This piece is an excerpt from Laura’s novel-in-progress, Beautiful Revolutionary.
They pack the station wagon and head to the lake around noon that Saturday, with their hats and sunglasses, their towels and books, a basket full of sunscreen and picnic foods, and it’s all very A Summer Place in Evelyn’s mind, very lightweight and bourgeois, and reminds her intensely of the weekend she lost her virginity in Santa Cruz. She was living away from her family for the first time in her life, with family friends in Salinas, finishing her last year of high school where she began it rather than following her father to the next parish. She was almost eighteen. The boy was called Percy. She has to grapple for the name, but it’s there. Percy. His face isn’t. Only that he had dimples and was good-looking in a bland sort of way that didn’t touch her heart at all. He was someone else’s friend on the beach trip. A whole clan of them went, white girls and white boys with wicker bags and candy-colored convertibles. He courted her for a whole day, up close and from a distance; smiled at her when he caught a football and sat with her at lunch and asked her questions about her family and interests. Later, when it was dark and everyone a little drunk and the two of them walked to the sand dunes, probably neither of them was expecting anything more than some heavy petting. She remembers lying on her back. How soft the sand was. How dark the sky. Looking past Percy at the stars and thinking, Am I really too good for this? Am I really so pure?
It was giddy and hot and hurt a bit, but not enough to make her bleed. She wondered about that afterward, whether there was something wrong with her for not bleeding, insensitive and unfeminine. Her and Percy stayed on good terms for about a month and went out a couple of times, to a concert and to a dance, but both times she had treated him with blithe friendliness, like a visiting cousin. By the end of the second date, he was completely subdued, and never called her back for a third, though he said he would. A little while later, she found out he was dating another girl and the news left her feeling disproportionately rebuffed, used-up, so that she wept in private and swore off boys for the rest of the summer. Then she was a freshman in college and then JFK was dead, and it all seemed connected somehow to the same misery, which stretched across her beautiful life as stickily intricate as a spiderweb.
Evelyn sits in the evergreen shade with her book. She won’t get sunburnt again. She watches Lenny bounce toward the lip of the lake, wade in to his knees, and look back at her, then take to the water like the healthy Californian boy he is. The next time she looks up, he’s just a dot in the middle of the lake, near the boats. If he were drowning, would she notice? She returns to her book, and later sees Lenny sitting in the shallows, trailing his fingers through the water like it’s a rare substance and apparently deep in thought.
It isn’t love when two animals of the same species sniff each other out and mate successfully, but still it’s seen as a good thing. Evelyn and Lenny are of the same species. Percy too had been of the same species, and every other young man she went out with and withheld sex from between her freshman year and her exchange year in Bordeaux. There was a certain dry pleasure in withholding what she knew to be good and easily obtainable; in going to the trouble of putting on nylons and ratting her hair and dancing in high heels then giving absolutely nothing. In her own way, Evelyn lived ascetically, though she ‘had fun’ and ‘dated a lot’. She sublimated her desires. She got good grades. She had many female friends, who she talked with incessantly about women’s lib and whose menstrual cycles fell into sync with hers. And perhaps once every six months, she would drink a little more than usual and let some quiet, attractive fellow take her home and tell no one about it, with the hope that he wouldn’t either. For though she wasn’t ashamed exactly, it would’ve looked bad for the daughter of the minister-on-campus to have a ‘reputation’.
It would’ve looked bad for the daughter of the minister-on-campus to be anything but what she appeared to be.
She is reading Camus. She is wearing a black bathing suit, with full black briefs and a full black bra. She likes the way reading in French makes her mind feel impenetrable, and the time lapses between one vista and the next. Lenny is there, and then he is not. The trail up from the beach is empty, and then there are two teenagers walking along it, boy and girl, short-legged in shorts with towels slung over their shoulders. Evelyn looks a little closer and sees the girl has straight black hair and golden skin like an Asian; is an Asian; is, on that assumption, from the Temple, and now that she thinks of it, may actually be one of Jim Jones’ children. The boy and girl seem to sense her gaze and look up and the boy calls out from the trail, and Evelyn waves and wonders about Jim, if he is near. She feels a stab of desire, as involuntary as a fart, and is embarrassed. She reads some more Camus, and then Lenny is on dry land, toweling himself off and wearing sunglasses. But not like Jim’s sunglasses.
