FRANK A LONG TIME AGO
by Lisa Ellex
Things get lost in a divorce: possessions, pride, humility, accountability, self-esteem, love, and worse -- children. In the strange and frenzied episode of my parents’ divorce, I lost my virginity. It was the summer I would turn fifteen. Worse things could have happened.
It was six years after The Summer of Love. The summer when at least 100,000 people flocked to Haight-Ashbury for music, peace, drugs, and free love. It was four years post-Woodstock and the revolution of sexual freedom and self-expression had carved a permissive niche in our culture. It was a summer of triumph for women's rights because just five months earlier, a Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade signaled our liberation from male oppression.
Until now, my small West Village neighborhood had only known two types: the immigrant families who built our community and the new bohemians of the 1950s and 60s. On the short span that is MacDougal Street, these two types gently commingled. The cafes in which my Italian ancestors congregated were shared with the free-thinking artists of the day. MacDougal Street was splashed with dozens of such places. It was also the street where Frank lived.
Frank became my protector when all my parents could do was protect themselves from each other. They no longer enforced my strict curfew or questioned my whereabouts. When I arrived home at night, drunk and disheveled, I was puzzled yet relieved to find I was alone. I was, I thought, forgotten.
At sixteen years old, Frank had dropped out of high school. He had a full-time job he seldom talked about. And he always had what seemed to be an endless supply of cash. He was a man-child in the truest sense of the word, like a juvenile delinquent from a 1930s gangster movie. Sunrise would find him in the after-hours clubs, gambling, drugging, and drinking Southern Comfort on the rocks. He always had a Marlboro in his mouth and a joint in his pocket.
On the fifth floor of a tenement that was typical of the neighborhood, Frank shared an apartment with his nineteen-year-old sister, Joanne. Joanne was dating "the-black-guy." Their Sicilian parents, Carmine and Josie disapproved. That was fine with Joanne. She casually gathered her things and moved to a vacant apartment just one flight up. Everyone said "the-black-guy" paid the rent. When Frank's father imposed house rules on Frank's early morning arrivals, Frank followed Joanne to the upstairs apartment. Eventually, Joanne broke up with "the-black-guy" and Frank paid the rent. With the Sicilians living a flight below, Frank was able to visit his mother daily. If he wanted to see Carmine, he would stop inside the downstairs bar where Carmine posed as a bartender but made his real money running numbers for the mob.
Frank was Josie and Carmine's youngest boy. There was no doubt Frank and Joanne were related. They shared the dark eyes, olive skin, and glistening hair of their mother. Frank wore his hair in the style of the day; a very long, layered haircut fashioned into a shag. He wore his mane proudly and would allow no one but Ted from the famed Paul McGregor salon to take sheers to his head. It was the hair of a Mayan God. The kind you wanted to sleep in.
On the night before my school let out for summer, Frank announced he was taking me to Jones Beach in the morning. We were to meet on the park bench across from my apartment building.
Frank arrived with a towel and a box. The towel was for the beach. The box was for me. It cradled a thick, gold bangle bracelet with an attached safety chain. If the bracelet were to open up, the chain would ensure I wouldn't lose it. "Like it?" I was stunned. It was not the type of gift a teenage boy would give his girlfriend. "I love it." To free up his hands, Frank brought his Marlboro to his mouth and held it between his lips. He slipped the chunky bracelet around my fourteen-year-old wrist and fastened the safety chain.
It was late June and the morning rush hour subway cars were filled with over-heated, sleepy people. I found a seat that stuck to the back of my thighs as Frank stood up before me, holding onto the strap above. Every so often, the tiniest beads of sweat would appear on his forehead. He would use his rolled up beach towel to dry them away, only to have them reappear one or two stops later. We agreed that jumping in the water would be the first thing to do when we got to the beach.
Frank claimed our spot and arranged our towels as I took off my flip flops, pants and shirt. He took my hand and led the way to the surf. We didn't swim far -- just waist-high -- when he scooped me up and pulled me to his body. I wrapped my legs around his waist and we bobbed in the current under the hot, glaring sky. Neither of us would say what hung even heavier than the thick, humid air: I was leaving for California in the morning. My parents got the idea that they could start anew and life would be perfect on the west coast. By some sort of hippy magic, they would be immune from divorce in Santa Monica. I was to leave my school, my home, my family, my friends and what I believed to be the first love I ever knew.
We walked across the hot sand and Frank led me to a spot under the boardwalk. By comparison, it felt cold there and the sand falling from the boards above us came down like snow. Frank pulled me close and kissed me. The taste of Marlboros was replaced by the most delicious sea salt. With hundreds of people walking above, we were in our secret boudoir surrounded by magical sounds of nature; gulls squawking, tide rolling, wind blowing.
