By Jillian Luft
Every day, the knocks came. Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy.
Beads of sweat ran down their bodies, clung to the polycotton blend of their K-Mart dresses, squished between toes scrunched in shimmery plastic. Humid sighs of nothing, there’s nothing hung in the afternoon haze as they waited for someone to drive by and wave, for anything to coast around the corner and take them by surprise.
There was only so much Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy could do in Verdant Village. They could roam the subdivision’s empty streets as if they were one sad backyard. They could buy Screwballs from the ice cream truck and throw the bubblegum stones at the warty red ducks that bit their hands far too often. They could creep toward the canal and wait for a gator to feast on their tender shins. And when they exhausted those options, they could look toward the road while the blacktop cooled, dull and quiet and wonder what lay beyond those rust-flecked walls. .
I was too new to the world then to grow tired of things but now I see why Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy slouched on the sidewalk, their day-glo jellies poking the pavement while they longed for anyone—even their mothers—to come outside and talk to them. After school, they appeared on my doorstep because I nodded and smiled and consented to anything they asked. I gave them what every girl wanted: I made them believe they were at the center of things. I was eight and glad to have a job to do.
When not at school, I spent my time staring slack-jawed at the TV screen, filling my head with a constant reel of music videos. Smoke and silk, fire and fantasy, neon and nasty. I couldn’t get enough.
But when those knocks came, I always answered.
Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy were older. Fifth and sixth graders with awkward teeth and budding breasts. They liked charm necklaces, WWF wrestling, scratch-n-sniff stickers. They loved, loved, loved Bon Jovi.
Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy spoke softly of Bon Jovi. How they would marry him, how his hair looked in the video premiere, how he sang and made them cry. If you asked me—and no one ever did— Bon Jovi was a twerp with a horsey smile. Even his winks were wholesome. He was a goof, like someone’s dad wearing a wig. I liked the wild boys, the ones with the impish sneers and scandalous pouts. The ones that looked like they were up to something secret and special and I was dying to know what.
How cute is he? Katie swooned. We were sprawled out on her living room floor and “Bad Medicine” was playing for the umpteenth time.
Sooooo cute, Bren and Shandy swooned right back.
My mom said I can go to the concert but only if we win the lottery. She’d better play a zillion times because there’s no way I’m missing my husband!
Katie clutched her heart and flung herself against her bean bag chair. We watched this performance and giggled like we were supposed to.
My dad’s always playing that dumb lottery, Shandy said, rolling her Disney animal eyes.
My dad tries to tell my mom it’s a waste of money but she doesn’t listen to him, Katie scoffed.
Bren said nothing because her dad didn’t live with her.
I said nothing because I didn’t know what the lottery was and I didn’t know much about what my dad thought about anything. He was always working. At night, a scrambling of keys in the door, a tired face in the cramped foyer. A man who put me to bed, tickled me and told me he loved me before leaving me in the dark.
In Verdant Village, none of us had money but we acted like we did. We had a community pool and our condos were basically houses with screened-in patios, modest dining rooms, vanity lighting. Maybe it wasn’t true suburbia, but it was the same sunshine warming our limbs. The same grass, only less of it. Even if we owned more square footage, we’d still be hyped-up on Kool-Aid, strung out on MTV. We told ourselves it was all the same.
Dads worked at power plants and pizza joints. The lucky ones pulled shifts at both. Moms stayed home and set the table. When their kids were watching, they danced in their living rooms. When no one was watching, they napped until dark. Their lives, fevered pink with blusher sets, lemonade, flamingo home decor. They baked and vacuumed and tied up the phone lines with stories of bill collectors, their husbands, other people’s husbands, the state of the neighborhood, the state of the world, department store sales, and how we drove them crazy. And then one day we heard them murmur a new word.
What’s a Peeping Tom anyway? Shandy asked.
Katie sipped her Capri Sun, let out a world-weary sigh. It’s like a pervert or a robber. It’s like a bad guy, okay? A really bad guy.
I don’t get it, Shandy said.
I don’t either, I admitted.
He watches ladies through their windows and waits for them to take their clothes off. Do you get it now? Bren smirked.
