Me & My “Aunt” Doris

She wasn’t really my aunt. Maybe her name wasn’t really Doris, I don’t know. She was one of my mother’s friends, and my mother had lots of friends. They’d come over, drink, blab. Usually the party went on all night. Aunt Doris used to come into my room to make sure I was still alive. Sometimes she flopped on my cot and told me a story. She smelled of booze, perfume and something else, something I liked. Aunt Doris’ stories were on the short and dirty side, but they were the only ones I got.
[private]Since home life was the way it was, I stayed in school, hit the library when school let out. School plus library equals college scholarships. You better believe I went to college.
College was OK.
A week before graduation, I got a phone call from Aunt Doris. I hadn’t heard from her in a long time. She said she was coming up for a visit. Nobody else ever came to visit me at College. I braced for first-degree embarrassment.
Aunt Doris showed up at the wheel of a cherry-red custom convertible. She had a white scarf around her hairdo, big sunglasses. She looked like a movie star from Hollywood, which is exactly where she drove from. She parked liked she never really learned to drive. Maybe she’d been drinking. When she stepped out of the car, she went from Hollywood movie star to dorm room smoker babe. Aunt Doris was 50 pounds lighter than the last time I saw her, but none of the weight loss was from hips, keister or bosom. The pounds took 10 years with them. Suddenly I was extremely glad my Aunt Doris had come to see me.
She hugged me a lot closer, a lot longer, kissed me on the mouth a little deeper than a real aunt would have. That was OK too. Slight booze breath, but no cheap perfume when she raised her arms to wrap them around my neck. The smell I liked was still there.
“Wow,” she said slowly, moving her lips like this was her big glamorous close-up in a silent movie. “Look at you. My little boy’s a handsome man.”
College guys, football players and engineering nerds alike, popped from the library, classroom buildings, Student Union and dorms to get a look at the sexy lady with the flashy car. Bronwyn Evans, my college steady date, caught me kissing my Aunt Doris. She walked away as though she hadn’t seen. I was going to have plenty of explaining to do. Or maybe none at all.
Aunt Doris wanted to take me to lunch. At a real restaurant, she said, not a teenage hamburger grease-pit. After that, she wanted me to take her for a ride in the wooded hills around College Town.
The only real restaurant in town didn’t have a big champagne selection, but we drank up what they had.
Marriage, Aunt Doris told me over Baked Alaska, was a bum deal. To be avoided at all costs. Enjoy youth and freedom while you’ve still got them. Keep on enjoying them even when they’re gone, that’s the secret. Aunt Doris was briefly married to a Hollywood millionaire. She thought both things, Hollywood and millionaire, would make her happy. She said she thought her dreams had suddenly come true. Two years later, she got a Mexican divorce and half the rich man’s loot. Maybe happiness was only a dream.
Out in the parking lot, both of us woozy from low-grade champagne and pre-lunch martinis, Aunt Doris handed me the keys to her convertible. “You drive. Get used to driving dreamboats for a change.”
Last time I hit the hills was with Bronwyn Evans. First time for both of us, not terribly successful. But we kept trying, over and over again, in other locations, strictly indoors, with the windows shut tight, curtains drawn.
I thought Aunt Doris wanted fresh air and rustic scenery, after Los Angeles. Plenty of both, among the pines, but she had other plans. The trunk was full of brand new plaid blankets, a pack of rubbers, a bottle of good whiskey and a heavy navy blue cashmere sweater. She tossed me the sweater.
“Here, I thought this would go with your green eyes.”
Aunt Doris showed me a new view of the world, possible solutions to the mystery of man meets woman.
Bronwyn made me put on a rubber before I even kissed her, practically.
Aunt Doris wasn’t terrified by the nightmarish possibility of being impregnated. Male and female fluids didn’t disgust her. She was just being sensible, I thought, but the rubbers from Hollywood made me sad anyhow.
Night fell and I was glad she bought me the fancy sweater. Aunt Doris didn’t mind the cold. She kept her clothes off while we gathered wood. I started a fire with Wall Street Journals from the back seat of the car and her gold lighter from Paris. Her skin glowed yellow rose in the light and flicker.
She asked what I was thinking. I said I learned more from the last 3 hours than 4 years of college. Aunt Doris never finished high school. She never told me why she left home at 16, but I gathered it wasn’t a pleasant or pretty picture. Suddenly she wanted to talk about the past.
