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Playing Ping Pong – Barry Smolin

An excerpt from The Miranda Complex Volume 1

Check out the rest of the saga

Winter is an illusion. A joke that Los Angeles plays on the rest of the world.

And yet, the Thursday we got back from Christmas vacation was as wintry as L.A. gets, daytime temperatures in the lower 60s, thunderstorms, lots of slow traffic and car accidents.

Angelenos have no idea what to do when it rains. The rain is a nuisance and a nemesis.

And it was that kind of day in L.A., a day of flooded storm drains and short-circuited traffic lights, exasperated motorists, wading pedestrians who don’t own umbrellas because why should they, general mayhem all around.

That was the day I would go home with Miranda Savitch.

Miranda and I avoided speaking for much of that school day, and I was suffering from a nervous anxiety that chose to locate itself, as usual, in my stomach.

I was in the greatest panic during the last class of the day, 6th period PE, which meant dodge-ball in the gym because of the weather.

I sat along the side wall with Chester, Gus, Oliver, and Claude.

I was afraid to reveal my fear. It would be a dishonor and a violation of the code. Admitting that girls are scary. Never.

“So, you and Miranda today, dude, right?” said Chester Flinch.

“She’ll finally find out what a fag you are,” Gus chimed in.

“What base are you trying for?” Oliver asked.

“I’m not going to play baseball, I’m going to play ping pong,” I said.

“Yuh-huh, meaning you’re gonna paddle her ass, what,” Oliver pantomimed.

“No, straddle her ass,” said Chester, making pelvic thrusts.

“And you know there will be titties involved,” Claude Moss felt compelled to add.

“Dang, dude, Miranda got some tig ol’ bitties, though, dude, I felt ‘em,” Oliver made sure everyone knew.

“And then you’re gonna play L’eggo My Eggo, right, Sir Lancelot?” said Gus, making some kind of sexual gesture I was not able to make sense of.

“L’eggo my pussy,” Oliver corrected, to more general guy laughter.

“I can’t even tell if she likes me, though,” I said, “I don’t know.”

“Dude, she likes you,” Chester said, “Lori and Claire told me. And they wouldn’t’ve told me unless Miranda wanted them to tell me and wanted me to tell you. Get it? That’s how girls operate, dude. Every leaked ‘secret’ is intentional. You’ve gotta learn this girl-strategy shit, golita. Miranda is hot and ready for your incompetent wussy love.”

Chester Flinch was pretty reliable about that sort of gossip.

He never had a girlfriend, but he was friends with pretty much every cute girl in the school.

They often used him to relay female interest to a chosen male entity or to gauge male interest in the aforementioned female entity, and Chester dug that line of reconnaissance work.

Chester Flinch disappeared from our lives after 8th Grade.

The “official” story was that he had moved and was going to Samohi. But we all believed he joined the CIA.

“Well, I don’t know, dudes, I don’t know how to tell if she does or not,” I said.

Gus walked behind me as we got ready for dismissal, giving me a boxing trainer’s between-round shoulder rub.

“Remember, she’s just a girl, it doesn’t matter, she’s just a girl, it doesn’t matter. Keep saying that to yourself, dorkwad. She’s just a girl, it doesn’t matter . . . Don’t ever forget it. A year ago you didn’t even care about girls, right?”

When the bell rang at the end of class, my cue to go meet Miranda at her locker (adjacent to mine), my chums all wished me luck.

“Dang, dude,” Oliver Gelding said as I left for my rendezvous, “don’t forget Soylent Green, baby, Soylent Green,” he encouraged, grabbing the air with both hands.

“Let’s go,” Miranda said matter-of-factly, and we walked to the bus stop at Wilshire and Highland.

Lorelei, Claire, and Dolly all took the same bus, so they bore witness to the first journey of Miranda Savitch and Lance Atlas.

John Burroughs Jr. High School in Los Angeles

The social circle that had coalesced among the group of cool nerds at John Burroughs Jr. High circa ‘72-’75 already considered us a couple, and the Lorelei-Claire-Dolly triumvirate that surrounded Miranda stared and whispered like the Fates themselves, ready to publish every detail of this pre-ordained relationship to the members at large.

Miranda huddled briefly with the sisterhood before we exited the bus at Fairfax, right outside May Company.

She wore a pink cardigan sweater, no raincoat, over a white blouse and tan linen skirt that came down over her knees, Jack Purcells and the tennis socks with the little fluffy dangly-balls in back.

