By Andrea Jarrell
When I was ten, my mother declared me old enough to stay on my own between the time school let out and the time her Buick Skylark would roll up from work, tucking in behind our modest apartment near the Pacific Ocean. She tested me first, made me run a mock fire drill and a bad-guy-at-the-door drill. After passing her gauntlet, I was liberated from my babysitter, the muumuu-wearing, horn-toenailed Mrs. Carmichael.
Although we never would have referred to me as a latchkey kid (my mother forbade me to wear a key around my neck), that’s what I was. During those witching hours growing up in 1970s Los Angeles, I banded together with other untethered children. We dared each other to jump from my second story bedroom window into thick ivy below. We roamed the neighborhood on our bikes, stole candy from the supermarket, and tried out the confessional box at St. Bernard’s even though we weren’t Catholic.
But sometime during sixth grade, that daring girl I’d been just the year before turned inward. Unlike my classmates, I’d begun to look more woman than girl. Boys who had once been friends accused me of stuffing my bra; they taunted and grabbed me. Too much engine under the hood for the girl I was, I didn’t know how to respond. I was ashamed of their attentions mostly because my body seemed to be complicit, revealing new desires I wanted to keep secret. Only after school was out, left to my own devices and free to discover the rev and purr of my body, could I appreciate my full breasts in the mirror.
When I wasn’t lost in myself, I escaped into television. This was before VCRs and TiVo. My options were soap operas, bad cartoons, game shows, and my favorite, Westerns. I liked the old ones made before I was born: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and The Rifleman. At that age, I vacillated between wanting the rifle-wielding Chuck Connors for myself and wanting him to ride up on his horse and rescue my single mother.
One memorable commercial peppered these shows. Voiced by spokesman James Garner, the ad provoked a longing in me I’ve not forgotten, both a yearning and an urge to act.
The ad was for strawberries, sponsored by the California Strawberry Growers Association.
Just as there was no on-demand television then, fruits had strict seasons that lasted only a few months. Over photos of sliced berries garnishing piping hot oatmeal and piled high on waffles laced with maple syrup, Mr. Garner teased: “Imagine strawberries on a crisp autumn or cold winter morning?” His closing pitch: “Why now? Because they’re here now.”
It was the here now that pierced me. Come October and December, I would want those strawberries, yet they would be an impossibility. The memory of May’s shortcake would be my only salve.
Wise to the growing number of latchkey kids, television executives started creating programming just for us. The ABC Afterschool Special dove deep into taboo topics that called to me. By the time my mother came home, my nose was pressed against a glass of teen sex, runaways, anorexia, alcoholism, and feminism.
Even by high school, though, when the bodies of my classmates had caught up to mine, I had yet to act – to delve into real sex, to drink, to stay out late, to speak out for causes I believed in, to flout authority in any way. Not wanting to risk the judgment of others, I sat on the sidelines hungry for a taste of the grown up things I longed to do.
I have a man between my thighs, but it’s not what you think.
I’ve just swung my leg over the back of his Ninja sport bike and tucked my hands into the front pockets of his leather jacket. Pulling away from the curb, already the seat vibrates my most secret places. As we take off down the block, my knees press into his hips, giving me the illusion I’m in control and steering, but with the pavement so close my life is in his hands.
The sun is neon orange and low. It’s Friday evening in early September, technically still summer, the air buttery soft around me. I live on the other side of the country now, just outside of Washington, D.C. My local grocer carries strawberries year round. Not a girl anymore, I’ve been married to my husband Brad for over twenty years. Our daughter is in college and our son has just started his senior year in high school.
The year before our girl went away, I was overcome with fits of crying. Like a wave I could see off in the distance from shore, our life as a family of four was coming to an end. Scared the bittersweetness of it all might pull me under, I braced myself to ride it out. That was a couple of years ago. Now with our son’s departure only a year off, instead of an end it feels like a beginning.
Earlier in the afternoon, I texted Brad, “How about a motorcycle ride?”
We leave our neighborhood behind, heading upcountry on roads whose names—Lost Knife, Old Gunpowder, Bowie Mill, Goshen—inspire the storyteller in me. Sitting at a stoplight, waiting for green, I glance at the people around us, car windows open, heading into their weekends. Two girls in a black SUV are laughing and singing to the radio. They beam smiles our way. Brad reaches back to pat my thigh, his hand lingering. The light changes and we’re gone.
