
Wednesday was Ladies Night at the Holiday Inn near the airport, and that June Kerry and I dressed in halter-tops, clingy nylon skirts, and high platform heels. Salesmen bought us whiskey sours and asked to dance. Kerry never said yes; I never said no. I caressed lined necks, ran my fingers through thinning hair, and sometimes went so far as to nibble on an ear lobe. How can you do that? Kerry asked.
See the pleasure it brings them, the way their eyes flutter half-shut. Later that evening while she slept, I’d make up stories in my head—a carryover from childhood when I would sit in the rocking chair beside my bedroom window and imagine the lives of all the people driving past. After Ladies Nights, I imagined salesmen in their upstairs hotel rooms, fantasizing about me.
In the lounge, though, Kerry was wrinkling her face. She said the smell of Jim Beam breath turned her off; I said it reminded me of my father, who I had not seen in more than three years, not since he smashed his way through the front door Christmas Eve after the divorce, drunk, splattering blood on the walls, ripping the telephone from the wall and hurling it at my mother.
After work one night, Kerry squealed over a letter her drummer-turned-soldier boyfriend, Bruce, had written from boot camp. He loves me! Says he wants to see me when he gets home on leave. This time, she said, I’ll get the sex thing right.
That night, we lay in her double bed and wrestled with apprehension. The fan in the bedroom window drew in the night air. Kerry reached for the sheet and brought it and her face close to mine. What if I can’t do it right? I could nearly taste her mint toothpaste. I remember giggling, thinking no one could do it wrong if they actually did it at all, but I said reassuringly, You’ll do it right.
On the Fourth, temperatures in the Appalachian valley were climbing. Kerry was giddy about meeting Bruce that afternoon in a motel room. Billy had plans for me, too, at a motel on the outskirts of town while his wife lay in the hospital from premature labor with their son.
You’d think Billy would have initiated the end of our affair. He was nearing thirty with everything to lose, yet seemed addicted to risk. I wasn’t much better. I was telling myself that I was using him and this enabled me to cope with the self-hatred. By July, however, I was tired of sneaking in and out of motel rooms and tired of having sex in orchards at night with peach pits pressing into my kidneys as he tried too hard to fill an empty well.
Everyone in town knew Mill Mountain offered the best view of the city’s fireworks display. I arrived early with beer and a blanket, waiting for Kerry under the giant electric star that on nights when someone died in a car accident, flashed red; white if all were safe. On the Fourth, it was flashing red, white, and blue.
At dusk, I spotted Kerry weaving around lawn chairs, family picnics, and a couple throwing a Frisbee. I remember searching her face and body for a signal that she was no longer a virgin, imagining I would find the answer to what it was about my appearance that seemed to give me away to men like Billy. Kerry looked the same, though. Happy, but the same.
At the clinic I took reservations to board pets during family stints to the beach or the mountains. The surgery list was light: a spay for a calico cat; a broken leg on a hound-mix that had tangled with oncoming traffic; on a boxer a suspicious cyst that required removal and lab testing. I was preparing surgical instruments for sterilization when Billy announced an emergency call at another farm.
The drive took us over bumpy back roads. Billy pulled me close and drove with one hand; the other moved up and down the inside of my thigh and under the hem of my shorts. The farmer was waiting at the end of his driveway, not at the barn as we‘d expected, and when Billy shouted, Move! I jumped to the passenger side with such force I nearly shattered my shoulder.
We followed the farmer through lumpy pastures to a cow tethered to a tree. She was standing, moaning from labor with twin calves. I stood ready to ferry surgical instruments as Billy called for them. Easy, little mama, he said, sliding his right arm to the elbow inside the cow. His eyes closed. He lifted to his toes and balanced his weight against the cow’s haunches.
After a minute or so, he grimaced and broke into a sweat, then relaxed on his heels with his arm still inside the cow. I scurried over and wiped his face. Thank you, he whispered. On his toes again, he pushed his arm deeper inside the cow. Come on little fella, turn for me. What I saw turning was Billy’s arm as it twisted right and then left. Right. Left. The cow moaned and rocked against the slack of the rope that bound her to the tree. Billy looked over his shoulder at the farmer and shook his head. I have a leg. The farmer nodded. Billy turned his gaze toward where I was standing. He stared until I felt an odd weight, as if somewhere in my face lay the map for making all this right.
What emerged first was a tiny hoof and then the shapely pastern and fetlock until finally the entire limb was dangling outside its mother’s body. Billy walked to the truck and pulled out a saw. By the time he returned, the farmer had a two-hand hold on the leg and pulled downward as Billy carved the leg from the body, slicing through muscle and bone until it dropped into the farmer’s hands. He tossed it toward the tree. Billy reached back inside the cow and freed another leg. The farmer pulled and Billy sawed. Next, the buttocks were manipulated out, then the body, then the head, then the two front legs.
Billy pulled the second calf headfirst through the birth canal. A stillborn. Fresh blood and afterbirth dumped onto the grass beneath the mother cow and onto Billy’s boots. The summer air felt thick with blood.
The dead, but otherwise perfect calf lay near the scattered parts of its twin. As the farmer and Billy bagged her young ones, the mother brayed toward the limbs of the tree: a sound that rattled marrow from the tip of my tailbone clear to the top of my spine.
Each night that July, Kerry and I met in her double bed to share our secrets. She was in love. Bruce would soon leave for three years in Germany and the closer the date of his departure, the more in love she became. She hoped he would talk about marriage. She planned to say yes if he asked her to run away with him to Germany. And it was in this moment, I discovered I could leave her, after all.