I’d been thinking about those socks since the arcade.

She was wearing tights which reminded me of this time in Mr. Swanson’s class I told her I liked her tights and she got embarrassed.

Miranda had skinny legs. Wasn’t she cold? I was. I was shivering. And I was wearing a jacket.

We walked in relative silence, occasionally pointing out which of our friends lived in which of the houses we happened to be passing.

My nervousness abated some as I breathed the damp chilly air.

There was a strange elation, felt from my heart to my perineum, elevating my mood.

I was walking in the rain with Miranda Savitch.

We each had our own umbrella.

It was like a movie.

The murky birth-story of my sexual awareness.

I didn’t come out of the gate all cock-hard and rocking,

I didn’t wake up one morning wanting to fuck everything.

Rather, the onset was gradual, nuanced.

Stirrings at first were vague and ephemeral. Very much a snake that uncoiled slowly.

The early whirlpools were oddly girl-related but not attached to this or that one.

A slinky underneath feeling of wanting that hot otherness.

I first began masturbating when I was about 11, in the bathtub, sort of sliding forward and back on my stomach as I’d let the water drain, a wondrous discovery.

The porcelain was smooth girl skin.

It wasn’t anybody in particular.

It was just the sensation of skin on skin, me on girlbody.

There were climaxes, yes indeed, dry climaxes, no spunk or other utterances, just sweet-’n’-dreamy soft porcelain paradise, just a really neat thing for the body to do. An intensely peaceful reward.

And even when it had to do with specific females, like the girl from Zody’s, it was still just skin on skin, body on body, face against face, even later with Candy Stoner, right up until I came upon a new impending verge . . . the canyons of Miranda.

It was sitting in Miranda Savitch’s bedroom, alone with her, wanting to talk to her about everything, wanting to enfold her body, wanting to enchant her heart, wanting to occupy the center of her being, that I entertained, right there, with consciousness-shaking revolt, my first cock-in-pussy thoughts.

Specifically, my cock in her pussy, on the bed, with her skirt still on.

And her tennis shoes. And her tennis socks with the little dangly-balls. And the pink sweater.

This was a new paradigm. A sudden drastic alteration in my approach to the world.

I wanted to fuck Miranda Savitch.

That’s what my cock had been pointing to all that time. That’s where the rocket was supposed to land, Tyrone. That’s what all the bathtub calisthenics were about.

I knew about cock-in-pussy and how that business got done for the sake of propagation. But I’d never applied it to my own cock in someone else’s actual pussy. That was brand flashing new, and I was thunderstruck.

I sat inches away from Miranda’s porcelain body and thought about fucking her.

Lust, ’til then, had been just a miasma of attraction, undirected, ambiguous.

Although I deeply enjoyed the hours I spent frenching Candy Stoner, I never thought about my cock being in her pussy.

At the edge of Miranda’s bed, her legs extending from under that skirt, her eyes alternately on me and looking away, I swelled with mammal passion, having entered a new cuntcentric universe, shivering to contain a fountain of starry-heart jazz.

But amid the hugeness I found myself afraid of so much feeling. More feeling than I was ready to be feeling.

It was too real. And too torrential. And too soon.

I was in love with Miranda Savitch. And it vanished every other thought.

The smell of her girlness pervaded the air, the house was full of it.

I was a jungle monkey horny to climb her contours.

But for all my slutty rumblings I felt embarrassed and unsure.

Need is a weakness. To want is to lack. Don’t display your human frailty. Be cool. Be that cat who never needs a thing.

I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell her I wanted to.

In a way I forebade myself from touching her. It would only stir up her revulsion or her disappointment. Those were the only two possible outcomes.

I hovered nonplussed, sitting next to Miranda Savitch, at the edge of her bed. It would have been so easy to.

Dang, dude.

“What music are you listening to these days?” Miranda asked, apparently unaware of my entire psychic turmoil.

“Um, I’m really into the American Graffiti soundtrack right now. And Aladdin Sane. You like David Bowie? Quadrophenia is cool too, the Who. John Lennon solo; have you heard the Plastic Ono Band album? And The Beatles are always in my ears, of course,” I said.

“The Beatles, yes! Revolver is my favorite album of all time,” Miranda enthused, “I listen to it every single night.” She strode over to her record player and put the needle on “I Want To Tell You.” George Harrison’s memorable lick faded up and cascaded forth as the great insane piano track entered steadily into the loony swirl of the psychedelic vocal:

I want to tell you

My head is filled with things to say

When you’re here

All those words, they seem to slip away

“I love this song,” Miranda said, singing along.