As we ascended the subway to the West Fourth Street stop, the sun was going down but somehow it was hotter and more oppressive than the afternoon. When it's that hot on a tenement street, people sit out on their stoops to cool off. Air conditioning was a luxury. Fire hydrants were open for the children to cool off under the gush. People who were too old to climb down the stairs from their apartments sat on their fire escapes and peered down on the Village scene. It was the first time I can recall holding hands with Frank in the street. After all, we were in his neighborhood now and there was little chance of being seen by my father who was either ten blocks north in our Charles Street apartment or cooling off somewhere inside a bar, a poker game, or a woman.
The sound of summer on Macdougal Street is distinct and polyrhythmic: bicycles whooshing by, kids yelling up to their moms for ice cream money, the chatter of patrons sitting outside at Cafe Dante, the whirring blades of a window fan, the clang-thud-growl of a kid's roller skates. As Frank pulled me up the stoop to his front door, a Cadillac convertible rolled by with the radio blasting "Hot Fun in the Summertime". I lowered my eyes as I passed a neighbor on the stoop, certain she knew what I was going upstairs to do.
We entered Frank's narrow tunnel of a tenement hallway. As the sand sprinkled out from our shoes, it crunched against the surface of the black and white mosaic tile floor. The embossed tin ceilings high above created a cavernous acoustic that amplified our footsteps and our love-anxious breathing.
Walking up the stairs, I could hear the evening activity from the open window on each landing: the ding of a fork against a dinner plate, a couple arguing in broken Italian, a barking dog, a crying baby, the rusty screech of a clothesline pulley, and a static radio transmitting the weather report--hazy, hot and humid. Again.
By the time we reached the fourth floor, I wasn't sure if I was breathing hard from the climb or the anticipation. When we reached the fifth floor, Frank pushed open the unlocked door with his thick shoulder, never letting go of my hand. The entryway funneled to his dark bedroom. The only light on was in the kitchen and the radio high atop the refrigerator was left on so that anyone considering robbing the apartment would be discouraged by Stevie Wonder singing "Superstition".
Past the kitchen was the last room--the living room. Between the two windows was a television set with rabbit ears. The fan wedged inside the window on the right was running like a pinwheel. It blew an artificial breeze onto a plastic-covered couch. A coffee table sat between the couch and a fireplace mantel. A small, flowered easy chair was poised in the corner.
Frank still tasted like salt. When he laid on top of me and moved even the slightest bit, I could feel the sand between his chest and mine. I couldn't tell if we were kissing and touching for five minutes or five hours but we were sweating so much that instead of sticking to the plastic couch we were actually sliding around it. Frank slid down to the button of my hip huggers. He lowered them just enough to position his head between my legs. His tongue quickly found what he was looking for. Somehow, this was sobering. Do people really do this? Or is this a dark and wonderful secret that only we share? How much he must love me to want to be this close. Is this even a real thing? Did he invent this? This couldn't be right. Who could ever expect this? But everything Frank did was unexpected.
As his head moved, his black hair glistened in the light that poured from the kitchen. The faster his head moved, the louder became the clink of the eighteen-carat-gold crucifix hitting the Blessed Virgin medal that hung around his neck. I could hear the radio but I had no idea what language it was speaking. I was buzzing. I was floating. I was dreaming. His tongue was much too strong, I thought. Then suddenly, I was drained. The buzzing and the floating stopped. I wasn't dreaming anymore.
Frank looked up at me and licked his lips. "Go inside."
I don't recall walking through the kitchen but somehow I was in his bed. He appeared in the doorway. The kitchen light glowed behind him and created a silhouette of his form. His cock stood straight up in the dark nest of his groin.
Suddenly, he was beside me. "I'm scared." "Just tell me when to stop. I promise, I"ll stop," he purred in my ear.
I could smell the musk he wore, wafting in the waves of the sheets, sweet and dirty. Then, I couldn't smell it any longer. He was stretching me, hurting me. "Frank... Please..." And as I was just minutes ago, Frank was lost. Buzzing. Floating. Dreaming.
I called his name again and grabbed his hair. Long, black corn silk tied around my fingers, around my hands, distracting me from the pain. Then I heard yelling. It wasn't me. It was Frank. The safety chain on my bracelet was caught in that hair. And he stopped. And he apologized. And from the kitchen, Al Green sang, "Love and Happiness."
Frank walked me home. And I cried. And he kissed me and held me tight. And I couldn't let go. I didn't know when I would ever see him again.