Billy wanted me to run away with him, too, to an overnight veterinarian conference in Raleigh. When he insisted on buying me new clothes for the trip, I accused him of being ashamed of me and my frayed denim shorts, my tank tops and pink bikini with royal blue polka dots, my mile-high platform shoes, and the sneakers I re-dyed white every Saturday morning from a bottle of shoe polish. What little money I earned as his vet assistant, I spent on gas for the Falcon, booze, and frilly underwear.
When we returned from Raleigh, I found Kerry sprawled across our double bed, sobbing. He said he’d write me, that’s all. I handed her tissues, wrapped my arms around her. Just as well, I said, in a half-hearted attempt to make her laugh, I would have said no to your marrying a drummer anyway.
What I can tell you now after all these years is that two weeks into August and with no word from Bruce, I finally persuaded Kerry into one last Ladies Night at the Holiday Inn. That night, she dared to dance with strangers. The Holiday Inn became her laboratory of love. She flirted and finally relaxed in the arms of a salesman from Ohio. He was telling her how beautiful she was and she was laughing. Only I knew she wasn’t really laughing…she was aching for Bruce, and this salesman from Cleveland with the greasy hair, long sideburns, and clip-on tie was a lousy substitute no matter how many whiskey sours she’d downed.
When we got home, we crept past her father’s truck where he was sleeping and tiptoed into the basement. Too drunk to lie down and risk the spinning bed, we sat on the sofa. Kerry pulled her knees to her chest and began to cry. I put my arm around her. I miss him so much…why hasn’t he written…God, I need him…. And then she kissed me. I leaned backwards, but she moved for me, pressing her mouth against mine, her tongue searching for mine in a way my mouth had never been explored, then, or since; her lips were soft and full and warm and with the sweetness of the whiskey sour mix still on them. I felt myself leaning into her to lick the sweetness from her mouth, but this appeared to have stung her with the reality of what we were doing and she pushed away from me to the opposite end of the sofa. Not once in all these years did we speak of this.
The last summer Saturday of ‘77, Kerry and I sat in her kitchen, outlining the assets we could take to an apartment. Hung-over from a keg party, we were nibbling on the sausage balls her mother had made for breakfast.
In the left column, Kerry jotted bed, dresser, and hope chest. She drew a question mark by kitchen table and chairs, and mumbled something about a promise from an aunt. My column included bed, dresser, and an old sofa from my mother.
We spent the entire afternoon at Kmart, pricing dishes, silverware, and towels, because I was too chicken to tell Kerry that I had sneaked back downtown to the recruiting office and joined the Marines. That I’d had a hard time, too, convincing the recruiter I wasn’t running from the police. But I was running. I was running to save myself from all the drinking, from the small-town life, from the strangers at the Holiday Inn, from Billy, and from Kerry. I should have guessed that the next night Kerry would sob and say I was just like Bruce who had shipped out on her, just like Sheila who had abandoned her, and that she would wrap her arms around me at the Mill Mountain Look Out Point, city lights winking back, and that I would grow more and more fearful with each second in her arms that she would and wouldn’t kiss me again.
But in the Kmart, I continued to call out prices of dishtowels and shelf paper as Kerry recorded them in her notebook. She helped me pick out a new dress for what would be my last date that night with Billy.
At the restaurant, Billy and I crossed an arched, red wooden bridge that extended over a stream alongside the building. At the top of the bridge, we paused to look at Koi so anxious for food that their mouths broke the plane of water and made soft squishing sounds.
Inside, we sat by a window with a view of the stream and bridge. Billy ordered from the French menu for both of us. He filled my glass with wine and talked about how this had been the best summer of his life. He reached for my hand, turned it over, and dropped a black velvet box into my palm. Now, you’ll have to accept this, because I’m calling it a graduation gift. He was smiling, looking too innocent to hear the news I was about to deliver at the end of our evening. Open it.
Inside was an intricately carved gold ring that supported a black onyx. Billy lifted the ring from the box and read the inscription: summer of ’77.
Later that evening, we drove through the city in his Triumph convertible with the top down. The giant star atop Mill Mountain was a white blaze of false security. Above the roar of wind, Billy shouted he was heading toward an orchard on Highway 604 to make love to me under the peach trees. How well I knew that road. My family, before the divorce, had lived in a 1920s bungalow on a hill overlooking the highway. At night, headlights from traffic rounding the curve before our driveway skittered across the walls and ceiling of my bedroom.
As he drove, Billy talked about our future, about setting me up in an apartment of my own, about how we would see each other whenever he could get away. He could not see I was crying from sadness and relief. We were still moments away from lying on a blanket under the peach trees, surrounded by the decay of rotting fruit, and from me telling Billy this was where the summer of ’77 was ending and where real life was beginning. The ring around my finger felt tight, confining. For a moment, I plotted to secretly bury the ring under a peach tree before leaving – it would be dark, he wouldn’t notice as he fumbled for his pants – and then returning in a year to uncover how it had been changed.
He downshifted through the curves, passing one peach orchard, preferring another farther down the highway, and I realized he had chosen the orchard just beyond my childhood home, the peach orchard where Kerry and I, on prom night in May, drunk, had driven wildly among the rows of flowering peach trees as if we were being chased by demons. Billy whizzed past the 1920s bungalow. I looked up the hill toward the bedroom windows that had long ago been mine and wondered what had happened to the little girl who once dreamed up happy stories about the people driving by.
Tracy Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and an award-winning military journalist. Her memoir, EYES RIGHT, about her experiences as a Marine journalist during the groundbreaking 1980s, is forthcoming in 2011 from the University of Nebraska Press. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Puerto del Sol, and others, and have been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. Her short story, “Natural Selection,” based on events from her life as a Marine, was recently anthologized alongside work from Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, and Kurt Vonnegut in the Press 53 collection, Home of the Brave. Tracy earned her M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte, and teaches journalism and creative writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.