Bonnie Chadwick was the type of girl about whom other girls said, “I don’t know what they see in her.” This meant simply that Bonnie was a mantrap—envied, admired, and hated like poison. Specifically, the girls hated her navel, always sliding out above her waistband, drawing the eyes of boys with a merciless traction.
The girls also hated Bonnie’s hair: “Without her hair, she’d be nothing.” The hair was a wavy blonde torrent that plunged past Bonnie’s slinky, conniving waistline all the way to her shameless navel. It wasn’t fair! In seventh grade, Bonnie had sported as short and frizzy a perm as everybody else. And though all the girls had changed, some radically, Bonnie had changed more radically than the rest of them put together: the pout, the narrow blue eyes, the sinuous back; somehow, they all fell into place, like the primordial earth they had studied in science class taking shape from its cosmic dust mass. So had Bonnie taken shape—a million times more disturbingly.
On meeting Bonnie, parents invariably uttered one word: Lolita. Mothers did not trust their sons—or their paunchy, balding husbands—in her waif like, flexible presence.
“Wish in one hand and spit in the other,” had said Kevin Brownlow’s mom nastily to Mr. Brownlow when Bonnie dropped by to visit. “See which one fills up first.”
What Bonnie had was so potent that Judy Morris, returning to math class for a forgotten book, had stopped short at the door, at the sight of angular, twitchy Mr. Dixon down on his double knit knees at Bonnie’s feet. Recounting the incident, words had failed Judy. Mr. Dixon’s face had been, she wanted to say, contorted, anguished. But she could only come up with “sad.” Bonnie had simply looked “fed up.”
Judy Morris was Bonnie’s best friend. She was a good candidate for this unenviable position. Small and slim, with round, trusting brown eyes, an unobtrusive nose and a mouth shaped by ingenuousness, Judy seemed incapable of the feline envy that infested other girls— including her own sister, Angie—when it came to Bonnie Chadwick. Boys seldom made passes at Judy because of the virginal morality she seemed to radiate. But they often confided their feelings to her about other girls, usually about Bonnie.
Judy’s sister Angie, older by a year, was tall, flamboyant and competitive. White-skinned and dark-eyed, with curling black hair, Angie Morris resented Bonnie even more than the other girls did. The contrast between the two was almost elemental—light and dark, yin and yang. Fair, languid Bonnie seemed unaware of her galvanic effect on boys, while Angie was constantly on the hunt and hyper-alert to every romantic opportunity.
That summer, the kids spent most evenings hanging out at the Jack-In-the Box on Wilshire in Santa Monica. It was a good place to start the night, close to the beach, the freeway, and the notorious “party row” on Centinela.
Eventually, most of the boys in the crowd came to work at the Jack-in-the-Box, lasting an average of three weeks. No sooner would one quit or get fired than another would take his place. The veterans proudly displayed their forearms, burn-scarred from french fry duty.
Each time she arrived at Jack-in-the-Box, Judy Morris would look up at Jack’s smiling face, rotating moronically on its high pole. What do you see down here, among us? Judy silently implored of Jack’s head. What knowledge of the heart’s deepest secrets and lies did that painted grin conceal?
Beneath Jack was the order window and Mike Braithwaite leaning out on his elbow, a lank comma of dark hair falling across his eyes. Mike was barely eighteen, but he had two pregnant girlfriends, so he held on to his job while the others came and went. Mike’s parents were alcoholic, hardly unique in that crowd, but the Braithwaites’ disease was particularly virulent. To compensate him for his chaotic childhood, Mike’s parents had bequeathed him looks that Valentino would have envied. Mike spent most of his time trying to avoid trouble, but he was born for it.
Judy Morris loved Mike, with a hopeless, humble love. She had seen him surfing one chilly evening in his baggy Hawaiian trunks, silhouetted against an incandescent autumn sunset. He had plunged down the face of a blue wave, his hair blowing off his forehead, his pantherine eyes crinkled up against the water’s reflective glare. When he lost his balance momentarily, he had thrown his head back and laughed as he tottered on the board. Judy, the earnest midwestern transplant, had never seen a human being so astoundingly, unattainably beautiful, so gracefully fashioned. For Judy, the world overseen by Jack’s rotating head became a microcosm of secret joy and pain.
