Driving in my car the landscape speeds by me almost as quickly as my life has or so it seems. And I can’t help but think back to my childhood days, The Bee Gees, spin the bottle, late night chats about whom we would marry and what we would become; it all seemed so promising then, such a normal childhood. We’d remain inseparable. We locked pinkies on it. Friends forever is how we signed each card or photograph. We would take on anything, as long as we had each other. Back then, thirty-five was middle aged, or so we thought.
Two decades later my friends whom I idolized, the girls I had spent every free moment with, are merely acquaintances now. Both time and circumstance have caused us to drift apart, but the memories are ingrained forever. And thirty-five hardly seems middle aged now.
I guess you can say they were tomorrow’s memories. And though we haven’t spoken in years, each of their distinct voices echoes in my head. I remember their laughter, the curve of their lips when they’d smile, and the paths in which their lives were supposed to have taken. But mostly, I remember that horrible night and a secret we swore we’d never repeat.
In late spring of 1975, we had just moved into our new home in a quaint town called Liberty. It was nestled in a valley where the rolling hills provided a picturesque backdrop. My parents were born and raised within minutes of Liberty, opting for this quiet place because of affordable housing. Liberty was only a few minutes to my father’s job. My dad, Paul, sold airtime for the local TV channel and Mom, her name was Beth, she stayed at home with us. That’s what most mothers did in those days - something my friends and I promised we’d never do.
Our subdivision consisted of mostly bi-levels. Ours was a modest, gray retro style with an identical one to either side. Each of the streets in Liberty was named after something to do with history or the judicial system: Executive Blvd., Presidential Lane. We lived on Justice Drive.
Gabrielle Sanchez lived in the house to my left. I can vividly remember the first day we met. She was playing with her siblings in their back yard. There were eight all together, five girls and three boys. Mom suggested I go over and introduce myself.
I was somewhat shy about making the introduction, so I pretended my ball rolled over onto their property. One of her brothers quickly swiped it up and began teasing me. He was older than me by a few years and rather rough around the edges. But Gabrielle jumped to my defense and retrieved the ball for me. “Thanks,” I said, as she handed it back.
Gabrielle’s smile was striking. Her skin was radiant and her hair was thick with wild waves. Mrs. Sanchez was naturally beautiful and shy. She and Mr. Sanchez were both of Latino decent.Gabby’s dad was a career army man. Prior to living in Liberty they had lived in Texas.
Her brothers played in camouflage almost everyday, and they would often shoot rocks into our yard when they would play war games. It drove Dad nuts when a stone would get lodged in his lawnmower.
“I really like your hair.” Gabby commented.
“Thanks,” I said as I weaved my fingers through it. My hair was a lighter shade of ruby and it hung loosely around my face. The hazel hue to my eyes made a statement against my opaque complexion. Thanks to several years of orthodontics my teeth were straight.
“I’m Pepper, Pepper O’Neil,” I replied, as I reached to take back the ball.
“Pepper. Is that your real name?” she asked.
“My real name is Patricia, but everyone calls me Pepper.” I went on to tell her how my little brother had difficulty pronouncing Patricia when he was younger, and somehow Pepper was adopted.
Within minutes, Gabby was in my yard. We sat talking for hours. It was the beginning of the beginning. Although, I was a year older than Gabby, the two of us bonded immediately. It was Gabby who introduced me to Liz Townsend. She went to St. Ann’s with Gabby. Liz lived down the street on the same side about five houses away.
Liz was pleasantly plump and often battled with acne but to us, she was beautiful. She was easy to get along with and was more bashful than Gabby and I.
Looking back now, I realize how difficult it must have been for Liz, dealing with her weight and blemished skin during those teen years. I think she had always felt a little insecure around us because we were thinner and had a more active lifestyle. We enjoyed hopping on our Schwinn bikes and riding around Liberty, while Liz viewed it as exercise. She'd rather enjoy reading science fiction books and making things with her label maker. We were careful never to do or say anything to make her feel bad about her weight since it was a sensitive subject for her.
The Townsends were picture perfect. Maggie Townsend was actually quite pretty, but she was also a bit rotund. She had the same flaxen hair as Liz, and they shared identical piercing blue eyes. Mrs. Townsend, as we respectfully called her, sat on every possible township committee, which meant she baked constantly. Her face always looked like her make-up was painted on - a hazard of her job, I guess. And their home usually smelled like a gourmet bakery.
John Townsend taught at Liberty Middle School, which I attended, though I never had him for class. He was well liked as a teacher and even won Liberty’s Man of the Year Award in ’75. Mrs. Townsend was quick to brag of his notoriety after I moved to town. She loved to consider herself high society, though we knew it to be different. We just let her boast.