Was she singing to me?

Or was I singing to her?

I lost track.

Every word was resonant.

At least it was from my side of the tango.

Or was I just singing to myself?

When I get near you,

The games begin to drag me down

It’s all right

I’ll make you maybe next time around

Miranda had her eyes closed.

She could have picked any song from side B. Why that one?

Though I couldn’t determine any definite intentionality, the lyrics were just too suspiciously relevant to be accidental. Or was I simply connecting random dots in pursuit of some imposed pattern that might grant my wish?

But if I seem to act unkind

It’s only me, it’s not my mind

That is confusing things

Her younger brother wandered into the room and sat down in a rocking chair.

“Are you Lance?” he asked.

I nodded confirmation.

“Are you my sister’s boyfriend?”

I shook my head with prideful denial.

“Why are you here?”

I want to tell you

I feel hung up but I don’t know why,

I don’t mind

I could wait forever, I’ve got time

Miranda opened her eyes and looked at me. And then at her brother.

Sometimes I wish I knew you well,

Then I could speak my mind and tell you

Maybe you’d understand

“Jeremy, get out of here, please,” Miranda yelped at her brother. He was just young enough not to realize he shouldn’t be in her room under such circumstances. He picked up enough via sibling subtext, however, to get the exit message and find his entertainment elsewhere.

I want to tell you

I feel hung up but I don’t know why,

I don’t mind

I could wait forever, I’ve got time, I’ve got time, I’ve got time

I’ve got time,” Miranda continued past the fade, “God, I love it. Isn’t it the best?”

I looked at her for a moment while I contemplated my answer.

I wanted to say, “You’re all I think about” and then fuck her all over that California-thin quilt, but instead I said, “Yeah, George did a lot of great songs that people never talk about,” and continued sitting next to her, behind the self-imposed barricade.

Put your hand on her bare leg, Lance, just put your arm around her and get to frenching, you know how to do that at least, I told myself amid the barrage of cock-in-pussy, cock-in-pussy, cock-in-pussy thoughts.

I had an erection the size of a frozen banana from Zody’s.

Could she tell?

“But that song just says it all,” Miranda gushed, “Every night before I go to bed I listen to that song. And then again when I wake up in the morning. I love how hopeful it is. I could wait forever, I’ve got time . . . I should make that my motto.”

I wasn’t sure if the intensity with which she held my gaze was real or if I was just duping myself out of unilateral desire.

Nobody had ever looked at me the way Miranda Savitch looked at me.

She’s just a girl, it doesn’t matter . . .

Nausea and an irrepressible case of the shakes overcame me at that inopportune moment, and in an attempt to break the vortex of fear, I suggested, “Are you ready to get your ass kicked in ping pong?”

“I’m ready to swat you into submission, yeah,” she came right back, always on call for sassy repartee, “But I have to pee first.”

Richard Millhouse Nixon

While Miranda was in the bathroom I calmed my boner with thoughts of Richard Nixon.

The Savitch family ping pong table stood in an enclosed patio which was chilly and dank in the rain.

“You haven’t got a hope in Hell, you know,” Miranda said, referring, I think, to my chances in the ping pong match, but I don’t know.

Captain Howdy, that isn’t very nice,” I spoke in falsetto fake-girl voice, grasping at the essence of Linda Blair, “and, plus, I thought hope was your thing.”

“I’ll take pink,” said Miranda, choosing which color paddle she’d use.

“Why, ’cause you’re the girl?” I asked.

“No, because it matches my sweater,” she stuck her tongue out at me, “And you take blue because — ”

“ — it matches my jeans,” I finished for her.

“No, because you are a blueberry.”

Violet Beauregard

“Just like Violet Beauregarde,” I said.

“Yeah, you remind me of her,” Miranda made playful. “Ready?” she asked as she sent her first serve my way.

We volleyed back and forth gently . . . There was no competition here . . . No championship to be won . . . The only lesson was in finding the rhythm and jiving with it . . . Plugging into the eternal . . . A sweet reprieve from the mental tempest.

“I thought I reminded you of the Little Prince.”

She had to think for a moment.

I had obviously spent longer looking at the note she wrote me in 7th Grade English than she had spent writing it. My myth, not hers.

Finally she raised an embarrassed oh-yeah smile recalling the year-old scribble on my literature worksheet:

you remind me of the little prince! luv, miranda

I still have that note somewhere.