The girls all worked hard on their tans and starved themselves with ferocity and dedication. Any caloric slips were quickly remedied by a finger down the throat. They pursued the boys with a single-mindedness that did not border on obsession, but crossed over and took up permanent residence. Although the girls declared fervently that they believed in virginity, sobriety and fidelity, most of them could be talked into just about anything.
Across from Jack’s was a tiny park, where the kids went to drink, make out, talk, fight, and throw up. And across Wilshire facing north stood the Lawrence Welk Building, four stories tall, beige and nondescript. Judy’s sister Angie called the building Lawrence Welk’s Last Erection, and some of the kids thought that was very funny. Others did not know who Lawrence Welk was. Since Judy and Angie came from Minnesota and had spent a whole semester just learning the polka, they well knew of Lawrence Welk the polka king.
Bonnie’s mother provoked as much pity as her daughter did animus. Short and arrestingly obese, poor Mrs. Chadwick walked with the rocking gait of a penguin. She labored away in a stifling little insurance office and spoiled Bonnie shamelessly. Bonnie had been born out of wedlock, her father a high school football player who had caddishly denied paternity.
Judy could not help imagining that plump little hen of a mother, probably a library monitor, conceiving Bonnie during one gloriously sinful moment in a back seat—no, against a locker—pinioned by the brutal, golden quarterback, his helmet dangling from his arm. One episode of abandon, for which she would pay eternally.
“I’m a mess,” Mike Braithwaite said to Judy. The crowd had gone to a beach party in Malibu, but Judy had waited to give Mike a ride home after he got off work at eleven. One of Mike’s pregnant girlfriends had moved back with her parents. The other had disappeared in Mike’s dilapidated Ford.
“It won’t take you a minute to clean up,” said Judy. “I’ll wait.”
“I said I’m a mess. I might as well join the Army.” Judy searched Mike’s hazel eyes, not knowing what to say.
“But that won’t solve anything. And what if they send you to war?” She shuddered.
Mike shrugged. “At least it’ll feed my kids. The way it is now, I’m worthless.”
“I don’t think so,” said Judy glumly, rendered inarticulate by the nearness of him.
Judy and Angie had moved to Santa Monica from Minnesota following the collapse of their father’s contracting business. Their home, heavily mortgaged, had been foreclosed early one morning by apologetic but unyielding repo men with faint Norwegian accents. The family was ushered out into the street with the clothes on their backs and a few keepsakes. That was how they did things in Minnesota; if you couldn’t pay, you had to go.
The Morrises had driven to Los Angeles and descended on Mr. Morris’s younger brother, Zack, who tried to find Mr. Morris a job. But by this time, Mr. Morris had no spirit left and had begun to drink. He stuck it out for a few months, then headed back to Minnesota. Mrs. Morris took a job working stock in a department store.
The balmy southern California air, the proximity of the beach, and the infinite horizon of ocean and sky soon seduced the uprooted sisters. Their high school in Minnesota had been three stories of solid brick, with small, barred windows and a grim, tattletale hall monitor at every door. If you were caught chewing gum in class, you just might have to cut that gum out of your hair.
But Santa Monica High was an “open campus” of many buildings, whose boundaries leaked students. You could see and smell the ocean from the classrooms. Teachers answered to their first names.
“I’m a loser, right where I belong,” said Mike Braithwaite. He was standing at the back door of the Jack-in-the Box, amid overflowing aluminum garbage cans, a sea of used wrappers and cartons at his feet. But Judy might have been lounging on the cliffs of Monte Carlo overlooking the blue Mediterranean, she was that happy just to be near him. From experience, though, she knew that self-deprecation was often the prelude to a confidence. Her heart began to quiver with apprehension, because most male confidences had to do with her best friend Bonnie.
Asking Mike what was wrong would be risky, but she had to say something. “What’s wrong?”
“But what … is the most wrong?” She held her breath.
