In the early 1980s I was the best friend and neighbor of the Manleys, whose widowed mother had died young and bequeathed them an odd Z-shaped house on the waterfront. The first floor had landlocked living quarters, while on the second floor three bedrooms opened onto a corridor that led to a pier overlooking the bay.
Vanessa, a 20-year-old slim blonde, was the most brilliant of the three. Too ravenous for knowledge to tolerate the institutional pace of college, she spent hours a day reading and studying dimensional computer programs in set design, architecture and other manipulations of space.
Her brother Manchester (nickname “Buck”) was tall and gorgeous at 19. In retrospect he was a dead ringer for Brad Pitt who was still an unknown kid at the time. Buck was somewhat intellectually curious like his sister but mainly he was a flirt, provocateur and prankster. He enjoyed putting people on and making them uncomfortable. His choice of clothing was usually either “aw shucks” overalls or a rather sinister silky black robe for indoors.
Shelley was the youngest and the most beautiful at 17 and the only brunette. Not as intellectual as Vanessa or as extroverted as Buck, she was intensely private and focused. She had several projects going at once, usually of an electronic musical nature. As a 17-year-old musician myself, I felt closest to Shelley.
What all three Manleys had in common was sexual voraciousness. They thoroughly enjoyed their freedom from authority with wild parties and delighted in constantly changing sex partners. Since the town was small, they soon exhausted their supply of youth and left many of their friends and lovers bitter rivals.
I felt fairly safe from their amorality with my long-time boyfriend Fred, although I did cling to him a bit when we all hung out at the local bar. Like Shelley I was very focused, having studied classical singing since childhood. And Fred and I trusted each other completely, which is to say we were still naïve.
Shelley was cheating on her boyfriend Dirk—a sexy dark-haired loafer with a marked widow’s peak—with the “world’s best lover,” as she put it. She told me more than I wanted to know, like prolonged tonguing with penetration to intensify her orgasm. Dirk was mad with jealousy. Since no one could enter the bedrooms by land if denied main entry to the house, which he was, I could hear him yelling and splashing in the cold water under her room, demanding entry and promising to kill her lover Tyrell.
Once I arrived just in time for one of Dirk’s pathetic tirades. Shelley was showing Tyrell out a back door and I only saw the back of his head. We went upstairs and she smiled out at Dirk and curtained her window.
“Shell,” I said, “I think you’re cruel.”
She just smiled and put her headphones on and was soon lost in taping something or other. I sighed and decided to see what Vanessa was up to. Unfortunately for me ‘Ness (like her brother) always kept her door open and I could see her rolling around with two strange boys. When I went downstairs Buck was sitting in his favorite well-worn armchair by the window. He observed my discomfited face with amusement.
“C’mere, Gwen, I have a proposal for you.” I tried to ignore him and walk out but he tripped me so that I fell on his lap.
“C’mon, it’s not about sex.”
I shifted away from his hard-on onto the chair arm and said, “OK make it quick. I have to get home.”
He told me that he and his sisters had been invited to speak at the local high school about initiative and self-confidence. I started to laugh—what did they have to offer younger kids—they were all college dropouts! But he was serious. Both their parents had been highly respected teachers and the three children had a reputation for brilliance and originality. Buck said I should come too as an example of a more serious young adult with a real future as an opera singer.
I was flattered but felt compelled to ask, “What about Fred? He’s going to be an engineer.”
Buck snickered. “All I see Fred engineering to be is your husband.” And he tried to draw me closer but I got up.
“For your information, my boyfriend is every bit ambitious as me and…” but I saw it was useless because he wouldn’t stop grinning. I would have said, “What’s your ambition?” but he’d take that as a come-on.
In the end I agreed to meet them the next morning at the school. Someone had botched up the scheduling and we all ended up in the waiting room for several hours. Not used to having to wait on anyone, the restless Manleys started acting up. Shelley began doing exaggerated modern dance a la Isadora Duncan while Vanessa sang bad country songs off-key. Buck was happy just to mess with the heads of the waiting parents and officials. Wearing an old black suit and a fake beard with a clipboard, he pretended to be presiding dean of a neighboring college looking for excellent candidates. He had those people eating out of his hand. It was very tiresome and I was offended by their rudeness but they were having a grand old time. Seeing my disapproval Shelley made me dance with her till I had to laugh.
In the end the whole thing was cancelled but I think they were relieved. After all, what could they impart to serious students besides “Higher education sucks” or “Abstinence is for losers.” This way they left with dignity, their suspect reputations intact.
