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Her mother had said it was wrong to let a boy touch her under her clothes, but the first time it happened it was as wonderful as her friends claimed it would be. Reta had been taught to believe that sex before a certain age or outside of true love was terrible, yet she had thought it thrilling. But on this first day of December, the terribly wrong part of sex was evident in the baby’s plaintive cries to be fed and the vile odor of soiled, cloth diapers soaking in a plastic diaper pail beside the washer and dryer. Dirty dishes were piled high in the kitchen sink, unwashed clothing littered the bedroom floor and unmade bed. Shabby furnishings made the four tiny rooms drearier, claustrophobic, like her new life. Two identical, Cape Cod-style houses stood to either side, the three homes alone on the road and though a few months old, already worn…poor places for young marrieds to try to make an exciting start.
Reta had what her high school friends had wanted, especially the girls who had gotten pregnant. So what was wrong? A house was a house. She was ready for her new life. Everyone said that kids were growing up faster and that it followed that they should be married younger. Reta believed it, only wished her legs and ankles were slimmer and her pretty face a better reflection of her maturity. Maybe she was sick today. Otherwise, why so down in the dumps? She had what parents tried so hard to keep to themselves, as if too precious, too adult for children. She was secure and expected to be for a lifetime. Gerry would certainly inherit his father’s business though a promise to go to college was attached to it…“Keep those college offers in mind when you shoot, Gerry,” Millard Ellis had said more than once. She could persuade him to refuse though. With a large income there for the taking, Gerry didn’t need to waste time at college. As it was, between attending high school, studying, playing basketball and working at his father’s supermarket, Gerry didn’t have enough time to do his share of the work at home.
It’s just a stupid degree, Reta thought, turned on her side, reached for the knob and turned up the volume of the radio. Besides, Gerry’s too dumb. What if he flunked out? Why take the chance that Millard will decide that his son isn’t worth employing much less leaving him the business? Damn Millard anyway. There’s one creep I’d like to see crawl.
“It’s the weather,” she said aloud, looking out at the bleak frontage -- sparse woods on rocky, acid ground; a narrow, pitted, tarred access road to the isolated development; the front yard of coarse sand -- blaming it for her mood. But then she remembered the day George and Shirley Bryce moved in when George had taken the road too fast and broken a spring in his rod. “A sub-suburb, that’s what this is,” she said scornfully. “The cheap bastards said they were going to give married kids like us a good start by putting up hundreds of decent homes. There’s still land near the ocean and near the good houses. Why didn’t they start us there? They’re liars and we’re suckers, stuck out here in the sticks where the big-mouthed, so-called do-gooders don’t have to think about us.”
Reta lit a cigarette, her next to last, and wondered what her neighbors were doing. In the house to the right, George would be at work. His wife, Shirley Ann, would have her mother there helping her to be a good little wife. Reta pulled on the cigarette, exhaled the smoke, shook her head and thought about poor Shirl, a nice kid who was really out of her league…a decent girl and one hell of a cheerleader before she got knocked up.
Jud and Beverly Bradley lived on the other side. Jud spent most of his time at home. His father had struck a deal: Tell me what you need, otherwise don’t bother me. Yeah, Jud was set. So was Bev. She got what she needed, too. Day and night.
Reta wrinkled her nose in disgust. Gerry was pathetic in bed. All he knew was one thing and he barely knew that much. There was no experimenting, no change in technique or position, nothing more than what any dog could do. She wanted variety, excitement, stimulation. Gerry was acting like a scared kid; as if afraid his father would walk in and catch them in the act. And the baby was no help. Roy was moved to the living room at night but the smell hung around the bed like a stinking rain cloud at a picnic.
Reta blew smoke toward the ceiling. Hell, she thought, at least Gerry’s thin and doesn’t get me all sweaty except when he doesn’t shower after practice. It’s a hell of a lot better than what Shirl puts up with, George’s fat, sweaty body on top of her, the sweat mixed with car grease and garage dirt. Poor skinny Shirl. She’d die if she knew what I think about the boy she loves. No way would I want him. But I’d take what Beverly’s getting. Yeah, that would shake up the routine.