“I could never figure out what you meant by that,” I said.

“Oh, God, I don’t know. I think I just meant, I don’t know, whatever, it’s not important,” she said with some consternation.

“Violet Beauregarde, huh?”

“That’s right,” she said. “Hey, I could’ve said you remind me of Augustus Gloop, you know, so.”

“You mean Buzzy Lagniappe?” I took the bait.

“Oh, man,” she giggled, getting the allusion, “Where did Oliver come up with Buzzy Lagniappe instead of Augustus Gloop? That was cray-zee,” she laughed.

“I swear, I’m just going to start calling Gus ‘Buzzy’ from now on. It fits him. Buzzy Lagniappe. The fat kid from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Miranda said.

Dawn Wells, aka Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island

“That too,” I said, “And, you know what? You remind me of Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island.”

“I think of myself more as Ginger,” Miranda replied, “Mary Ann’s too much like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. I’m not a farm girl, I’m a movie star.”

“Did you ever notice Ginger dresses like a mermaid?”

Like I said . . .” Miranda flipped her hair back in response.

Mary Ann and Ginger (Tina Louise)

I wanted to tell her she reminded me of everybody ’cause she was all I thought about. I don’t know. I didn’t. I just got ready for her next expertly ginger serve.

Just as Miranda and I started a new round of volleys, her little brother came onto the patio.

“Can I watch?” he asked.

“Jeremy, please,” Miranda whined, “MOM!”

Mrs. Savitch responded quickly to the SOS, appearing in the doorway.

“Jeremy, come with me right now,” she said, and to me, “I’m Tamar.”

“Lance.”

“We’ve heard a lot about you, Lance.”

“Good, I hope!”

“Eh,” she see-sawed.

Wise-ass sarcasm is genetic, I learned.

“No,” she assured me, “Miranda talks about you all the time and says you’re just the — ”

“ — Mom,” Miranda warned, cutting her mother off.

“Are you staying for dinner?” Tamar asked.

“No, my dad’s coming to get me at six,” I said.

“Well, do come join us some night,” she said, “I have to go finish making dinner, and, Mandy, don’t forget to set the table after Lance goes home.”

“What’re we having?” Miranda asked her mother.

“Pork chopsh and appleshaush. Ain’t that shwell?,” Jeremy bogied à la Peter Brady.

“Fishsticks,” Tamar interjected, “can’t you smell?”

Miranda nodded and looked at the ping pong table.

“Parents are embarrassing,” she said after her mother was out of hearing.

She put her paddle down.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged.

“Done with ping pong?” I guessed.

“Yeah. My mother always ruins everything,” she said, looking down.

“You don’t want fishsticks?” I tried to be cheery.

I walked around the table to get closer to her.

“I’m sure they’re not as good as Fisher’s, but,” I touched the back of her head, “Hey what happened?” I asked, overcoming the Lagniappe/Flinch-inspired desire to say “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell!” in creepy-devil voice.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know what I want to do, Lance,” she said, “What do you want to do?”

I avoided the honest-to-goodness cock-in-pussy answer to that question.

“It’s not raining right now. Let’s go outside and hang out,” I suggested.

“‘K,” she muttered, looking up at me, then looking away.

It was already dark outside with a mist soft like talcum, the air menthol brisk.

The Herald-Examiner

This kid we sort of knew from school rode past on his bike delivering copies of the Herald-Examiner.

“We only get the Times,” Miranda said.

“Oh, man, my dad loves the Herald. He sits on the front porch and reads it every afternoon. Cigarettes, coffee, and the Herald-Examiner are my dad’s only necessary possessions. He loves Melvin Durslag..”

“Melvin Durslag. That’s a funny name, Melvin Durslag,” Miranda giggled, “Is that real?”

Melvin Durslag

“Yeah, sports writer at the Herald. Here, I’ll show you,” and I walked over to her next door neighbor’s house to pick up their copy of the paper, pulled it out of the protective rainy day plastic, pulled off the red rubber band, uncurled the bundle, and removed the Sports section, showing Miranda the Melvin Durslag by-line. There was a drawn picture of him, too.

“Cray-zee,” she grinned.

“Made you smile,” I teased.

“No, Melvin Durslag made me smile,” she said, back in decent humor.

“No, his name made you smile,” I re-rolled the Herald and wrapped it back in its rubber band and slid it into the protective rainy day plastic.