Vanessa told me that before they’d moved to our town she wrote a regular feature for a local magazine when she was only 13, and received thousands of fan letters. She said it was a diary of her “sexual and intellectual awakening.” Supposedly their mother had disappeared when they were young, and “Van” had “inherited her lesbianism.” The young Vanessa wrote about public displays of sexuality with other young girls. At 14 she continued her exhibitionism with young men and seduced the captain of the high school football team. He was her boyfriend for a few months but she tired of his dumb good looks and “ridiculous” demand for commitment.
She also told me that their mother died when she was just 15 years old. Her grandmother moved in and taught her all kinds of herbal and naturopathic treatments for illness and malaise. She also began a morning meditation routine that allowed her to “experience true violet” (whatever that meant) and accomplish her tasks without depression.
The darker side of her story was that she continually longed for her mother and her classmates, perhaps jealous of her, said her mother had been a whore and a thief who never loved her.
But as far-fetched as all this was, the bigger mystery was their seemingly endless supply of money. How could the pensions of two high school teachers support their extravagant lifestyles? There had to be another source of income. Shelley was the most accessible to me but she was also secretive. And I suppose it was partly their secrecy that kept me excited and attached to them.
There was a palpable bond between all three, despite the fact that I rarely saw them talking or hanging out with each other. Their bedrooms walls were thin so each was well acquainted with the others’ sexual lives. It seemed peculiar to me that siblings wouldn’t be embarrassed of such things until I got to realize that sensuality was their bond.
This fascinated and repulsed me since I was an only child and had had only one partner since age 14. But it was my naiveté that would be my undoing. Shelley told me she needed a lot of concentration for a new composition she was working on. She said some vague thing about funding from an arts group for experimental music.
Vanessa said friends lent her programs and gave her hand-me-down equipment but that didn’t account for packages I saw being delivered to her.
Buck didn’t require much because he just liked to mess with people. One time when I showed up he answered the door with his black robe hanging loose so I could see absolutely everything. (I noted unhappily that he had much nicer body than Fred.) Another time he kept his door ajar and made lewd gestures at me from his bed when I saw the tenting in his robe.
Vanessa’s room was the biggest since she needed the most space. Whereas Shelley’s equipment was neat and stackable, ‘Ness had a large computer set-up as well as strange plants growing everywhere. She claimed they never needed to go to a doctor because she was versed in herbology. I believe some plants had psychedelic qualities and that her brother was a big imbiber. I often passed him lying on his bed or sitting in his favorite chair smiling absently and tracing patterns in the air with his fingers. This was the alter ego of the exhibitionist, withdrawn and unseeing of others.
Vanessa was always excited about some discovery she’d made in physics or chemistry. Her room was a mess: soil on the bed, jacketless dusty CDs, etc. She enjoyed an eclectic mix of music, everything from corny western ballads to cacophonous modern jazz. Shelley loathed her sister’s taste in music and was forever shouting at her to shut her door and use headphones.
Shelley’s own music collection was discreet and neatly organized. She liked to make mixes for friends and lovers she’d dumped so they’d have something to remember her by. As for the secret project she was working on, she waved away my questions with: “Oh, it’s not very professional. You wouldn’t be interested.”
Once she asked me to sing her an act from Rigoletto and closed her eyes in seeming ecstasy as she recorded it.
“You’ll go far, Gwen,” she’d say, “but you’ve got to drop that Fred guy.”
“But why? Why don’t any of you respect Fred?”
“Well, he’s nice,” she’d say slowly, “but he’s just not on your level.”
“But he’s different from us, he’s an engineer.”
“Mmmm,” she’d say absently, already many miles away.
“I don’t see what’s so great about Dirk,” I said, but I didn’t mean it. Dirk was dead sexy and witty and Fred was just a nice guy. And 17 year olds unfortunately don’t appreciate niceness till sometimes it’s too late.
I envied how Shelley kept Dirk tied around her little finger while she cheated on him so outrageously. I was dying to know who her mystery lover was but she refused to tell me, not so much out of mistrust but because the secrecy intensified her pleasure.
One day she said, “Hey Gwen, Buck’s going camping this weekend. Why don’t you and Fred stay in his room?”
She knew Fred and I were always trying to get away from our parents. I leapt at the suggestion.
“Are you sure we won’t put you out?”
“I’m not feeding you,” she said. “I’m just giving you a clean bed and some towels. The rest is up to you.”
I was thrilled and so was Fred when I told him. We showed up Friday after our last class with our little matching backpacks. My parents loved Fred but out of respect I told them Shelley was having a girls-only weekend slumber party. As if!