She stretched her legs and put her feet on the other arm of the worn sofa, an Ellis cast-off. She hated the sight of her post-pregnancy, thickened ankles and waistline, visual reminders of what she had gained and what she was missing. What happened, she thought, to the great sex and the kicks we were supposed to get from marriage? Gerry’s always scared and I’m usually tired or fed up. Shirl knocks herself out like a good little housewife and George never says two words one way or the other. Bev’s too sexy for her own good. She puts out too much. Restless guys like Jud get bored.
She moved her feet and wiggled her hips in time to a smooth record on the radio. The baby’s squawking reached and fell on deaf ears. If it wasn’t for the babies, things might be real good, she told herself. But adults know how to make things miserable for us kids, too. What are we...freaks? Six teenagers and three infants living alone out here -- if you can call this living -- in three cheap houses. They pushed us to get married and hid us away like lepers or something. “It isn’t even like home!” she shouted. “I hate it here! And I hate you so shut up, you stupid brat!”
Reta felt better after that, laughed at the hopeless wailing from the bedroom and called: “Sure, go ahead, cry your lungs out! No one can hear you! No one can hear any of us out here! We’ve got it all, the whole bit! Out here we can howl and have fun all we want!”
She quieted and asked herself: so what’s wrong with that, Reta? Why give Myra the satisfaction of trying to back out of it the way she said you would…living to regret your mistake, scarred for life, she’d said. Scarred for life? To hell with that noise, that grownup crap! So what if Gerry isn’t the big man in your life? So what if you’re not in love with him? You’re only seventeen. If you don’t like it, you can do better next time. And if Myra tries to give you a hard time, tell her to mind her own business and kick her the hell out!
And if she doesn’t show because she’s forgotten about you, like everyone else…
Reta sighed and whispered: “Can I say, Jud, I’m bored...want to make out? I doubt it, so what’s so hot about being married? All I want is sex. That’s all I should want at my age. But this is a hell of a way to get it.”
She sat up, stood then walked to the kitchen, leaned against the sink and let the edge crease her belly. “Who says everything has to be within reach?” she complained. “I hate this dinky kitchen.” She rinsed a bottle, left a ring of dried formula on the bottom, poured it full of the chalky liquid, screwed on a nipple and slammed the bottle in a pan of water, turning on the heat as an afterthought. “Gerry would be horrified but I don’t care,” she said. “How the hell would a two-month-old kid know his bottle was dirty? And if Gerry doesn’t like it, he should be around in the afternoon to feed it and give me a goddamned break. It’s his kid, too. No, it’s his kid, period! How the hell would he feel if he was stuck here all day with a miserable brat?”
Horrible though it would be to admit it, for all Reta cared, the baby could sicken and die. Having it had been terrifying and disgusting, especially when they shaved her and all that. The bristles felt funny against her underwear. Taking care of the kid was worse. Shirley was lucky to have a mother to help out.
She leaned and lifted her skirt to tighten the stockings. High heels made her legs look fine. Flats made them look fat. But what the hell. Who was around to look but her?
Myra didn’t teach me anything, the bitch, always telling me what not to do, not what to do, Reta fumed silently. ‘Give away the baby or it’ll ruin your life’, she said. What advice, what sweet advice, telling me to be responsible one minute and to give the kid away the next. ‘I’m only thinking of you, dear, and your future’, Myra said. So I kept it and she won’t help at all. ‘You’ve made your bed’, she said, ‘and you know the rest’.”
Reta giggled, lifted out the bottle and tested the temperature of the formula on her wrist then put the bottle back to heat some more. Her last cigarette was in her blouse pocket, over the tip of her left breast. They were beginning to feel normal again. Large enough in the first place, they might have become fat and saggy if she’d given in to Gerry’s suggestion that she nurse his precious little Roy. She lit the cigarette, drew and exhaled a good drag and thought: I’m not Bev who loves the feel of it and would probably love to do it in front of the boys. She’s got nice ones though and a good reason to show them off. I’d like to watch Gerry if she did. He’d be embarrassed as hell, the psalm-singing prude. Maybe that’s why Bev would get a kick out of doing it…to make a kid like Gerry sweat over her. I’d love to know what goes through Gerry’s head when he looks at her. And I wonder what Jud thinks when he looks at me.
You’ve made your bed, Reta said to herself and picked up the bottle, turning off the heat with the same hand. Wrong, Myra, I got made, or Gerry and I made each other, or I should have let Tom Stephens have what he wanted that night instead of saving it for a stoop like Gerry. How was I supposed to know a dumb kid like him had a baby in him?
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