Kinda, I guess.
But why is he called Tom? Shandy asked.
He just is! God, you guys can be such babies sometimes. Katie buried her upturned nose into Bren’s triple-pierced ear and snickered.
I tried to ignore them, return my focus to Bon Jovi and his lame antics. But it was no use. Their laughter won out.
Katie and Bren often teamed up, making it clear where their loyalties lay. I didn’t mind, really. I was just happy to be there. But Shandy, the 10-year-old in the group, wanted to be seen as their equal. Her dignity depended on it. Like so many times before, at this sign of alliance, she fled for Katie’s bathroom, slamming herself inside. I shuffled toward the door, waited for her in the hallway. Loud sniffles competed with the running faucet. I never knocked. I let her be.
When the sink went silent, Shandy exited with her sad movie stare, imploring me to take her side while she took my tiny hand. And I never knew how to say no to anyone so I let her lead me out Katie’s front door and across the street. I’m not sure Katie or Bren even noticed.
Shandy’s dad, Don, was home. Like usual. Wearing nothing but his tighty-whities. Hairy legs spread wide in his recliner. A jar of Miracle Whip in one hand. A butter knife in the other. Thick chest hair, thicker glasses. The stench of fried bologna glazing the air.
Hey honey, he greeted me, licking the knife’s edge clean, then dipping it back into the jar. And he smiled. Wide. Not like Bon Jovi’s grin, not like Billy Idol’s snarl. More like a circus clown on a smoke break. Relieved that the facade’s crumbling. Pleased that you’re confronted with his true nature.
Shandy, sweetie, grab your Daddy a soda before you go play, wouldya?
Shandy abandoned me for the fridge and I swayed in the sliver of light Shandy’s mother’s seashell lamp offered, the only light in that living room at all. Cars exploded on the television. Shotguns fired. The knife ran circles in the now empty Miracle Whip jar, scraping and screeching against the sides.
So, what are you girls up to? Don scratched a furry thigh. I avoided his tortoiseshell frames but I felt his eyes leaning into every part of me, burrowing past my suntanned skin, my chubby-cheeked politeness and digging deep to reach somewhere I didn’t even know about.
I shrugged, looked down at my Easter yellow socks, my candy pink jellies. Tried to focus on the colors, the cheer they offered in brighter places than this. He was asking me something. But I didn’t understand what. He was asking more than what he was saying. He was asking me something else entirely.
You’re so shy, he laughed. Just like my Shandy.
My skin burned so hot I was convinced it smelled. My tongue wilted. My limbs froze. I decided that at least half of me was dead. Half of me had gone limp, watching Don ingest me without even opening his mouth.
Here ya go, Shandy mumbled. A soda can hissed. I heard a gulp, a belch. No thank you. Just the increased volume of brakes screeching, glass shattering.
Shandy took my hand again. She revived me. I fixated on the back of her strawberry print romper as she skipped down the hall, leading me to safety. I tried not to think about Don’s hungry eyes bulging in the dark.
In Shandy’s room, we knelt on her bottom bunk, undressed Barbies in our fists. We smacked taut torsos together, bent legs into impressive splits, contorted smooth groins into straddle-friendly positions. Some of the dolls didn’t have heads. We’d managed to pluck their symmetrical faces clean from their necks, leaving that weird fleshy knob. We made their grotesque bodies wail and whimper Oh mys! and Oh nos! even though they didn’t have vocal cords, even though they didn’t have mouths.
It was a ridiculous game. A game fueled by our curiosity about how a woman’s body worked. What it did when it was alone and out of our sight. In this game, we agreed that to be a woman was to be naked and maimed. To be a woman was to be hysterical. I didn’t know where we got this from. Maybe TV. Or maybe it’s what our mothers implied when they rested silently on their loveseats. Their eyes, unfocused but fierce with knowing.
A flock of headlights flew across Shandy’s window, signaling the dads’ return home from work and dinner time. I dropped my dolls, said good night and made for the door.
Don was still pantless and parked in front of the tube when I re-entered the living room. At that moment, I was reminded of my mother’s advice when playing in the backyard, the canal flowing a few feet away. Don’t get eaten by those gators. Run like mad but scramble! Zigzag. If you zigzag, they’ll never catch you.