It was a great weekend. Fred and I felt very amorous in that spare wooden room with a view of the bay. I thought I heard buzzing and scratching at night but dismissed it as the wind. I was intent on proving to Shelley that my boyfriend was totally satisfying and I ignored her all weekend, not that she cared.
We skinny dipped in the water and hiked in the woods. We walked to town, bought groceries and cooked in the little-used kitchen. The girls were on a Rastafarian raw foods diet and Vanessa was attempting to grow vegetables too. The refrigerator had radishes, cabbage, and beer, and not much else. There were also jars all over sprouting various seeds and beans. Buck never ate at home. He was always surrounded by a posse who were either wining and dining him or cooking for him. He repaid them in entertainment and/or sex.
Sunday afternoon while Fred was napping I couldn’t resist doing some snooping. I went through Buck’s desk drawers, finding only some scraps of paper, notes, and receipts. Then I started to feel guilty and Fred woke up and we made love again.
Christmas rolled around quickly and the Manley’s had their annual New Year’s Eve bash. They strung lights inside and out of the house, creating a gorgeous reflective shimmering on the water. There were usually a dozen of us who showed up, having pooled our allowances for chips and booze. Our state’s legal drinking age was 18 but the liquor store owners were lax.
This year the usually modest Shelley surprised us with a slinky low-cut black mini-dress. She raised her usual gin and tonic and said, “Here’s to the best friends a girl could have,” looking at each of us meaningfully. “I want to unveil my new composition but first I want all of you to get toasted!”
Everyone roared their approval and it didn’t take long for each of us to get stinking drunk, especially since the only food was chips and dip.
I noticed that during the past few months Buck had traded in drinking for drugs and tonight he was definitely high. In my uninhibited state I felt disappointed that he wasn’t flirting with me. He just sat in his favorite worn chair smiling blankly at everyone’s drunken antics.
Around about midnight a sober Shelley ushered us all into her bedroom for the unveiling. We were all buzzing with excitement although I felt a certain trepidation.
Fred and I held hands as everyone listened in rapt quadrophonics. First was a lovely medley of lapping water and bird chirping which segued to splashing water and shouting. My heart sank as I heard Dirk yelling, “Shelley! Let me in! I know what you’re up to, you whore!” “You whore!” was repeated and spliced with the splashing till it sounded like a lonely drowning crow. Then there were some soft wind sounds followed by murmuring. With a shock I heard my own voice moan, “Fred. Do it there. Yeah.” Then that was cut and spliced several times and speeded up to a ridiculous chirpy caricature: “Fred! Yeah! Fred! Yeah!” I wanted to jump up but my body felt leaden and there were too many bodies. Then I heard Buck in his softest, smoothest voice: “Hey Gwen.” Then a sharp intake of breath and, “You know I know you want me.” I tried to say to Fred, “It’s not me—it’s a trick.” But my throat was closed and my brain was mush. Then there was my voice, “Buck, get away from me.” Then the middle was deleted and we heard, “Buck—me. Buck—me.” The finale was female giggles overlapping and alternating with lapping water and climaxing with an ocean’s roar and Buck’s triumphant orgasm.
I was furious. I wanted to shout, “Why me? Why not your own perverted sex life?” But no words came out. I felt drugged as well as drunk. Fred had detached himself from me and I could see him leaving with his head down. After a confused scattered applause everyone else staggered to their feet and followed him out. I was the last one left and had to hold the walls as if the house was rocking—or maybe it was. Buck was still sitting in his chair laughing. I hated him with all my might, the more to erase Shelley from my mind. Vanessa was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly Buck got up and took off all his clothes. “Whew, it’s hot in here.” He walked out onto the pier and jumped into the icy water laughing. Shelley came out of her room glowing with pleasure. I muttered, “Thanks for ruining my life, Shelley.”
She tried to hug me. “Oh my sweet Gwen. You always did take things too seriously.”
I shrugged her off and almost bumped into Vanessa who was running down the corridor gleefully waving a sheet of paper. “Shel! Ches’! We’re rich! Our bonds matured—we’re rich!”
Shelley hugged her over me as I squirmed away. They both stripped and ran onto the pier and jumped into the water too. I could hear them all splashing and laughing, “We’re rich! We’re outta here!”
I left the house in slow motion, knowing that in the morning I’d have to start my life all over again.
When I woke up late the next day with a vicious hangover, thinking my last revenge would be never to see the treacherous Manleys again, I looked out the window and saw the entire house boarded shut with a big “FOR SALE” sign across the side.