Merging into traffic, we bullet forward. I fly back a little and grip his middle tighter. Who are we to offer up our fragile Humpty Dumpty heads like this? I think. A boy in his last year of high school still needs us. I see my daughter in her twenties and remember myself at that age. They both still need us. I see my mother, my in-laws, our friends and neighbors at our imagined funeral, shaking their heads and saying, Why would they be so stupid, so careless to ride like that?
I’m not sure what Brad feels about this impending time when it will be just us again; I’ve been afraid to ask, and now I’m not sure I want to know. For all the time we’ve been together, part of me has always been on the lookout for that moment when the music will stop and harsh lights will be abruptly cast on the glow of our party.
But on this September evening, I feel freer than I have in years. As we accelerate, I don’t worry about crashing and burning amidst the cars around us, even after I catch sight of a dead fawn on the shoulder, legs mangled, white belly exposed, the burnt-leaf scent of its baking carcass sharp in my nostrils. I relax, the way I learned to float as a child: lying back on the surface of the water, trusting it would hold me.
We ride for miles, as I duck down behind Brad to keep us streamlined and fast. We lean in unison as we take the curve of a freeway onramp to head for home. Shifting lanes, I instinctively turn my head as he does, looking over our shoulders in sync, as if we’re part of a movie’s chase scene, staying just ahead of what’s after us.
Back home, we make love as we both knew we would. After all, that’s what my invitation for the ride was all about. Lately, we’ve been having more sex than ever. The sex has always been good, but something has changed and I think it’s me.
Despite having had my fair share of lovers before I married and a robust sex life with my husband, for all these years I’ve still been shy about revealing the magnitude of my desire. Pleasing someone else is easy for me, but enjoying my own pleasure takes a different kind of letting go. Especially without the tried-and-true de-inhibitor of alcohol. Shortly after we married, my husband quit drinking. In solidarity with his sobriety, so did I.
Yet lately, clear-eyed and sober, I flaunt my desire for him.
Walking naked into our room, no need for the cover of darkness, Feast your eyes on me, I’m finally eager to say. I am that girl in front of the mirror again, reveling in her own body, inviting my husband to be equally seduced. I’ve shed my youthful need to look perfect. I don’t see thighs I once thought too big. Instead I appreciate slim hips and sexy shoulders. I’m grateful for the way my body makes me feel, the way it makes him feel. No longer encumbered by all the pressures and worries of raising children, now my job is to move forward, to keep living.
* * *
The morning after our ride, Brad gets up early as he does every Saturday morning. While I’m still sleeping, he’s opening the doors of a church basement, turning on the lights, getting the coffee ready for the AA meeting ahead. Afterwards, he calls me and laughs as he says, “I kept thinking about last night. During the Lord’s Prayer I was afraid I was going to groan or say something I was thinking out loud.”
After we hang up, I text him, “Come home to me. I’m not sure why, but my breasts are big and beautiful right now. We should enjoy them while we can.”
I don’t tell him that I know exactly why I’ve recently gained more than a cupsize. I’d lost my ample breasts after nursing two kids, but now, in perimenopause, they are larger and firmer. Once again they are the breasts I hid from the boys in school forty years ago.
Our son is on his way to a friend’s soccer game. As soon as he leaves, Brad comes to me, kisses my neck as he lifts my shirt.
“I wonder if kids know their parents are waiting for them to leave the house so they can have sex,” he says as we lie in bed afterwards.
“No, they’re just thinking about their own escape and the sex they want to have,” I say, laughing.
But even as I say this, the knowledge that next year will be different hangs over us. There will be no son down the hall, no children at home, and my full, ripe breasts may wane again for good. Gazing into my husband’s blue eyes, I push such worries from my mind. Determined to seize this season and savor it, I run my hand along his thigh.
Andrea Jarrell’s essays have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column; Narrative Magazine; Full Grown People; Brain, Child; The Washington Post and several anthologies, sites and publications. Her memoir I’m the One Who Got Away will be published in 2016 by Booktrope.