“I knew it,” Judy couldn’t help blurting.
“You do? That makes it a little easier for me,” said Mike. “I’ve held it all inside till I thought I’d go nuts.” He sighed and flipped his dingy counter rag over his shoulder. “I know I’ve got no right.” No, you haven’t, thought Judy, but she would never say such a thing to him.
“Have you told her…yet?” Judy asked, dreading his reply. In her experience, boys seldom suffered in silence or loved from afar for long. They wanted to confess, confront, prevail. They wanted an answer, which, with Bonnie, was usually no. Once a boy declared his love, Bonnie seemed only to want to put distance between them.
“She doesn’t trust guys very much,” said Judy “after what happened to her mother.”
“And I would be her worst nightmare,” said Mike. Judy could not think of Mike being anybody’s worst nightmare. Nevertheless, it was true.
“What about Heather and Eileen? And the babies?”
“That’s why I think I ought to just join up,” said Mike. “Put it all behind me. I have to tell you something.” Uh-oh, thought Judy. Here it comes. She braced herself. He leaned close to her, and she tried to take in all his beauty and intensity, secretly pretending they were meant for her.
“I love Bonnie more than I’ve ever loved anybody in my life. I would devote myself to her forever. I would never, ever leave her.” This, Judy knew, was for her to pass along. She tried it on. It was almost too much to bear. Her eyes stung.
“I’ll tell her.”
“Yes!” Mike threw his dishrag up at the sky. It soared and fluttered like a soiled bird before flopping back to the tarmac. “I swear, I’d go to school, I’d work so hard. I’ll become a lawyer. Or a doctor. I’d do anything for her.”
“But what about your babies?” Mike picked up the towel again, but this time he whipped it against a full trash can so violently that the can tottered.
“Come on,” said Judy. “I’ll take you home.”
The next morning, Judy knocked at Bonnie’s door to go to the beach, feeling as if she were going to an execution. Bonnie was washing dishes, wearing her mother’s housedress over her bikini. From the way Bonnie slammed the plates and cups, rinsing them perfunctorily, Judy knew that Bonnie had been ordered do the dishes or she could not go to the beach. The house was furnished with the kind of cheerful china that a certain type of lonely woman buys: china flowerpot roosters, little dogs and cats with woeful eyes, and a huge, grinning pink piggy bank.
“I might as well get this over with,” she said, while Bonnie washed.
“What over with?” said Bonnie.
“Mike’s got the hots for you.” Judy picked up a pen and inserted it into a Mexican straw coaster and spun the coaster around her head disconsolately like a pinwheel.
Bonnie turned, dripping suds onto the floor. “I love him too.”
“Oh no,” said Judy, half rising. “Don’t love him.”
“Why not?” Judy had often witnessed how wicked gossip came back around like a boomerang and clobbered the speaker. But for the first time, she felt the rage of jealousy. It surged up in her like a tsunami of yellow bile, coursed through her veins, and distorted her face. Her heart pounded. Why should Bonnie get everything? Her sister hated Bonnie. The other girls hated Bonnie, and with good reason. Bonnie drove men crazy, and now she was going to cause Mike to abandon the babies he had fathered. Poor little babies, so innocent and pure. And what about Heather and Eileen, the mothers, their lives ruined just like Mrs. Chadwick’s had been! Judy had to speak out for them and nip this thing in the bud.
“He told me he wanted to fuck your lights out. Because he knows he can. It was terrible.”
“He did?” Bonnie blinked. “Maybe that’s not so bad, I mean, maybe it’s passion.” Even recoiling from herself, Judy was shocked that her lie had not delivered its intended effect. She must press onward, complete the deed. Her head swam.
“He said …he said he thought you were a slut.”
“He did? That I’m a slut?”
“He said he just wanted to fuck you. ‘Cause that’s all you deserve. Just like your mother.”
“Oh no!” Bonnie burst into tears. Like Mike, she whipped a dish towel with all her strength.
“He called you a bastard.” Bonnie was really sobbing now, and Judy felt frightened, yet intoxicated. She had crashed through the pesky gates of conscience to frolic in the brine of pure evil.