Hey, sweetie, Don called after me. Don’t be a stranger. You’re welcome here anytime.
Thank you. I-I-I won’t, I stammered, memorizing the same crap linoleum I had in my own entryway, hands trembling as I reached for the doorknob. I could feel his eyes roving in their glass cages. Somehow, I managed to stagger out into the streetlights and zigzag my way home.
When I walked in, I inhaled deeply. Exhaled finally, too. Taco night. Cumin and onions. Something sizzled, something bordered on burnt. TV on, not MTV. The evening news. But no one was watching.
Mom’s voice spiraled through her bedroom, following the length of her phone cord as she stretched it to its limit. Hovering in the teeny space between her bedroom doorway and the kitchen entrance, she monitored her ground chuck. Nothing was in flames, so she continued gabbing.
It’s probably that Christian kid…No, no his name is Christian. He’s definitely not Christian…The one that lives by Tammi. You know the one. He’s got that satanic music blaring out of his car at all hours of the night…Yeah, the dirtbaggy-looking one. It has to be him because Gary and I caught him and his punk friends on our roof throwing rocks up there, drinking beers and other dumb shit… Un-huh. Yep. And he was pressing his pimply face to our skylight, looking in at us watching HBO, yelling and laughing. Gary dealt with them, went out and told them to knock it off. We haven’t had trouble with him since. He doesn’t even make eye contact with us anymore, the twerp. But I could see him doing other creepy crap. I wouldn’t put it past him to be our neighborhood Peeping Tom…Hold on 007’s home… Heeeey, when’d you get here? Your dad’s out back. Go say hello.
She patted my head absently but I didn’t bother responding. I knew she wanted me out of the way so I kept on walking through the kitchen. I yanked open the sliding glass door, stepped onto the patio to find my dad beyond the screen, perched high on a ladder, installing the high-tech lights he’d blabbed about for weeks, the kind that clicked on when something moved. When someone moved. Someone. Somewhere out there.
Don’t come outside. Stay where you are, Dad barked.
I won’t. I stood on my tiptoes and pressed my face to the screen.
The mosquitoes are bad. Some huffing, some panting, some metallic clanging and then: What’d you do with your friends today, squirt?
Nothing really. Just played.
I waited for my father’s next question. Crickets chattered in the grass. My father’s feet rested on the rung in front of me, his dirty work boots level with my face. I peered up but could only detect the faint outline of his denimed torso. All I could see was his neck. The bugs were finding me through the screen and my father stopped speaking, so I wandered back into the faux warmth of our living room. Dusk filled the skylight above my head. I was getting hungry.
On the TV, an old man reported another girl missing. I immediately changed the channel to watch a pretty man sing.
It was Mom’s idea. Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy at our place for a sleepover. An excuse for her to invite their moms, and Tammi, over for some “grown-up fun.” Strawberry daiquiris and girl talk at the kitchen card table while their daughters huddled up in sleeping bags in the living room, slowly losing their innocence to cable TV.
Katie and Bren didn’t want to be there but their moms refused to leave them home unsupervised. After all, there was a Peeping Tom on the loose. Plus, their dads were working overtime and wouldn’t be home until dawn. They were probably bribed with cheap jewelry and cassettes from the mall. It was fine to hang with me during the day but no babies were allowed in their presence past sundown. When they arrived, they talked only to each other, kept their distance from Shandy and me in case some cool stranger dropped by and they had to explain, Hey, we’re not with them. We swear.
Have fun, girls. Pretend like we’re not even here, Bren’s mom said before disappearing into the kitchen. We didn’t have to pretend. Once the blender started whirring, we rarely saw our mothers’ faces. We might as well have been alone.
I didn’t ask Katie or Bren to play Barbies or board games or Truth or Dare. I didn’t ask them anything at all. Instead, I decided to gossip. To reveal something. Something I’d overheard that might ingratiate me to them further. Something that might change the course of their lives—at least for one evening. And they’d have no choice but to be grateful.