“Hey, you’re good at that,” Miranda admired.

“I used to deliver the Herald, so I’ve had lots of practice,” I crowed about my first and only job.

“Do you still like Candy?” Miranda asked, out of a sudden nowhere, “You seem sad about breaking up with her.”

“I’m not sure I ever did like her really,” I said, pausing to put the idea together, “I liked frenching with her, definitely, but I don’t know.”

“Defenly,” Miranda said in half-smirk.

“Defenly,” I taunted.

“Stop it, you’re evil!” she swatted at me, almost knocking my glasses off.

“You wun’t,” I parleyed harder, in response to a raised fist of hers apparently poised to slug me on the shoulder. I grabbed her hoisted fist which opened to meet my hand, but, dang, dude, our fingers did . . . not . . . enmesh, it didn’t happen. I do not know why.

As we separated, Miranda looked at the ground.

“Do you like anybody right now?” she asked.

I wanted to tell her.

Stick your cock up her ass, you motherfucking worthless cocksucker,” the voice of demon-voiced Claude Moss crept into my consciousness.

“I don’t know,” I said, from the cringing bowels of my wimpitude.

“That’s always the correct answer,” she said and backed away a few steps, turning to go inside, “Let’s go back to my room,” she said, “It’s getting cold,” and I followed.

Miranda removed Revolver from her record player and pulled Introducing The Beatles out of her stack of LPs.

The first song on side B was “P.S. I Love You.”

She stood and looked at the LP spin while it played.

You you you,” she sang along, “You you you . . . god I love that part of the melody, you you you. What does P.S. stand for?”

“Postscript,” I said.

“Latin, right?” she answered.

“Yeah, post means after and script is writing.”

“Right, the writing that comes after the other writing, that makes sense. How do you know stuff like that?” she wondered.

“I read the dictionary for fun,” I said, not joking.

“P.S. is in the dictionary? I din’t know that.”

“You din’t?” I couldn’t help saying.

Her “don’t start” glare tamed me into remorse. “Nah, sorry. It’s in the dictionary, yeah,” I said.

She pulled a dictionary off one of her shelves and sat on the bed looking it up.

“Hyphenated, or two words?” she asked.

“I don’t know, I think it’s one word, not sure,” I said.

“Yeah, one word, here it is, ‘postscript, noun, an additional remark below the signature of a letter. Example,’” she paused, “no way,” she motioned me over next to her on the bed.

I sat and leaned into her right shoulder as she read while pointing on the page, “‘Example: P.S. I love you.’ They should say it’s a Beatles song,” and she looked at me, our faces but centimeters apart, ready for frenching. “Here, sign the page,” she pushed the dictionary onto my lap.

“Why?” I asked, a bit dazzled by her proximity.

“I want your autograph,” she got up to get a pen, a Bic 4-color. Medium point. My favorite pen ever. I carry one with me always to this day.

I signed in a blankish space near the word ‘postscript,’ I started writing You remind me of but then I ran out of room so just finished with my still evolving signature, Lance Atlas.

I heard the unmistakable sound of our lumbering Chevy station wagon pulling up in front of Miranda’s house.

My dad’s shave-and-a-haircut signature horn tap pattern confirmed my imminent departure.

I put on my beloved UCLA letterman’s jacket, grabbed my backpack, and Miranda walked me out.

Stopping at the front door, we faced each other. Miranda held onto the sleeve of my jacket.

“Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp,” she said.

“Mata Hairi,” I spoke back, in the spirit of the allusion.

“Violet Beauregarde.”

“Ginger the mermaid,” I said in turn.

“I want to tell you,” she said as she moved her face closer to mine, “that,” and she paused, looking groundward.

“That?” I waited.

“That,” she closed her eyes, “Mmm . . . yeah . . . hmm,” she stalled, then she looked at me with wet directness, “well, if we had played ping pong for real . . . I would have been nice and let you win.”

“Loser gives all,” I restated the stakes.

“Something like that,” she rasped, “Defenly.”

Miranda is hot and ready for your incompetent wussy love,” I heard Chester declaim in my head.

But what if he was wrong?

I don’t know. Dude. Here’s the thing:

I didn’t kiss her. I don’t know.

Dang, dude.

She’s just a girl, it doesn’t matter

“I gotta go,” I said and trotted to the waiting Kingswood Estate.

“Bye, Lance,” I heard Miranda go back inside.

Before I got into the car I turned around to say bye back, but she had already closed the front door.

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