During that summer, Gabby, Liz, and I spent every moment together. We’d watch re-runs of I Dream of Jeanie in the morning, hung out listening to records at my house in the afternoon, and we’d walk to the little league, via McNurney’s Pond in the evenings where we’d scope out the boys. The three of us became inseparable.
Unfortunately, Gabby’s dad was strict, and she wasn’t allowed at the ballpark. We had to sneak, and if we got caught there, we usually made up a lie like we were thirsty and stopped to grab a soda at the concession stand.
Mr. Sanchez also ran a tight home. Gabby was the middle sister of five girls. She was expected to cook, clean and even do the laundry. Her two older sisters had jobs outside of the home, causing the brunt of the work to fall on Gabby’s shoulders.
Mrs. Sanchez cleaned houses part time to help makes ends meet. Her mother was bi-lingual, though her English was very elementary. I remember how cool I thought it was because Gabby could speak two languages. When her parents argued the Spanish would fly. Occasionally, we would be able to translate a phrase or two and those were usually the swear words.
Gabby and I liked going to Liz’s house; her room was sophisticated. The canopy bed was covered with bright pink linens and fluffy decorative pillows were strewn about the bed. And we’d spend an occasional afternoon sprawled across the shag rug, studying her life size picture of David Cassidy which was displayed on the back of the bedroom door. Neatly tucked in the corner, was every issue of Teen magazine ever printed. Liz definitely had it great. As a young girl it seemed awesome to be an only child. Gabby and I always wanted to go to her house because she had everything we didn’t. But Liz acted as though none of it was a big deal.
As for me, I shared a room with my older sister, Diane, in bunk beds. My father made a sparse living in sales. He never complained, nor did we ever consider ourselves deprived. It wouldn’t be till I was a parent that I could see how my folks must have stretched his paychecks to make ends meet.
My little brother, Jack, got his own bedroom since he was the only boy. I seldom complained about what I didn’t have because for Gabby things were always worse.
Gabby shared her room with all of her sisters. They slept three in one bed and two in the other. The three boys split the adjacent room, and the siblings had an adjoining bathroom. Their clothes were passed down from sister to sister, but Gabby never objected. The majority of her wardrobe was usually tattered by the time she received them.
Mrs. Sanchez sewed most of the school uniforms for St. Ann’s herself. Five of the eight children attended the Catholic school, probably with help from the diocese and much volunteer sewing from Mrs. Sanchez. The two younger Sanchez children could usually be seen literally hanging from Mrs. Sanchez. It reminded me of the pictures in National Geographic where the baby chimps would hang from their mother’s breasts. The poor woman never had a free moment to herself.
Attending Liberty Middle School, I had my own clique of casual friends but missed not going to St. Ann’s with the girls. I never did really find out why my parents chose not to send us to St. Ann’s; maybe they had their share of nuns and priests in their day. Nonetheless, we never missed nine o’clock mass on Sundays.
Liberty was a town where everyone pretty much knew everyone else, and if someone didn’t know you personally, someone definitely knew your parents. I learned this the hard way when on a dare, I once stole gum from old man Fester’s corner store at the bottom of our street. He made sure the news made it home before I did. That was one of the few times I can ever remember dad raising a hand to me. I remember cringing whenever I’d see Fester in church on Sundays. He’d give me a look like he was going to make me pay for the rest of my life because I stole a lousy five-cent piece of gum.
We seldom spent time at Gabby’s house, mostly because there was never any room. Someone was always coming or going, and with her dad’s overbearing personality, we’d rather keep our distance. I think Gabby was always aware of this, but we never let her know our apprehension towards him.
Gabby and Liz sort of looked up to me for answers. I was older and of course, in their eyes, it automatically made me wiser. I was the friend who suggested what we’d be doing each day and where we’d go. It just worked out that way.
Games like Tag and Baseball in my backyard with the neighborhood boys were suddenly getting boring, and we were beginning to see boys in a new way. Before long we began hanging out across the street from my house in the vacant lot playing Spin the Bottle.
The lot had a Sale Pending sign in front of it. The empty land was the perfect place to hang out, and it was the quickest way to get to McNurney’s Pond. This was where we swam in the summertime.
We usually enjoyed the company of four neighborhood boys during these kissing games: Danny and Sean Callahan, Gary Angeli and Herman Butcheviwietz. If we couldn’t find a bottle sometimes, we’d use the end of a baseball bat. Gabby usually tried to push the bottle towards Sean, which made me happy because I had a crush on Gary. Sometimes when the bat landed on Liz, I could see the boys squirm and nudge the bat to one of us. That made Gabby and I feel bad. I always rectified the situation by pushing the bat back to its original destination - as the oldest that was my duty. We certainly had our share of fun and life was as harmless as could be. But all of that was about to change.