We were watching that boring movie with Tom Cruise and the unicorn when I turned to my fickle friends and teased, Hey guys, I know something you don’t know.
What? Bren asked, eyes still on long-haired Tom.
Yeah, what? Katie asked, stuffing more popcorn into her mouth.
Well, you have to promise you won’t tell anyone.
God, we won’t. Now tell us.
Yeah, spit it out already.
Shandy grinned patiently, said nothing.
You know that older boy, Christian?
Their eyes fixed hard on my little impish face. I knew I had them now.
Oh, he’s so cute! Katie exclaimed.
Yeah, he’s super dreamy. Dreamier than Bon Jovi maybe. What about him?
I kept my tone casual but glowed with pride. He’s been on my roof before. Him and his high school friends go up there to party and drink beer. And one night he was looking in on my parents. Maybe he’ll do it again tonight and we can wave or something.
Oh my god, no way!
All three girls screamed. With anticipation. With fear. With desire. I tried to shush them in case the moms heard but it didn’t matter. The moms were cackling too loudly. The moms were drunk.
We should scare him by sticking our tongues out!
Ew, no. Funny faces are lame, Katie. We should just look up at him like, “What are you doing, you freakin’ weirdo?” Like we don’t give a crap.
Yeah, you’re right. I was being totally lame. Let’s just do what you said.
I gotta put some mascara on. Bren rummaged through her purse.
I don’t know, guys. Maybe he’s the Peeping Tom. Shandy laughed nervously; her Disney eyes panicked.
But we ignored her concern. This was the night’s new plan.
For what felt like hours, we craned our necks toward the glass-plated night and waited for Christian to see us. Eventually, our necks ached and our stomachs rumbled and mom had baked a batch of Toll House she was willing to share and we were getting tired even though we swore we’d remain awake to see Freddy Kreuger invade teenage dreams, to see a startled Christian beaten at his own game. The prospect of his arrival had been enough to satisfy us. So, we turned away from the skylight and filled our mouths with chocolate before giving ourselves over to sleep.
I was faking though. I took advantage of any opportunity to stay up late. The moms were still in the kitchen, pairing their cookies with Kahlua and milk, discussing what they would do if they were the Peeping Tom’s next target. Who they would call (their husbands at work, the cops, each other), what they would shout (curse word, curse word, curse word), who they would blame (pornography, society, unemployment).
Then I heard the squeak of nylon and opened my eyes to see Shandy slipping out of her sleeping bag and ambling into the kitchen. I didn’t hear what she said but suddenly she was leaving and ruining her mother’s good time.
This was my one night off in forever, Shandy, her mom grumbled while stepping over our still bodies.
I didn’t ask her but I think Shandy was afraid Christian would show up and haunt us in our slumber. I stared up at the skylight again and held my breath. I saw only black but I couldn’t help but think of Shandy’s dad’s face.
At some point, I fell asleep to the TV and the moms’ tipsy excitement about when and where the Peeping Tom would strike next. My own dreams remained undisturbed.
A few weeks after the sleepover, Katie, Bren and me were down at the pool, splashing around. Shandy stayed home with a stomach bug. We were showing off our handstands and holding our breath in the deep end when we spotted Christian, up-close and shirtless, washing his car in front of the pool’s gates.
Katie and Bren scrambled out of the water like excitable dogs, shaking their bodies dry in an embarrassing hurry. A boy was better than handstand contests. A boy was better than me, better than ice cream or anything. They elbowed each other in their scrawny sides and dashed toward the gate, leaving me and their towels behind. I hung back because I knew my place. I knew I didn’t belong in this scene. Still, I entered it anyway.
After collecting our towels. I dragged my feet across the scorching cement to the pool’s entrance. Once outside the gates, I dawdled under a tree a few yards away and tried my best not to gawk, to make my presence known. There he was. Flaxen rattail pasted to the damp of his neck, silver cross earring sparkling in the sun. Axl Rose whistling through his stereo speakers. An open beer next to a bucket of suds. Christian, dirtbag teen and possible Peeping Tom, on full display.
Katie and Bren squatted on a nearby parking curb, squinting up at danger. They talked loudly about nothing. They used bad words and acted stupid. They didn’t acknowledge me once even though I stood directly behind them.
