Captive Audience


CAPTIVE AUDIENCE

I should have known he would be different. But I was too young to recognize the sinking feeling in my stomach whenever I walked by him leaning nonchalantly against the lockers in the school hallway. At the moment, I was trying desparately to piece together how it happened that I was hardly daring to breathe, standing in the middle of his closet on piles of old, smelly tennis shoes, jammed between his sports' jackets and dress pants, straining to listen to his father's voice just on the other side of the closed door.
What are they talking about? Why doesn't his dad just leave?
I could only catch a stray word or phrase from their conversation.
“You're about at the age...thinking a lot about sex...Your stepmother and I...one night, you'll be wanting to put your hand down...”
My heart was beating hard. I felt light headed, dizzy. I didn't want to hear this, not one bit. The closet was so small, and it was getting awfully hot.
What if I faint? How loud a noise would it make if my head hit the wall? Who would get to me first? Hamp or his dad? When I came to, could I explain we were just sitting around talking, looking at magazines? Why would his dad believe me?
My mind raced, and I began to feel angry at myself for getting into this situation. It felt like hours had passed since Hamp had shoved me into his closet, but I knew it couldn’t be more than fifteen or twenty minutes.
Oh, no, not my nose! It tickles and I can't scratch it. What if I sneeze?
I tried thinking about Hamp and how he must be feeling. I hoped he was able to look convincingly unconcerned while they talked. I pictured him looking at his dad through strands of sandy hair. I figured he was leaning against the door in that way of his, the way he was the first day I noticed him, books under his arm, talking with some girl and pushing the hair away from his blue eyes. He seemed nervous, but confident, too. I liked his smile, all teethy and white against his tanned skin. I watched for him other times that day and again later out on the football field. When he walked up next to where I sat on the bleachers, I knew he had been watching me, too.
“Great day, huh?” he said.
“Yeah, terrific,” I answered, feeling tongue tied and stupid and not understanding why. I was usually pretty comfortable around guys, even the older ones, like my brother's friends. I slapped my notebook shut and started to stand up.
“I'm Hamp. I live down by the beach on 70th Street. I don't think I've seen you around before.”
“I've been around. Uh, I mean, I've been here. I live a couple of blocks up from you. I’m Carol.” I could feel myself beginning to blush.
He kicked a rock with his foot, waiting for me to say something more, anything, but all I could think is that he smells kind of salty and isn't it nice the way the sun glistens on his hair.
“Well, I've got to go, but maybe we could meet down at the beach tonight and take a walk or something,” he said, grinning as if at some secret joke.
“Yeah, well, maybe,” I answered as he strode confidently away.
I suddenly realized I hadn’t even asked him what time but rationalized that he probably didn't really mean it, anyway. But my stomach was queasy, and I had this feeling something was going to happen, I just didn’t know what.
The rest of the day passed slowly. I felt like I was watching my family on a movie screen, moving in slow motion. I was impatient and on edge. But I knew I had to do a few things so I could get to go on my evening walk. Not too many things, of course. That would make Mother suspicious, but enough things to get her in an agreeable mood. I straightened up the living room and got the stacks of music neater on the piano. Then, I sat down to practice, knowing this last action, if nothing else, would help me bargain my way out of the house.
The hours crept by. I survived dinner with the family and even managed to avoid my brother's eyes when I calmly asked Mother if I could go for a little walk down at the beach around sunset. She gave me permission without her usual barrage of questions. After washing the dishes and leaving them to dry, I walked slowly down the sandy path, over the dunes and through the sea oats that were glowing golden. I felt my heartbeat quicken as I came over the top of the dune. A breeze cooled my flushed face. I looked to the south, toward Hamp's house, then to the north but could see only a few couples walking in either direction.
I walked over to the cabanna and sat down to wait. The old, weather-beaten grey wood of the cabanna was comforting. I remembered sitting on its roof making a list of the boys I'd kissed. Using pieces of charcoal leftover from a beach fire, I made two columns: the good kissers, and the ones I'd rather stay away from. I wondered absently which column I'd use for Hamp, but blushed at my assumption. When I looked up, he was just walking up from the water.