One day in early autumn, I awakened to the sound of bulldozers leveling the lot across the street. The old Chestnut trees were being ripped from their roots, boulders were being displaced and the place of my first kiss was now being destroyed. How dare they! Those trees provided the perfect camouflage from our parents, yet allowed us just enough view to spot our fathers when they’d come home from work. And now a house would forever hide my view to the path leading to McNurney’s Pond.
I remember running to the phone to call Gabby. “Look out your front window!” I gasped. She sounded preoccupied, and then I heard her father in the background, “Get off that damn phone until your work is finished!” and then a click. Not even a goodbye. It wasn’t uncommon. Mr. Sanchez wasn’t friendly to any of us neighborhood kids. He was never mean to us; he just wasn’t like my father, I guess. And certainly not like Liz’s dad who was always sociable.
It would be the following February of 1976 before the house would be finished. The rumor mill around town had a Jewish family moving in.
Liberty was small, several thousand people. It sang the praises of two Catholic churches, one Protestant and one tiny white chapel that I think was some Baptist denomination. I can tell you with certainty, there was no temple for at least ten miles. So, for the next few months we’d continue to hear whispers about the Jewish family moving to Liberty. But what did we care, as long as they had teenagers.
Gabby, Liz and I weren’t troublemakers, although we did get into our share of mischief. Other than toilet papering the trees or an occasional prank phone call, we were fairly innocent girls - until Sherry Rosen moved to Liberty.
She was the girl who moved to our once vacant lot. Her parents had purchased the empty store on Executive Boulevard and converted it into a Deli. It was right between the bank and the barbershop. Executive was the main thoroughfare in Liberty. It also had a post office, a pizza parlor, Massimo’s Fine Dining, St. Ann’s, a clothing boutique and an outdated shoe repair shop. We thought Liberty had it all.
Once Rosen’s Deli opened, it became known as a teenage hangout. Some of the older boys would linger there for hours, smoking and looking cool. Gabby’s brothers fell into this category. The owner of the pizza parlor chased the teenagers away from his establishment. But not the Rosens - they were what we called, Liberals, and encouraged the groupies to visit their business.
We had learned the Rosens moved here from Brooklyn. They wanted a safer place to raise their three children. Voila, they picked Liberty - booming metropolis 6,000.
By this time Liz, Gabby and I were tight. I had seen Sherry at school, but she never rode on the bus. She ran with the “in-crowd” at Liberty Junior High but we seldom saw her hang out on our street. One day about a month after they settled in and just shortly after my fifteenth birthday, the three of us decided to go over and meet her.
Her grass hadn’t been planted yet. There were chunks of clay with large rocks protruding through the pinkish gray ground. The driveway was gravel and to this day I remember the almost rhythmic crunching sound it made as our feet crossed over it.
I assumed Sherry was around my age since our school was seventh through ninth. I figured she was a freshman too. She wore lots of make-up and dressed way too hip for Liberty. One day we got up the courage to introduce ourselves. As we walked across the street, we saw her polishing her nails. Not something any of us bothered doing yet. We still didn’t mind getting dirty in a game of touch football, but that too, would change. Then we saw her face, it was plastered with make-up.
My parents didn’t care if I wore cosmetics and sometimes Mrs. Townsend allowed us to dabble in her things. But Gabby wasn’t allowed to even wear nail polish unless it was clear. Her dad once yanked Gabby’s oldest sister, by the ear for leaving the house wearing lipstick. He called her a paint-by-number disco chick. ’And no daughter of his was going to the mall looking like that.’ And she was at least seventeen.
Still, Sherry looked awesome with bold, black, liner around her large eyes. She stared at us the entire time we walked over to meet her, never once saying anything to us, just staring at us as though we were wearing something of hers.
“Hi,” I said first while the others followed my lead. Her lips were raven red, definitely very grown up. Her hair was coarse with kinky curls and pulled tightly back in a ponytail. She was wearing bell-bottoms that dragged below her platform shoes and a lime green poncho. Her clothing was nothing we’d find in the Liberty Boutique but she looked cool, just like the models in Liz’s magazines.
“Hey,” she reciprocated as she eyed each one of us from head to toe. I introduced myself first, then Gabby and Liz.
“I’m Sherry. We moved hea’ from Brooklyn.”
“I’ve seen you at school,” I nervously added.
“Yeah, I saw you thea’ too.” Her accent was unmistakably New Yawk. Anything that ended in an ‘r’ was pronounced like an ‘a’. Even her delivery of the words sounded mature. Sherry had the ability to slip in and out of this vernacular as she pleased. She invited us in right away. We went up to her room. Their house was a colonial which to us was cool. A set of steps lead upstairs and an adjacent set went to the finished family room below.