Christian sponged his windshield, humming along to the radio like we weren’t right there ogling him with open mouths. We watched his muscles crest like waves across his back as he lunged over the gleaming black of his Pontiac Fiero, as he hosed down his hubcaps, waxed his back bumper, polished his taillights. And then he turned his attention, along with the full force of his nozzle, to Katie and Bren. He doused their just-dried bodies, aiming directly at their bare browned skin. They squealed and bolted across the parking lot, giving themselves away as the children they were.
Eventually, the water stopped rushing and the girls stopped shrieking. But Axl was still singing when Christian moved toward Katie and Bren. He lit a cigarette, looked on as they shivered with delight.
I’m headed up the street to the Gas-n-Go. You two wanna go for a ride?
I mean sure yeah cool. That’d be awesome. Katie and Bren were beaming, giddy. Then, emboldened by his invitation, Katie asked: Would you mind buying us some Garbage Pail Kids?
Christian laughed. Yeah, I can get you some of those. You’ll owe me one though. Then he turned his bright eyes on me. What about her? Does she want to come, too?
She’s not allowed, they said while I stayed in the shade. He took their word for it, tossed his bucket in the back, and revved the engine. In their soggy two pieces, Katie and Bren clambered into Christian’s passenger seat. All goosepimpled flesh and giggles. Katie squirming on Bren’s lap. Don’t you dare tell on us, they smirked. Fingers to lips curled in satisfaction. It’s a secret, okay?
The shiny Fiero sped off, left me choking on a cloud of burnt tire and cigarette smoke. I wanted to know Christian’s secrets. Not if he was the Peeping Tom or not. I knew he couldn’t be the one stalking our windows. Getting loaded with his friends on our roof was for fun. What the Peeping Tom did was for something else.
I wanted to know other things about him. Like his favorite Slurpee flavor, his favorite song, what he wanted to be when he turned 18. I wish I’d blackmailed Katie and Bren, asked for a pack of Garbage Pail Kids or Dr. Pepper Gum in exchange for my silence. Asked for anything at all.
That night, I curled into my covers and imagined Christian lurking outside my window, surveilling from the front seat of his Fiero, aiming his eyes and high beams into my bedroom, hoping for a light to flicker on, for a mere glimpse of my beauty. He wasn’t a Peeping Tom, just a lovesick boy. In my mind, there was a difference.
I fantasized I was older. Older than Bren or Katie but not as old as our mothers. I had teased hair, bleached blonde, like the girls on Club MTV. I wore ripped jeans and bustier tops. To sleep, I slipped on satin negligee. My room wasn’t crowded with toys or stuffed animals. Everything smelled fruity-sweet and party-ready. Everything was cool. I was cool.
And Christian knew it and longed to be inside. He ached to hold my hand while I slept. He ached to make me stand in the middle of my moonlit room, his arms around my waist as he looked deep into my eyes to find that I knew much more than Katie and Bren. About life. About rock music. About all the things that mattered to him. That I was ready to ride shotgun in his Fiero far past the Verdant Village walls and the Gas-n-Go. That no one would have to know he kidnapped me. That no one would care if I went missing.
Not long after Katie and Bren’s Gas-n-Go escapade, the knocks stopped. The pair became a rare sight, sometimes glimpsed in Christian’s driveway where he and his scummy pals loitered past dark, blasting metal from their cars’ tinny speakers.
Katie and Bren still looked bored but less alone and more important. I guess that’s what Mom meant when she said there was a way something called puberty could change you. I wondered if they still loved Bon Jovi. I wondered if they thought of him—or me—at all.
There was still Sometimes Shandy, skittish and lonely at my front door. Big eyes pleading for me to not turn her away like everyone else. And I never did. Only lied now and then when she asked me to play at her house.
Sorry, my mom says I’m not allowed anymore. She wants to keep an eye on me.
Mom was one of the last to encounter the Verdant Village Peeping Tom. Dad was working overtime the night he visited, which meant I was staying up later than usual lounging on the sofa like a lazy empress, gnawing on cold slices of leftover pizza. Adam Curry was counting down the top videos of the week.
