Warm Beer And Cigarettes
A long time ago, in another century and in a very different time, and the '60's were a very different time, I was a teenager. Seems incredible sometimes to think about that as I close in on my 7th decade. But it's true never the less. I did a lot of the usual teenage things. I was on the wrestling team and the debate team. I had a job after school working in a local grocery store. I saved my money and bought a car. I had a '64 Falcon Futura that I bought second hand for 50 dollars. And I had a girl friend. A friend who was a girl. Her name was Emily and she was very special to me, still is in fact even though she's no longer with us.
Emily was the girl next door, literally. We'd known each other for years and we spent LOTS of time together. Talking for hours, hanging out reading books, picking blackberries, working in our parent's gardens, homework, pretty usual teenage stuff for country kids back then. Probably still is. She was the first person I ever smoked pot with, first girl I ever kissed. We both thought it was weird and we never really got romantic. We thought we were different and no one understood us. I guess all kids go through that without realizing at the time that's it's all part of growing up.
There was one night in June that I will never forget. It was just like any other June night, warm, little muggy. The tree frogs were singing their song and the lightning bugs were doing their dance. Emily and I were parked on a dirt road way out on the Lew place. That was an old plantation that had been empty for years except for sharecroppers growing tobacco. I knew it like the back of my hand having spent many a day picking tobacco there. There were rosebushes growing wild and the honeysuckle was in bloom. The scent was intoxicating. To this day whenever I smell honeysuckle I'm transported back to those days.
Now don't get to thinking this is some kind of teenage sex story, nothing like that. In fact, I found it easier to 'make a move' on girls that I didn't really care about than I ever did with Emily. I think we just knew each other too well. She would probably have laughed at me if I had. She was like that, always teasing me about thinking too much, reading too much, living all between my ears, and all the girls I dated. She was my best friend. She understood me better than anyone every has. She knew me better than my bothers and sisters, better than my mom.
Same for me, I knew her and understood her better than anyone. When she got her period for the first time, I was the first one she told, even before she told her mom. I knew she wanted to be a writer, even though she never showed anything she ever wrote to anyone but me. I knew she was not happy with her looks. She thought she was too tall, too skinny, too freckled. She wasn't, she was great and I told her so many times. We kind of held each other up, me and her. The bookish nerd and the quiet girl, we had a relationship that most people considered a little odd.
This particular night I had swiped a six pack that my step dad left in the car and bought a joint from a guy my brother knew. She had stolen a pack of her mom's cigarettes. I didn't approve of her smoking but she did it never the less. We didn't try to tell each other what to do, but we had no difficulty speaking our mind about anything at all, including each other. I think that's something that only the best friends have, that ability to say any damn thing at all without the other person getting mad.
It was a Saturday about a week before gradation. Emily was teasing me because I didn't have a date.
“What's the matter? It's Saturday night. That tramp Linda should be sitting here where I am.”
I didn't approve of her smoking, she didn't approve of my taste in girls and she surely didn't mind letting me know about it. I told her, “We're not dating any more. I asked her friend, Anne, out but she was busy, just not too busy to call Linda and tell her.” Emily got a big laugh out of that. She enjoyed hearing about my escapades and failures with all the girls I dated. And I dated a lot. She dated very little, mostly jocks and muscle heads that couldn't possibly understand her. Stupid pretty boys that were basically the male equivalent of the girls I dated. I didn't say anything, much, about them. Other guys were nothing more or less than blips on the radar to me, unless they had a cute sister or something.
We were talking about all the stuff we usually talked about but then she brought up this, “What are you going to do after graduation? My mom, (who was divorced), is marrying Beth's uncle and moving to Florida.” I should mention we lived in a very small town and everyone knew everyone.
“Are you going to go with her? I thought you wanted to go to UNC-G.”
“I think so. It might be nice to see someplace other than Draper. Have you decided what you're going to do?” I wasn't as focused on the future as Emily was. I was more of a live for the moment, live in the moment type.
“I've been thinking about it, with my draft number I'm going to be in Viet Nam by next year if I don't do something. I've been thinking about joining the Navy.” In fact I'd already talked to the recruiter but I hadn't told Emily yet and I felt kind of guilty about that. I hadn't joined up or anything, but I had taken some tests and he mentioned submarines to me for the first time. I'm smarter than I look and the Navy nuclear program was always looking for smart kids.
Emily was very anti-war and anti-military. Hippy chick. I wasn't a fan of the war, but my family has always served. My dad, several of my uncles, even one of my aunts were military or ex military. It wasn't something we often talked about but she always knew I would probably join up. To me it just made sense. I could get an education, which I did. I could get some discipline in my life and we both agreed that probably wouldn't hurt me. And I could see more of the world that just Draper too.
She told me that she had applied to a college near Fort Myers, which is where they were moving to. I wasn't the only one keeping secrets apparently. So I went ahead and told her about the tests I had taken and about volunteering for subs if I could pass the schools. We talked for hours that night. I think we both knew it was going to be our last 'us' time for a long time, maybe forever. We drank warm beer, she smoked her cigarettes. We passed the joint back and forth. She teased me about all the girls I was leaving behind. “What will all the easy girls do without you to pass around?”
“They'll find some other jock with a car.” I said. “Girls like that are never alone for long.”
“What will happen to all the poetry books in the library without you to read them over and over?”
“Some other skinny girl will find them and dive right in and live her life through other people's stories.”
“You're not skinny, you're great just like you are.”
Basically one of our more practiced exchanges. If any of those girls knew how she talked about them, or how I talked about them for that matter there would have been hell to pay.
We stayed out there for hours, talking and talking. We were saying goodbye. I think we knew it, I think that's why we lingered so long. We promised to write to each other, and we did at first. But were just too far apart and our lives had gone off in very different directions. I joined the Navy, went aboard the submarine and served for 6 years. Emily went to college, became an English teacher in Florida and never did publish anything. Always thought that was a pity, but she was never one to take chances. That was something I was more likely to do. Emily has passed now, lung cancer, and I never got to tell her, “Told you so.” She's still my best friend.
And now, over 50 years later, sometimes something will happen. I'll hear a word or a phrase, I'll smell a smell or just hear an old song on the radio and I'm reminded of that night. That night with Emily and warm beer and cigarettes.