‘Who were those people?’ he says.
‘Temple people I think.’
Lenny nods and shows no further curiosity. He sits on his towel and interprets the title of her book aloud, ‘“Happy Death”,’ then looks proud of himself for understanding French. He plays with the grass and after a couple of minutes, he says, ‘The water was good.’ And not for the first time in her life, Evelyn thinks to herself that this man she is married to he isn’t very bright.
Even though the thought of meeting Jim Jones and his family recurs throughout the afternoon, it’s a shock for Evelyn to at last see the messy, many-colored lot of them, loading up a big blue Pontiac in the syrupy end-of-day light. Boys, maybe four of them, all chirping happily and the smallest of them a black boy, very cute, following after Jim Jones and Jim Jones with a dog under one arm, a decent-sized sheepdog she wouldn’t have thought could be carried like that. Other dogs too, one of them nosing an empty Coke can, and collapsible sunchairs, a collapsed umbrella. Jim Jones notices the dog with the can and frowningly says something to one of the white boys, and the white boy trots over dutifully and takes the can away and places it in the trash. The teenagers from before are there too, and what about Jim Jones’ wife, Rosaline? At first, Evelyn thinks she must be absent, but then she notices a plain-pale face with cat-eye sunglasses, a sleeveless blouse, a hive of faded reddish-blond hair, a homey female voice running like a creek beneath the commotion. Why is he with her? The thought comes unbidden and painful to Evelyn, and she thinks to herself that she’s a terrible person and Rosaline isn’t, and that’s why, case closed, no holy mystery.
‘Hey, look,’ Lenny says from by the trunk he’s just pried open, ‘That’s Jim.’
Evelyn turns to her beautiful shirtless boy-husband with a smile she hopes is nonchalant and nods, so her still-damp ponytail bobs. She has been swimming. Her black bathing suit though mostly dry has patches of dampness, and the man’s shirt she’s wearing over it has two comical dark spots where her nipples are. She passes the basket and towels to Lenny and he plunks them in the trunk. A breeze shakes through the evergreens. Evelyn shivers. Lenny slams the trunk, comes up beside her, and puts an arm around her shoulder.
Together they watch Jim Jones and his rainbow family.
After a while, Evelyn becomes conscious that they’ve been watching too long, and that Lenny wants to speak to Jim Jones as well, but is feeling the same shyness she is. Lenny likes Jim, she knows; likes him uncritically like a foreigner likes Mickey Mouse, has said he is ‘cool, like a cowboy or Elvis’. She turns to Lenny with a helpless shrug and they both laugh and wordlessly agree to get in the station wagon without making themselves known, and fastidiously they shut the doors and wind down the windows and reverse.
But…Maybe it’s the fact that they have to pass the Pontiac anyway, or maybe it’s that most of Jim Jones’ family are already in it, only the teenagers and Jim still chatting and the black boy on Jim’s shoulders and one smiling dog. Or maybe it’s Jim himself, how good and dazzling and yet somehow reassuringly normal he looks, barefoot and wearing shorts, nice tanned feet, nice tanned muscular legs. Evelyn feels a spike of giddy entitlement and without really thinking about it leans out the window and purrs, ‘Just look at that bourgeois American family.’
Jim Jones turns, grins hugely, doesn’t miss a beat.
‘Lousy sonofabitchin’ longhairs, get the hell outta here!’
Image: Petri A.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett is a Melbourne-based author and aspiring screenwriter. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Award Winning Australian Writing, Betanarratives, and The Suburban Review. This year, she was one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s ’30 Under 30′. Find her at lauraelizabethwoollett.com.