Aunt Doris and my mother hooked up in the Big City back East. They had the same job. I asked what the job was. She laughed. Eventually, she said, “Waitress.” I couldn’t picture my mom as a waitress, not in a hundred years. She would have poured hot soup all over the head of the first guy who got fresh. She’d have told bad tippers to fuck off. She’d have taught the manager how to run a restaurant and the cook how to cook, even though she didn’t know how to run a restaurant or cook. My mother didn’t teach me how to read. She knew how, but she only read movie magazines. She tried to teach me to dance, once.
While Aunt Doris was in the middle of telling me how she and my mother got their first apartment together with no deposit or key fee, I asked if she wanted to dance. Dancing without music works fine. Aunt Doris was a good dancer. She used to shake it like crazy at my mother’s parties. But that night we just held on. She stopped talking about old times with my mother and I was glad. There was plenty I didn’t want to know. Like who my father was. Long list of names to choose from. I had a feeling that’s where her story was headed.
The fire burned to embers. It was full-on spring but still seriously cold on Black Goat Hill. Aunt Doris and I got under her blankets, but first I made her put on the sweater she gave me.
“Don’t be silly. You’re so skinny. I can feel you freezing away. All I got to do is hug you tight and drink more whiskey. I’ll be fine.”
“Not for the cold,” I said. “I want the sweater to smell of you.”
Stink of me, you mean. I’m a drunk old lady and there isn’t a shower for miles, I’ll bet.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
She sat up and put my new sweater on. Navy blue, dark as the moonlit night. Her skin was pale, soft, warm and near, unlike the stars.
Aunt Doris looked slightly haggard in the morning. Not hung-over. I knew what hangovers look like. Aunt Doris asked me to drive her to the nearest airport, about two hours away from College Town. There was a 7:30 flight for Los Angeles. She said she had to be on it. She had appointments in Tinseltown. Important appointments she couldn’t afford to miss.
We stopped for lunch at a diner.
“Those rubbers,” Aunt Doris told me, in her normal voice, like she didn’t care if anyone heard an older woman talking to a college kid about rubbers and recent sex, “were for you, not me. I just wanted to protect you, baby, from what I got. Too silly, but I want to keep you safe. What I got’s not even catching, but I didn’t like the idea. Now, I’m sorry. I wanted us to feel each other. I’d love making babies with you, Joe. I’d love nothing better. Honest.”
“Aunt Doris, last night was really great, I mean it, but I don’t know if I’m ready to…”
She cut me off. Of course I wasn’t ready. Of course the idea of having children and being a man scared the living shit out of me.
“Just wanted you to know I wasn’t afraid,” she said, “of touching you. Of having you inside me. That’s what I wanted. I was thinking of you, that’s all. And it was so silly. Silly me, that is. Silly.”
The convertible was for me, she said. A graduation present.
People still flew around in silver Constellations in those days. Everything in America looked big, beautiful, full of hope and dreams. I parked my incredible new car as close to the runway as the law allowed, watched the gleaming airplane taxi, race its engines and take off towards the sunset. I waved at the porthole I thought might be filled by Aunt Doris’s face. I stayed on the runway till dark.
Stars shone from their usual places. Constellations don’t really exist. Constellation stars are millions of light-years apart and can’t see each other. My Aunt Doris is one of them.
She had cancer. Sickness grabbed her between the legs on the inside and spread with hellish speed. That’s what she told me the next time she called. I couldn’t figure out how she got my number. I was working in Alaska, a military airport construction project that was supposed to be top secret. She said no when I said I was going to get on the next plane, or drive down in the car she gave me, even if it took all day and all night and most of the next day. She said she didn’t want me to see her looking the way she did. She said she was down to 85 pounds. She just wanted to say goodbye, that’s all.
A week after the phone call, she died. There wouldn’t have been enough time for us to have a baby together. She probably knew that. She thought a thin stretch of rubber could come between a human being and death. She didn’t want what was killing her to touch me.
When it’s cold and clear and dark enough to see the stars really shine, I put on the sweater she gave me, sit on the ground and look up. I feel warm though it’s night all over.[private]

Matthew Licht is an underground filmmaker and the author of The Crazy House Gag and the detective trilogy World Without Cops. His book of short stories The Moose Show (Salt) was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Prize 2007. Justine, Joe and The Zen Garbageman is due to be published this year. He lives in Italy.