The next morning I awoke. Deflowered. I collected my things for the airport. Despondent. We walked past our doorman, into the lonely morning, for my parents to find their new life and for mine to be left behind. I prayed to the Virgin Mother--the same Virgin Mother who kept time between my legs just twelve hours ago. I prayed for a miracle. And when I looked up, there he was, leaning against the very lamp post where he had kissed me good night. Defiant.
Frank was not concerned with my father's presence. No one said a word. We walked a good distance behind my parents to get to my uncle's apartment. Uncle Eddie, the bad cop, was the only Greenwich Village family member who owned a car. He arranged our airport send-off weeks ago. Eddie thought of everything. He even picked up our luggage the night before and set it in his trunk. New York's Finest.
My parents, still in front of us, hurried across the avenue before the light turned red. And then, instead of waiting for the traffic to pass, Frank ran into the avenue pulling me behind him. In the middle of seventh avenue, with traffic whooshing by, Frank pulled me in and kissed me. A long, deep kiss. And again, time stopped. And again, we were buzzing. Floating. Dreaming.
Machines veered around us. Cars. Taxis. Trucks. An ambulance. We never looked up. Horns were honking. I heard my mother scream. The light turned green and then, as if it were an ordinary day, Frank took my hand and strolled us to the sidewalk. I never took my eyes from him. I heard my father's voice. "Goodbye, Frank," it boomed.
As if nothing had just happened, my father sat in the passenger seat with my uncle at the wheel. I was in the back with my mother. She looked sad for me. She understood. I looked out my window and there was Frank. Standing. Staring.
Eddie put the car into drive and pulled out of the spot. From the rear window, I turned and watched Frank became smaller and smaller. Until I couldn't see him anymore.
My days in California were long and lonely. I wrote letters every day; to friends, to Frank. He called me once, from a phone booth on the corner of Washington Place and Sixth Avenue. He said a couple of days after I left he was picked up on the street by my uncle Eddie and his cop partner. They loaded Frank into their squad car for no reason at all. Then they took him to the precinct, threw him in a cell and beat the shit out of him. For no reason at all.
He asked me what I did all day. I told him I would write. I told him my dad bought an orange Volkswagen Beetle and I would take a picture with my new Instamatic and send it to him. He told me he loved me and with my father just five feet away, I answered, "Me, too." We talked until he ran out of coins.
When I hung up, I became sick that I wasn't closer. I was mad at myself for not crawling through the telephone line to get to him. After everyone was asleep, I found a razor and with my right hand, I carved his name into the top of my left forearm. If I couldn't see him, at least I could feel him. F... At least I could stare at his name. R... The razor stung. A... I wanted the sting to stop but I wouldn't stop until he was there. N... Until he was all there. I paused only to wipe away the blood and see where to place the next letter. K... It stung for days. When it scabbed over, the word "Frank" could be deciphered. I was disappointed that the N and the K were not as bold – not as deep – as the first three letters. I had to hide it from my parents. It wasn't hard. They still weren't paying attention.
The next night, I received another call from New York. This one was from my friend Susan. She said she was at the hospital with Frank. He had swallowed a bottle of aspirin. He should be fine. She'd let me know.
In just eight weeks, my parents came to the realization that their marriage was beyond repair. I could have told them that eight months [years?] ago.
We left my father and his new orange Volkswagen beetle somewhere in Santa Monica.
When we returned to New York, Frank spent his days trying to get my attention. I spent my days trying to avoid him. To this day, I'm not sure why. Frank was still trying to save me. I thought, if he were really my protector, why couldn't he protect us from all this pain?
Frank wouldn't see the inside of a hospital again for forty years. Behind the eighteen-carat-gold crucifix and medal of the Blessed Virgin remains a nine-inch scar where they opened him up for heart surgery. He told a friend that as he was going under anesthesia, my face was the last thing he saw. In the traffic of Seventh Avenue. Horns blaring, cars whooshing by.
From time to time, I look down at the top of my left forearm and notice what remains of his name: the first carved line of the letter F. I move Frank's thick, gold bracelet up my arm a bit, until it hides the scar. I rotate the bracelet, until I get to a tiny, broken loop that once attached the safety chain, forever lost somewhere in Frank's hair, a long time ago.
LISA ELLEX is a third-generation Greenwich Village native. She is a writer of television, radio, documentaries, music reviews, and interviews, a playwright, and a vocalist and voice artist. She created and hosts the podcast It’s Your Thing with Lisa Ellex and was creator of the early-childhood music program Baby Rubato.