Dangling from the doorway to her bedroom was a set of gypsy beads. They shifted in waves as we walked through them. She had funky lamps on her dresser that danced to a wavy and unpredictable rhythm. Scattered across the rug were quite a few unopened boxes and clothing was sprawled everywhere. The room had a familiar smell, but one I wasn’t able to detect right away.
She started asking us questions about where everyone hung out. We weren’t really sure what kind of answer she was looking for. We danced around it, mentioning McNurney’s or our houses, but that didn’t seem to fly with her. Then she reached in her closest, pulled out her purse, walked over and lifted her window several inches. She referred to her purse as a pocketbook - probably something it was called in the big city. The bag was beige macramé and had a secret compartment within it. Sherry reached in fumbling around for something.
Liz’s face nearly dropped when Sherry removed a pack of cigarettes. She began smacking them against the palm of her hand as though they were jammed inside. She wasn’t able to light it on the first try, but who was I to be critical. After a second attempt, it lit. This was the smell that had escaped me earlier. It was reminiscent of the lavatories at school or when I walked by the teacher's lounge.
I could see Liz getting restless and uncomfortable with our new acquaintance. Sherry passed it to me. “Oh, no thanks,” I said. Then turning to Gabby, she said, “C’mon it ain’t gonna bite ya.” Before this day, the three of us had never even thought of smoking. But for some reason Gabby reached for it, puffed, but didn’t inhale. She gagged a little. I looked at Sherry, maybe for acceptance. Before Liz’s turn, she looked out the window toward her house, “I have to go, my father’s home.” And she abruptly left without so much as a goodbye. Liz’s parents ate dinner each day precisely when her father got home.
Gabby didn’t take another drag from the cigarette after that, but she and I stayed till Sherry was finished. I remember thinking how brave she was to smoke inside her own house. She inhaled puff after puff as if in a race to finish. I was almost certain she couldn’t find enjoyment from the rate at which she was inhaling.
When she was finished, she grabbed an aerosol can of Aqua Net hair spray. That stuff was vicious. She also sprayed a few drops of Jean Nate cologne around her bedroom, and it smelled like a cheap beauty parlor.
During the rest of the time in her room, I found out she wasn’t a freshman. Instead, she was the same age as Liz and Gabby, only fourteen and in the eighth grade. I remained the oldest, the one who the others had always turned to for wisdom and guidance. After one brief afternoon with Sherry, I knew this was about to change.
“Aw’ you riding the bus in the morning?” Sherry asked me.
“My dad takes me, if you want to ride with us,” she offered. We exchanged numbers.
“Pepper, I have to get home. It was nice meeting you, Sherry. See you tomorrow,” Gabby said.
“Wait up, Gabby! I’ll go with you.” There was no need to overstay my visit. I left with Gabby.
We weren’t even out the front door when I chastised Gabby for smoking. “Lighten up, it was just a puff,” snapped Gabby, “I wouldn’t do it again.”
We crossed the street and noticed Gabby’s father was home already. She reached in her pocket, unpeeled a half-eaten lifesaver desperate to extinguish the odor. Afterwards, she opened her mouth and blew her breath on me as if she had to pass a breathalyzer test.
“You’re fine. I’ll call you after dinner, Gabby.”
That same night at dinner Mom asked me about Sherry. “I saw you and Gabby coming home from the Rosens. Did you meet their daughter?” Mom didn’t miss a thing. I got defensive right away; worried she may have been able to smell the smoke. Oh yes Mom, and she even offered me a Marlboro. I thought.
“Her name is Sherry. She seems nice. She has a funny accent,” I pointed out. Mom wasn’t the kind to let things rest.
“Was her mother home?”
“Was anybody home?” Mom pushed again.
She was a real stickler for adult supervision and not many women worked full time in those days. Thank God my sister saved me. “Her older brother is in my class,” Diane added.
“Is he a nice boy, Honey?” Mom and those motherly questions. Of course, Mom, did I mention he pinched my ass in homeroom? What did Mom hope to accomplish? She always had to know everything. Diane just gave her one of those looks and tried to kill the peppering of questions.
“He’s very cute and he does talk different.”
“So how was your day?” Dad asked my little brother. Dad had this uncanny sense of timing; he always knew when to save us from Mom’s wrath of questioning. It didn’t matter to Mom; she donated her two cents worth despite dad.
“Just be careful - you never can tell a book by its cover.” That was Mom’s famous saying. I swore when she passed away, my sister and I would have it engraved on her headstone.
After dinner while we were washing the dishes, Mom managed to bring it up again. “I would just watch your step around Sherry. She’s probably accustomed to a faster lifestyle than what Liberty has to offer.” Although it was presumptuous of Mom, there was no sense arguing with her, if I did, she would think I was defending Sherry. I took that as my cue not to ask if I could ride with her to school in the morning. I called Sherry later and made up some lame excuse as to why I had to take the bus.