Over Bret Michaels’ broken heart, I heard my mom on the phone.
Holy shit, Tammi. He was here…You know who, the creeper, the peeper!…No, I couldn’t tell. It’s too dark and those stupid lights Gary installed don’t catch crap. But someone was out there, standing and facing my bedroom. I got out of the shower with my boobs out and everything else before I even noticed! Jesus Christ.….Yeah. it’s kinda my fault though. I left the blinds open by accident like a dum dum…Yeah, I’ll be fine. Gary gets home soon. Hope that asshole got a good show…Hey, you might be next! (laughter)…Okay, g’night.
I waited for the clack of the receiver. Her door was ajar. I knocked gently.
Why are you knocking, kiddo? Get your butt on in here!
Mom was in bed, freshly showered and smiling. She pulled back her bedspread, patted the empty side of the mattress.
Come on in. The water’s warm.
I dove in between the sheets and snuggled into the soft of her terry cloth robe, her loose curls spilling wet onto my cheeks. I hoped she’d spill her secrets, too. I wanted to stay there, nestled against her. Warm and safe. I wanted to be her baby still, for her to watch over me and never let me go.
We cuddled in silence for a while, our bodies facing one another. I kept my eyes on the vertical blinds, their vinyl slats jammed shut. Protectors from the night.
I swallowed hard and looked deep into my mother’s eyes before asking, Mom, did you see the Peeping Tom just now?
Were you listening to my phone calls again, 007? You’re too smart for your own good. She ran her fingers through my tangled hair. I didn’t see who he was but I saw someone man-shaped for sure.
I swallowed hard again. Do you think it was Don?
Don? She jolted upright, her spine kissing the headboard. Why would you ask about him? Kiddo, what’s going on?
Nothing. But I don’t think it’s that Christian.
Jesus, 007! When did you hear me say that?
I don’t know…one day when you were on the phone.
Dear lord, you truly are a spy. Listen, I’m not sure who he was, she sighed. And I don’t want you to worry, okay? He’s not going to hurt me. And he’s not going to hurt you. Whoever he is. She reached for my hand, crushing it against her sun-damaged chest. Her eyes boring into my brain. There are people out there that are searching for something. Some excitement, I don’t know. We feel more sorry for people like that than anything.
I nodded although I didn’t understand. Mom vibrated with a nervous energy, but it wasn’t fear.
You know sometimes I think you know more than we think and it’s terrifying. She bent down and kissed my forehead, gave my tummy a playful poke. Let Mommy get dressed, sweet pea. Daddy will be home soon.
She rose from the bed, freeing herself easily from my embrace, opening and shutting dresser drawers, retrieving her clothes and then her cosmetics. I lay there and thought about how mere minutes before a mystery man took in the sight of my mother’s naked body. But more than that, he’d entered a place he didn’t belong without ever having to step inside.
I watched my mother watch herself in her bureau mirror, pursing her lips together like a promise and admiring the results. Her eyes, aflame and haloed in kohl, she reminded me of the women on MTV—the way they arranged their faces to fit the mood of the man’s song, the way they pretended they weren’t seducing and surrendering to danger. But they knew they were and they liked it. My mother’s reflection met my eyes. I wasn’t sure which one of us had been caught.
She turned around and bared her normal face, flushed and sheepish. Shoo, shoo! she squealed, chasing me out of her room before quickly closing her door. I lingered, hoping to be reinvited, but the blow dryer began its pretty drone.
I let my mother be, plopping myself down again in front of the television. I let the men in the music videos tend to me, let them teach me. Those men that sung about being hungry beasts, bringing me to my knees, watching every breath I take and wanting more, more, more. I brought my face so close to the screen, I could taste the technicolor of their feigned desire. I didn’t dare look anywhere else.
Jillian Luft recently returned to her home state of Florida. Her work has appeared in Hobart, XRAY, Rejection Letters, Expat, Vlad Mag, and other publications. She’s currently seeking publication for her novel about toxic Florida romance. You can find her on X @JillianLuft and read more of her writing at jillianluft.com