He’ll Taste the Aftertaste When You come Home Late Some Night With Your Eyes All A-mist With the Smoke of a Distant Fire

My 8th grade year plodded on. Joyce booked the honeymoon suite at a hotel room downtown and bought a bikini. She said she and Larry were going to spend the weekend at the hotel and have a second honeymoon. A few weeks later, their friend Lynn (without the ‘E’) had a baby girl and Joyce insisted the baby looked just like I did when I was born so obviously Larry was the father. I couldn’t tell you if the child looked like me; I just remember being deeply unhappy that everyone seemed to be talking about it.

At my Junior high school, each homeroom nominated homecoming king and queen candidates and my home room nominated me and Tom! I was astounded. I was mortally shy, kept my face down, barely spoke to even my closest friends. Ronnie told me later in our lives he desperately wanted to ask me to go steady, but we didn’t share any classes and he was afraid that if he spoke to me in the hall, I’d climb into the nearest locker and shut the door behind me. I was the classic bookworm, the champion speller of the school, always throwing off the grading curve on tests. I didn’t even think most people knew I existed. Well, my class HAD elected me Class Secretary, but I figured that was the result of two things: I was known for being very smart and on campaign speech day I’d amused them.

In one of the least self-conscious, most self-accepting moments of my life up until then, I acknowledged my height and the troubles it caused me when I was called out of the bleachers down to the gym floor to make my campaign speech. I discovered to my horror that the podium was the same height as I was, actually a bit taller. I could barely reach the microphone, much less speak into it. There was no way anyone could see me behind the podium. So I stepped in front of it, reached up and pulled the mike down to me, and waited for the applause to finish so I could speak. 

Almost 50 years later, attending one of those soul-eating new-job orientations, I had a similar moment of clarity when asked to stand and say my name and something about myself. I rose from my chair, looked around the room and said, “Hello! I’m Misha, and I AM Standing up.” 

Homecoming Court. That’s me, the smallest person, in the front row. And that’s Tom, the tallest person in the back row.

Anyway, I was nominated for the homecoming court. Tom was our school’s star basketball player, a quiet, smart, extremely kindhearted boy, the tallest kid in our school. I was completely overjoyed at this nod of acceptance from my classmates. I even made my own homecoming dress! It never occurred to me that our nominations could be anything other than an acknowledgement of who we were until after the coronation at the dance. Tom and I didn’t win–my enemy Regina and her homeroom partner did. But as they say, it was an honor just to be nominated. At the dance, I was dancing with my girlfriends Nancy, Angela, and Diana, when Steve came up to me and asked me to come out in the hall and talk to him. I thought he was going to ask me to dance or something romantic, but when we got out into the brightly lit hall, he apologized and told me he’d been up near the stage watching the DJ and some kids had asked the DJ to call a spotlight dance for me and Tom because they thought it would be hilarious to watch the tallest guy and shortest girl in school try to slow dance with each other. 

My sudden understanding of the reason behind the nomination, my feeling of being betrayed and mocked, my embarrassment of my excitement at being noticed, my anger at the potential humiliation, must have all run across my face before I shut down and told myself I wouldn’t make it worse by crying. Steve got Nancy and I our coats and walked us home. I thanked him for telling me and for getting me out of the gym, and we never spoke of it again.

Just a few days after the homecoming dance, Steve called me, weeping. Joyce and Larry were both at work. We weren’t allowed out after dark while they weren’t home, although sometimes we snuck out after their nightly call to check if we were obeying the rules. But October in ND is just too cold to be messing around outside after dark, so the AMA were all in their separate homes. We were allowed to answer the phone, but not keep it tied up, and never let anyone know the parents weren’t home. I answered the phone when Steve called and I didn’t recognize his voice at first. When I realized it was him and that he sounded strange because he was actually crying, I immediately felt afraid. His father had been away at Lackland AFB on a TDY–a temporary duty assignment–and Steve told me they’d just been told he’d died of a heart attack. His mother was basically catatonic. I was completely unprepared for such a thing. Obviously Steve, Tom, and their mom were unprepared as well.  I talked to Steve until he couldn’t be understood through his sobs and he hung up. 

