An excerpt from “Incorrigible,” a raw, gripping, coming-of-age story of teenage struggle with familial dysfunction, addiction, and incarceration.
Tara had the body of a runway model with thick blond hair that cascaded down her shoulders to the middle of her back. We had become good friends, pulled together like magnets by our mutual brokenness.
It was the late sixties, I was sixteen when Tara and I were sitting on the bleachers together at school. I was etching my initials into the soft, splintery wooden bench with a paperclip. I knew better than to leave my entire name amongst the other scattered names, initials and drawings of hearts or it could be used against me later on.
“Look at those stupid girls,” Tara said, glaring off into the distance.
“Which ones?” I followed her gaze.
“All of them. Those snobby bitches make me want to puke.”
She was referring to the loud, happy teenagers sitting on the grass eating their lunches. Some had their hair piled up in beehives, held together by copious amounts of hairspray, while others had short bobs that flipped at the ends. I didn’t think any of the girls were intentionally trying to arouse our envy, but that’s exactly what they did.
“Fucking clueless bitches,” I said.
I was trying my best to stay out of trouble when Tara made this announcement: “I’m going to run away.”
“I hate my step dad.” I knew Tara’s mother had recently remarried and the new hubby was strict.
“That bad, huh?”
“He’s trying to tell me what I can, and can’t do, and he’s not even my dad.”
Silence. Then I said, “I’ll go with you if you run away.”
“Really? You would do that?”
I wanted to show her what real friendship looked like, but I also wanted to get away from the constant drama and craziness going on at home. “Of course,” I said, like it was a no brainer.
“Where would we go?”
Staring off in the distance I spotted a girl with two long braids, dressed in a bright orange tie-dyed, t-shirt. “We can see where the open road takes us.”
Tara and I met by the flagpole in front of school the next day. I was dressed in bell-bottom jeans and a sweatshirt. I’d also brought a back pack stuffed with a toothbrush, a change of clothing and a dozen Twinkies in case we got hungry. Tara was wearing a cool brown rawhide jacket with fringe that hung from the back of her arms like wings.
“You sure you want to do this?” Tara’s forehead was crinkled up.
That was it. An hour later we were standing on the Pacific Coast Highway with our thumbs out. It took less than five minutes before a green and white Volkswagen van with flowers and a peace sign pulled over. Tara climbed in the back and I got in the front. Instantly I was hit with the smell of stale cigarette smoke and Patchouli oil. Strands of beads hung from the rear-view mirror. The driver was a guy with long brown hair, a straggly beard, and a rawhide vest worn over a linen shirt.
“Where you girls headed?” he asked.
“That way.” I pointed in front of me.
“Well, what a coincidence. I’m going that way too,” he smiled.
“My name is Jeff by the way.”
We told him our names.
“We just ran away from home,” Tara blurted out.
Jeff tilted his head sideways. “Oh really? Runaways?”
“Our parents suck,” I said, as if no other explanation was needed.
“I dig it man. I left home when I was seventeen.”
“Wow. That’s really cool,” Tara said.
As we drove up the coast, I watched the waves reaching up like fingers on the shore. I loved everything about the ocean. The mere sight of it could put me at ease. When we came to a red-light Jeff hit the brakes causing empty bottles and beer cans to roll forward from underneath the seat.
“Looks like you had a party,” I said.
“Oh yeah, sorry about that.”
The salty wind was whipping my hair in my face.
“What do you do Jeff?” Tara said, leaning forward.
“I’m a singer-songwriter.”
I liked the sound of that. He seemed like a free spirit.
“Right now I happen to be living in the caves.”
“What caves?” Tara asked.
“In the canyon.”
“I’ve never met a cave man before,” I smiled.
“You chicks are welcome to come check it out.”
Looking around Tara gave an enthusiastic nod.
“Yeah. Okay,” I said.