“You tell him I hate him,” sobbed Bonnie. “Tell him he’s worthless.”
“Oh I can’t tell him that.”
“If you don’t, I will. And tell him never to look at me or speak to me.” At this, Judy too burst into tears.
“It’s okay. I know what he is now,” Bonnie said. “I know what people really think of me.”
Well, you don’t exactly, thought Judy, but you’re getting a little closer. She had never felt so miserable in her life, even when her father left. Bonnie continued to sob, but instead of getting it off her chest and composing herself, she began to wail loudly, and launched into a fit of hysterics. She howled and screamed so fiercely that Judy realized her remarks must have breached a very deep vein of misery within Bonnie. Fortunately, Bonnie’s mother was not at home. But an elderly lady neighbor in a bathrobe knocked at the door and asked if she should call the police or a doctor? Judy told her that Bonnie had failed a math test in summer school. The lie slid out easily and smoothly.
“Well at least she has a good friend here to lean on. That means everything. My dear,” the old lady said to Bonnie, “you shouldn’t take things to heart so.” It took Judy over an hour to calm Bonnie down. Then the girls walked to the beach, but Bonnie was silent all day, gazing out at the horizon with uncomprehending, reddened eyes.
That night, when Judy confided the episode to Angie, her sister agreed that she had done wrong. But all she had to do was tell Bonnie the truth.
“I don’t dare,” Judy said. “I want to go back to Minnesota. I’ve made a mess of my life.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Angie. “This place is miles ahead of Minnesota.”
“But you’re graduating. I’m going to be all alone in school next year, and look what I’ve done. Everybody is going to hate me.”
“No they won’t. Most people have very short memories.”
But Judy was right. That Friday night, when the girls pulled into the Jack-in-the-Box in their mother’s old Chevy, the other kids clumped together like a herd of buffalo and stood staring outward at the Common Enemy. The chill was as frigid and palpable as the early February gales that had surged down from Canada to turn their knees blue in Minnesota.
Angie reached into the back seat of the car for the bottle of gin that they had stolen from under the kitchen sink where their mother stored it, along with the other household poisons. The sight of the bottle piqued a stir of interest, but the kids did not approach.
“We’re finished,” said Angie. Mike emerged from the Jack-in-the-Box and pushed through the crowd to Bonnie and defiantly put his arm around her. She clung to him and kissed him fiercely. They glared at the Chevy as if it contained Fafnir the dragon.
Angie and Judy sat in the car passing the bottle of gin back and forth. After a while, the kids dispersed for the evening to cruise and go to parties. Judy got out of the car and stood uncertainly in the middle of the drive-through lane. A couple of carloads of customers maneuvered around her to reach the order box. After they had passed through, Judy followed them and stepped on the cord as hard as she could.
“Take your order please?” came Mike’s voice.
“I’m sorry, Mike,” said Judy. She began to cry.
“It’s okay,” said Mike. “I told her the truth. Now will you get off the cord?”
“I love you, Mike,” said Judy.
“Thank you,” said Mike, “but I’ve got enough problems.”
“Okay.” Judy drooped back to the car. By this time, Angie had sobered up somewhat, and the two Minnesota girls drove home.
Like a dam bursting, the event inundated everyone for a while, then petered out in little rivulets of who said what and to whom. Later that year, Bonnie married the manager of the Hollywood Ranch Market. Mike joined the Navy and married his girlfriend, Heather, who had a little boy. Nobody knew what became of the other pregnant girlfriend. After graduation, Judy found a job working dispatch for a plumbing contractor who rented space on the second floor of Lawrence Welk’s Last Erection. From her desk, she could gaze across the street into the face of the all-knowing Jack head, onto the scene of her first true love and her perfidy.
Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English and currently lives in Silicon Valley. Her fiction and non-fiction appear in McSweeney’s, The Write Launch, All the Sins, Cimarron Review, and The Guardian, among others. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won first prize in the Writers Place fiction competition. Her suspense novella, The Remnant, has just been accepted for publication.