Tonia and Sean had heard the change in my voice, and had come to stand close enough to listen in on the phone call. After Steve hung up, we stood there by the phone, huddled together with our arms around each other and our heads touching. Tonia said to call Joyce. I told her Larry had told us if we called either of them at work again, we were going to get a whupping and be put on restriction so we couldn’t see our AMA friends. Sean said if we were restricted we couldn’t see Steve and Tom and they needed us right now. Stricken, we sat down together on the couch and waited for an adult to come home.

Joyce arrived first and she wasn’t even completely through the door before we ran crying to her and told her Steve and Tom’s dad was dead. She asked why we didn’t call right away and we told her they said not to. Joyce called the new widow, I guess to confirm the news; then she called Larry home. He, too, asked why we hadn’t called right away. We told him they’d said not to call unless one of us was bleeding to death and he said this was the same thing. Was it? None of us were bleeding. The man was already dead, and in Texas to boot. They weren’t even friends with Steve and Tom’s mom. Was it the same? I don’t know; I just know we were afraid to call. Joyce and Larry went over to our friends’ house, telling us to go to bed and we’d talk in the morning. 

Instead of talking in the morning, we were sent to school. When we got home, Joyce and Larry took me, Tonia, and Sean over to say goodbye to Steve and Tom. They were going back home to South Carolina, to bury their dad and move in with their grandparents. Nancy, Babette, and Stuart were there, too, the whole AMA. None of us knew what to say or do, so I decided to hug Steve goodbye. He violently shoved me away. I knew then that my unrequited crush wasn’t so unrequited after all and he didn’t want me to touch him or even see him in this weakened state. He didn’t want to say goodbye. He didn’t want the life he suddenly had. Shoving me away had nothing to do with me at all. So I just told him goodbye and told Tom goodbye and went outside. One by one the rest of the Monsters joined me and we sat silently on the porch, waiting for the adults to come outside. 

I never saw Tom or Steve again. Less than a year after their dad died, their mom committed suicide by sitting in their car in the garage with the engine running. The boys lived with her parents after that. Tom was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ended up in jail for breaking and entering. Steve grew up and joined the Air Force but got discharged dishonorably for drug use. 

That winter I suffered frostbite to my feet. The base rec center had set up ice skating rinks in several neighborhoods. Joyce bought the whole family ice skates for Christmas so we could all learn to skate. I had visions in my mind of scenes from Christmas shows and cards: Tonia and I would wear cute short skirts, earmuffs, and long wool scarves with matching mittens while we pirouetted gracefully on the gleaming ice in the snow-sparkling sunshine. Sean would wear knee socks and knickers and his own matching scarf and mittens, but instead of earmuffs, he’d wear an earflap cap and speed in circles around us. When we were tired, we’d sit on a log beside a little fire and sip hot cocoa with marshmallows melting on top from steaming mugs. The family would hold hands and sing carols as we skated together.

The reality is, North Dakota is incredibly cold in the winter. From November to February, the average temperature is around 19 degrees fahrenheit, with the windchill pushing those temperatures below zero. The wind is always blowing in North Dakota. The reality of ice skating there is that you bundle up in layers topped by a snow suit. You could put a cute skater skirt over that, but it would look ridiculous instead of cute. You might wear earmuffs, but they’ll be worn over a toque and under a hood. Your scarf ends won’t fly free, they’ll be tightly wrapped around your neck and tucked down the font of your snowsuit. You’ll definitely wear mittens, but the wimpy little wool ones will be hidden inside some wind-proof nylon ones. And no matter how many pairs of socks you put on, you won’t be skating very long before the nearness of the ice and the wind on the shoe leather turn your toes into ice cubes and you have to go home and warm them up. Little fires aren’t allowed in Air Base parks.