A few minutes later the bottles and cans crashed again as we were made a sharp right turn. Topanga Canyon Boulevard was a narrow, windy road, curling through the burnt orange Santa Monica Mountains. As we drove deeper into the canyon, I stuck my head out the window, causing my hair to windmill in my face. The chaparral-covered hills with steep rock out-cropping’s were breathtaking. I gazed down at the creek that rushed over massive boulders and rocks below. The raw beauty and energy of it all caused my blood pressure to drop a good ten points.
Pulling my head in, I asked Jeff. “Are we still in L.A?”
“I never even knew this place existed.”
“Topanga is a well-kept secret,” Jeff smiled.
“Well, I’ve had plenty of practice keeping secrets in my life,” I said.
“Haven’t we all,” Jeff said, in a matter of fact tone.
The van pulled onto a sliver of dirt by the side of the road. “Here we go ladies.” Jeff reached over and picked up his bag.
Tara and I grabbed our backpacks and crawled out of the van.
“So, where are the caves?” I asked.
Jeff pointed. “Down there.”
“Looks sort of dangerous.” Tara’s face was all scrunched up.
“I climb it every day.” Jeff swung his long leg over the guardrail.
Tara and I followed, dropping down onto a narrow clearing that was being strangled off by a thick layer of prickly underbrush and plants. Beyond the ledge was a dramatic drop into what seemed like a dark abyss.
“Oh shit,” I said.
“I know. I know,” Tara said.
“If you start to lose your balance grab onto something,” Jeff said.
“Have you ever fallen before?” I cupped my hands over my mouth.
“Just once….” he said, without stopping.
As we made our way down the loose dirt started to slip beneath us.
“Watch out for poison ivy,” Jeff yelled.
“What’s it looks like?”
“Red and orange with almond shaped leaves.”
All of a sudden I lost my balance and fell. I grabbed a handful of shrubbery to keep myself from going further down the hill. I pushed myself up and dusted the dirt off my butt. We see-sawed down the embankment. In some places it was so steep I had to sit down and scoot along on my butt.
Out of breath we finally made it to the bottom. I noticed how everything was super quiet except for the water gushing in the nearby creek. The smell of sage and pine hung in the air. “Wow. It’s so quiet here,” I said to no one in particular.
“This way, girls.” Jeff wanted us to keep moving.
Dry leaves and twigs crunched beneath our feet. I turned to Tara and said, “How the hell are we going to get back up?”
“Can’t go up when it’s dark that’s for sure,” she said.
As we followed the creek downstream, Jeff abruptly stopped in front of a huge gray boulder. “Camp is on the other side of this,” he said, patting the rock with his hand. My neck craned as I gazed upward. The boulder was the size of a small house.
“But how do we get over?” Tara asked.
“Just watch me, and do the same thing.” Jeff started to climb with a surprising agility for a man who had to be over thirty. He used the tips of his fingers and toes to shimmy up the side. He made it look so easy, and seconds later he was at the top, cupping his hands over his mouth, he yelled, “Okay, girls, come on up. One at a time.”
Tara went first. I bit my lip as she snaked her way up the side. I was afraid she would fall and break a bone. Then what? But Tara didn’t fall and when she made it to the top, I let out a long sigh of relief.
“It’s not as hard as it looks,” Tara said, cheering me on.
My heart was pounding as I inserted the tips of my fingers into the same dusty crevices that they had both used. I felt the hard, unrelenting rock beneath the front of my body. The toes of my sneakers found a small ledge as I reached my right arm overhead, searching for the next crack. When I found something to hold onto, my thigh and calf muscles tightened as I pushed myself up a few more feet. Reaching with my left arm to a crevice, I pulled myself up again. Twenty pounds over my ideal weight, and a half-pack-a day-smoker, I quickly became out of breath. When I made it the top, I felt a great sense of satisfaction.
Standing next to Tara and Jeff, I gazed down at a waterfall with dark water gushing out from between two rocks. I was surprised to see a bunch of naked hippies standing waist high in a swimming hole with a crescent slice of sand encircling a private beach. It was the first time I had seen so much exposed flesh in one place. Embarrassment rippled up my spine. I had to look away.