“I wondered if you'd show,” he said. “You didn't sound very sure at the football field.”
“Yeah, well, you know. Parents and stuff,” I answered, thinking, How lame. I can talk better than this. He's just another guy.
He sat down next to me on the sand, and I felt more relaxed not having to look straight at him. It's easier to carry on a conversation looking out at the ocean. The water had taken on a silvery glow, and the breeze had quieted. We talked about school and kids we both knew. When the conversation turned to surfing, Hamp became animated.
“You know how great it makes you feel to catch a wave and go with it and feel all that power under you and around you? There's nothing else like it,” he said. “Nothing can come close.”
“I know sort of what you mean. I surf a little bit, too, but I always feel out of control. I've watched you out there on your board.You look so comfortable, so natural.”
“You just need to keep doing it. You'll get the hang of it after a while. We could meet some morning, and I could help you get a feel for it.”
“OK, sure, if my brother'll loan me his board. That would be nice.”
“Great,” he said standing up. “Come on. Let's take a walk.” He pulled me to my feet and kept my hand as we walked. I felt warm and happy.
“Look, Carol. I've got these great magazines back at home I want to show you. You won't believe some of the waves these guys ride, and we can get a Coke or something while we're looking at them.”
"Yeah, OK. But I better not stay out too long. My mother thinks I’m just taking a walk.”
“We won’t be long, and I'll walk you back afterwards.”
His house was big and modern, with lots of glass and redwood. It sat up on top of the dunes and looked out over the ocean. I'd noticed it before, walking down to Marshall's Hotel where my brother life guards, but I only found out recently it was Hamp's house.
“It must be great living here.”
“Yeah. I guess. My old man's a pain in the butt, though. And my stepmother really gets on my case about school. I don't think she likes having me around.”
“I'm sorry, Hamp. So, what happened to your mother?”
“My parents got divorced a couple of years ago. She split and lives down in Florida now. I go down to see her a couple times a year. She's pretty cool. She lets me stay out late, and she keeps a board at her house for me to use whenever I'm there. She drinks a lot, though.”
I was quiet as we went through the back entrance directly into his room. The walls were covered with surfing posters, magazines were piled next to his bed. He turned on the radio and went to get something for us to drink. I sat down awkwardly at his desk and swivelled around to look, feeling strange and out of place.
But when Hamp returned, smiling, with a bowl of chips and some Coke, I started to relax. We looked through magazines filled with pictures of incredibly impossible waves, and we talked about places we've been, places we'd like to go. We sat with our shoulders brushing, enjoying the closeness.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. Hamp looked around and pulled me to my feet, saying in a whisper, “Quick. It's my dad. He'd never understand. You'd better hide in here.” He shoved me into his closet and quickly shut the door.
So, here I am, and I don't like it one bit. My feet are cramping, and I am miserable. Why did his dad have to pick this night to have a father-son talk? Maybe he knew. Maybe he heard us talking. Did he notice the two glasses on the desk? I just want to be home in my own room, and I want this whole thing never to have happened. I was so stupid to come here, but we weren't doing anything wrong. Why do I have to hide in here like this? Why am I’m so scared?
I notice that the room outside has gotten quiet. Reaching up to scratch my nose, I take a deep breath. Suddenly, the closet door is thrown open, and I squint at the light from the room. Hamp grabs my hand and pulls me gruffly out of the closet. Without saying a word, we run out of his room, down the hall and out of the house. It's dark. We run down the driveway, over the dunes, down to the beach. We are running as fast as we can. My lungs burn, but we keep running along the water's edge. It's dark, but we still run. We're running from his father's words, from his father's world. Finally, I see the old cabanna, and I stop, bending at my waist, panting. We don't speak. There's nothing to say. I squeeze Hamp's hand and leave him standing there as I walk alone over the dunes to my house.