Joyce’s writing on the back says this is Me, Joyce, and Tonia. Pretty sure that’s Tonia in the center; couldn’t tell you the other two.

Despite the reality not measuring up to the dream, our family went skating often that winter. Larry bemoaned how very flat North Dakota was while remembering our trips to Big Sky in Montana and we all agreed that a day of sledding capped by warming up in the lodge in the evening had been an ideal way to spend a weekend. One day Joyce said she had a friend at work who lived out in Sawyer with his wife and 4 kids about our age and he said there were hills out there. He invited us out there to spend the day sledding. Remembering the fun of Big Sky, we loaded up in Larry’s truck and traveled the 45 minutes out to Sawyer.

Well, Jerome was right; there were hills out in Sawyer. Problem was he didn’t own any of them and hadn’t managed to get permission from the owners for a bunch of strangers to sled on their grazing land. So using a neighbor’s backhoe, he’d built a snow hill in his yard, as high as he could get it, and labeled it Sawyer Mountain. His wife Dottie was a volatile woman, prone to extreme and sudden mood swings, and she decided while we were on our way that she wasn’t in the mood for sledding, or for company that she didn’t know either. So we could sled on Sawyer mountain, and Jerome and his kids could join us, but we were not warming up in her house after. In fact we weren’t even coming in to use the bathroom. 

It was too late to tell us the sled day was off, so Jerome set up his ice fishing house as a make-shift outhouse and dug out his lawn chairs for us to rest on in between slides down the mountain he’d built. To say I was disappointed when Jerome proudly revealed Sawyer Mountain would be tremendously kind. But I could see the hope and eagerness on Jerome’s face, so I kept my judgemental thoughts to myself and gamely began to get to know Jerome’s 4 kids: Jimmy, Rich, Bonnie, and Jerome Michael. 

Ice fishing house

Sledding in North Dakota is no different from ice-skating in North Dakota: you bundle up until you can barely move, and no matter how much fun you’re having, your feet soon turn to ice and you have to warm them up or get frostbite. Frostbite is when skin and tissue just below the skin freeze. It mostly affects small, exposed body parts such as fingers and toes. Exposure isn’t required for frostbite; prolonged freezing temperatures will do it too. When you get frostbite, the affected part gets very cold and painful, then turns numb, hard, and pale.

After sledding for a while, my feet started to get very cold. I went to find Joyce to tell her I needed to warm my feet up. I found her standing off to the side of Sawyer Mountain talking with Jerome. She was radiant, the happiest smile on her face. I had never seen Joyce having so much fun. Imagine being so happy about a stupid hill of snow in a freezing small town in North Dakota! Adults are such strange beings. I told her I needed to go inside and warm my feet. She asked if maybe I could go inside the ice house and warm them up? Because we weren’t allowed in Dottie’s house right now and the only other way to warm up would be to ask Larry to turn on the truck and let me sit in there and if I asked that he might decide it was just time to go home. And look how much fun Tonia and Sean were having. 

This last was true: Tonia and Bonnie had become fast friends. They weren’t even sledding; They were building a playhouse out of snow and talking a mile a minute. The four boys had divided into teams and were playing some kind of king of the hill game with Larry acting as General/referee. I was the only one who seemed to not be enjoying myself. Joyce was right; if I interrupted Larry, he’d surely just pack us all up and drive home. And I’d never seen her look so happy. So I just went and sat in the truck, hoping that getting my feet up off the ground and out of the wind would be enough to get them to start warming up.  Instead they just got colder and colder. I kept curling and uncurling my toes, trying to keep my feet warm with movement, but soon they just felt like icy marbles in my shoes. 