A guy with his dick dangling between his thighs yelled, “Who are your friends, Jeff?”
“They’re runaways,” he said.
“Well, come on in girls,” Dick man said. “The water is refreshing.”
“Ah… No. I’m good, but thanks,” I replied, holding up my hand.
We kept descending the boulder, but getting down was much easier than going up. Toward the bottom, I pushed off and landed with a thud on the crunchy gravel. I noticed the shallow caves Jeff was talking about at the base of the jagged mountain. Each opening was stuffed with a sleeping bag and scattered articles of clothing. I could see why all the hippies would want to stay there. It was the ideal place to live off the grid.
A big-breasted girl with hair the color of chocolate fondue was stirring a pot over an open fire as smoke drifted toward the sky.
“Do you girls want some of my special brewed cowboy coffee?” she asked.
“Sure.” I shrugged.
Tara and I sat on a log in front of the fire.
“How did you guys meet Jeff?” she asked.
“We were thumbing it on PCH.”
“Groovy.” She stirred the simmering liquid in the pot. “They call me Sunshine around here.”
“Do you have parents Sunshine?” Tara asked. “I mean, how do you live down here?”
“My parents were always up my ass, so I ran away.”
“Yeah, my parents were up my ass too,” Tara said, nodding.
A few minutes later Dick man came and sat on a rock, his flaccid penis nearly touching the ground. I averted my eyes as Tara dug her elbow deep into my ribs.
“Hello ladies.” He smiled.
Making sure to avoid the penis I gazed just over his head.
“Welcome to our casa,” he said, smiling directly at Tara.
Minutes later Sunshine pulled out a fat joint. It was getting late and the sky had an orange, pinkish glow. By then all the other hippies were joining us. When the pot came around to me I took a hit. The smoke was harsh and burned the back of my throat. Coughing, I passed it on to Tara.
As we got buzzed, we listened to stories while the sound of water fell over rocks a few feet away. Smiles emerged in the blurry orange light from the flames. A half-gallon of Red Mountain wine got passed around and everyone took swigs directly from the bottle.
I had a good buzz going on when one of the younger guys started playing his guitar and singing, Heart of Gold, by Neil Young. My shoulders swayed to the sound. The sweetness of his voice coaxed everyone else to join in. We all knew the song and it sounded like a chorus bouncing off the canyon walls and reverberating into the ethers.
I want to live.
I want to give.
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold. …
The words never felt truer to me than they did in that moment.
We stayed up until the fire started going out. Some of the people said goodnight before drifting off into the blackness. I watched in horror when Dick man took Tara by the hand and guided her to his cave.
Suddenly, I was struck with fear. Where am I going to sleep?
As if reading my mind Jeff said, “You’re welcome to share my sleeping bag.”
I put my palms closer to the fire and took a deep breath. “Okay. Cool,” was all I managed to say.
Jeff stood up and I watched him walk away.
A jittery feeling took over my entire body.
I was trapped. While I had let plenty of guys feel me up or put their fingers inside me I hadn’t actually gone all the way with anyone yet. I was afraid Jeff might want to have sex. After all, weren’t the hippies all about having free love?
A few minutes later I found myself fully clothed worming my way into Jeff’s sleeping bag. And while I might have had sex with him had he tried, Jeff only went as far as holding me in his arms. What I remember mostly was how the moon shone like a bleached oyster shell and the zillion silvery stars, flashing like sequins on a black velvet cocktail dress in the sky.
“Gorgeous right?” Jeff said.
“It’s, it’s so beautiful.”
Jeff may not have noticed, but tears had welled up in my eyes. With a mind like a finely-tuned torture-device, it was rare for me to notice such beauty. As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered if my Dad was looking for me, but eventually my entire body merged with the blackness of the night.
Excerpted from Incorrigible: A Coming-of-Age Memoir of Loss, Addiction & Incarceration by Wendy Adamson, available now at Amazon and elsewhere.