The Club House (Beginning)

They made an unlikely gang. Unalike and not likeable. But they dressed the same (in tank tops and Koret™ shorts) and they spoke in code (transistor radiospeak), and if they hadn’t been white suburban girls in 1963 they might have been threatening.

Sometimes there were several of them, but mostly it was Beth and Vickie and Vickie. They lived on the same two blocks and were naturally reduced to each other’s company. Their tract homes were set on rectangular lots on a grid of streets named “East” this-or-that for the already-established developments, of the same dull names, on the west side of town: the old side of town; the poor side. This was the eastern edge of Chula Vista, south of San Diego, in the early 60s.

They were thirteen. Old enough to sometimes stuff toilet paper in the bras they made their mothers buy them, and too young to know what “whore” meant or how to find it in the dictionary, when Vickie D’s older sister used the word on them and told them to look it up (as it happened, the closest to a whore in the neighborhood was Vickie D’s same big sister, Lavonne, but they didn’t have an inkling about any of that then). They played with dolls, but the dolls were no virgins; they were early, ugly-faced Barbies, and when they tired of the exquisite clothing complete with miniature accessories, they tended to drape the dolls in provocative dresses made of scarves, with predictable consequences (this was before Ken; these Barbies had patent pending on the right cheeks of their asses, but the girls cut their hair and swapped their straight-pinned heads with no regard for how those acts sank the future value of the toys).

The only things they had in common were their sterile neighborhood and their birth year. As they moved through junior high they would be separated, with Beth in the fast track for college and Vickie D in the fast track for life. Vickie J would move to Maine the following year; she’d be sent to a girls’ school and become as elegant and snobbish as her own pedigreed long-haired dachshund. But for that season they were still hanging around together.

Their houses were three-bedroom, two-bath, ranch-style. Their back yards all had six-foot high redwood fences edged with iceplant. Boring lawns and obvious porches. The sidewalks were made of big concrete blocks. The homes presented themselves driveways first. Everyone had a front lawn, with hibiscus or bird-of-paradise or both. Some had pepper trees, or lemons. A few had backyard swimming pools. It was six-tenths of a mile to circle around the block.

Beth and Vickie and Vickie sought other better places. They were girlish young women, and they wanted to be by themselves. Beth’s house never worked for that. Her mother was hospitable to a fault. And Beth had younger brothers. There was always plenty of food around, lots of warmth, no privacy. “Want to try a real pickle?” or “Here: I just learned how to make these shakes,” was the sound of Beth’s mom presenting one of her energetic kitchen experiments to them: the bitter dilled cucumbers she brined in a vat but was too impatient to wait the necessary weeks for … or the milk-ice-and-jam blender shakes she read about, hurriedly between self-interrupted errands, in a ladies’ magazine. “What’s new at school … Phil-UP!” was Beth’s mom asking the answerless parental question even as she swung her dark-haired head around to yell after one of Beth’s maniac brothers. They were always welcome to be with Beth’s family, but they didn’t want to be with a family. And Beth’s made them uncomfortable in their several ways. Her mother was pretty, abrupt, pushy: she smelled of onions and evergreens and she expected Beth, smart, frizzy-haired, myopic Beth, to be into clothes and cosmetics and not to be into sex and philosophy. Her father was professorial. Her brothers were little brothers. The girls were chatty with Beth’s mom, respectful to her dad, and elusive with Philip and Bruce.

Vickie J’s house didn’t work either. She was an only child and both parents were often out, but the girls couldn’t count on that. Her father might come home early from work. He was a handsome man, and he always dressed in fine soft fabrics like cashmere and silk, but his presence put a damper on their conversation. Her mother was usually out shopping or golfing or doing her volunteer work, but she too was known to breeze in unexpectedly. She always smelled of expensive perfume and sometimes of powdery scotch. Vickie J had smooth blonde hair like her mother and a lithe body like her dad. Her nose was too big, and she was then two years away from getting it fixed, which made it odd how she ribbed Beth about hers (referring to “a nose like a toucan” in her inscription of Beth’s yearbook, for everyone to see).

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