Larry’s truck

Finally everyone else got cold enough that it was time to leave. So Joyce and Larry climbed into the cab of the truck while Tonia, Sean and I climbed into the back and cuddled under the pile of blankets on the raised bed. As soon as we got in the bed, I pulled off my boots and held my feet in my hands. My feet were numb; they didn’t even hurt any more. I pulled off my socks so I could get my warm hands directly on my poor feet. My toes were bright red and swollen looking with what looked like tiny blisters starting. The skin was hard and I couldn’t move my feet. Tonia was horrified. I told her how very cold they were and that I couldn’t warm them up. So she struggled out of her snowsuit and sat on my feet to warm them up. The three of us laughed about Tonia trying to hatch my toes. But they started to warm up and when we got home I was able to walk inside on my own without complaining.

Mild frost bite

Frostnip is mild frostbite that irritates the skin, causing redness and a cold feeling followed by numbness. Superficial frostbite causes blisters to form as the skin warms up. My wanna-be blisters never grew into real blisters, and as my feet warmed up, the swollen look of my toes went away. Frostnip doesn’t permanently damage the skin. I think if Tonia hadn’t sat on my feet, I probably would have suffered at least superficial frostbite riding home in the unheated truck bed. But because I’d never seen Joyce look so happy in my whole life, I let my toes get frost nipped. Ever since, my feet have been very sensitive to cold, and when I was in my 40s I was diagnosed with nerve damage in my feet. My doctor says it’s no use wondering how I suffered the nerve damage. But I may have an idea how it happened.

Stuart, Nancy, and Babbette’s father chose not to re-enlist. The family was moving into town and wouldn’t be next door after Christmas. We kids assured each other that we were only 15 miles apart and we’d keep seeing each other. But the truth was, none of us were old enough to drive, there was no transport service between the base and town, and our parents weren’t friends. We were reduced to phone calls. We did get to visit them one Saturday when Joyce took Tonia, Sean and me downtown to the bank and had us withdraw all our money from our savings accounts. After that we went to a movie with Stuart, Nancy, and Babbette. But the AMA was definitely no more. So there was no one but me, Tonia, and Sean left the day in early spring when Larry got home from work early and called us down into the living room to talk.

He sat us down and told us Joyce had asked him for a divorce. She was going to move downtown and we were going to stay here with him on base in the house so we could finish the school year and not suffer too much upheaval. He told us he didn’t know why she was doing this and he’d tried to talk her out of it but her mind was made up. And he started crying. The three of us rushed over and crowded around him, hugging him and crying ourselves. That’s when Joyce walked in. She took in the weeping tableau and said, “You told them? You agreed you’d wait for me and we’d tell them together!” And the fight was on.

Our parents were immediately at each other’s throats, screaming and shoving and throwing things. Joyce and Larry had never ever had a fight in front of us before. We’d seen them disagree, but they always took their fights to their room. Now we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a war. It was terrifying. I took Tonia and Sean by the hands and we ran upstairs to my room and huddled on the bed together. We could hear Joyce and Larry shrieking at each other, doors slamming, things being thrown… then the front door slammed shut. In the silence we listened to Larry climb the stairs, go to his room, and shut and lock his door. 

We crept downstairs. I know I was hoping to find Joyce, cleaning up after the fight, having decided to stay with us after all. But she was gone. In the living room, all her knick knacks were missing from the shelves, books were strewn across the floor, the blanket she’d been crocheting was unraveled, with the yarn stretching out the front door. Following the trail of yarn, we found The knick knacks, books, and Joyce’s good dishes scattered across the front yard. Some of her clothes were out there too, soaking up the muddy spring slush. Silently we started picking up Joyce’s things until Larry yelled from the door to leave it and get inside. He told us Joyce could clean up her own mess and sent us to bed. 

Tonia, Sean, and I all slept together in my bed that night. In the morning Larry woke me up and told me to get the kids ready and off to school and he left for work. So I did as I was told. We went to school. Walking out the door, we saw all of Joyce’s stuff was gone from the yard.  To this day I don’t know if she came back to get it or if Larry threw it all out.  About a week later Nita showed up.

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