I wonder, sometimes, how I survived my youth.
Dared to do risky things, I never wimped out of semi-dangerous gut games like: “Who can stand closest to that freight train speeding by?” Or: “Dare you to swim to the end of the pier at midnight.” Or even: “Bet you can’t get your dad’s car to go over 100 on I-95.”
It was a convertible Oldmobile with a V-8. So. No problem.
There is one dare I will never forget.
In my late teens, I dated JC, the son of a respected local business man with whom my father was friendly. Hence, Dad gave JC a pass on the threat-laden parental pre-date throw down. There was never the ‘I better see her back here by 11” lecture. Dad would just lean back in his Scandinavian lounge chair, clink the ice in his whiskey glass and announce, “That guy comes from a good family.”
Unbeknownst to both sets of parents, JC had a bit of the “bad boy” in him. No. I take that back. He had quite a streak of bad boy in him. He was confident, grown up and sexy. He was the first guy to buy me a drink, Tanqueray and tonic, in a real cocktail bar. Irresistible.
We were parked at the beach, our favorite make out spot, listening to Pink Floyd and fogging the windows with weed smoke and steam. We weren’t ready to go home yet.
So we went to a party nearby.
I loathed parties. Still do. Especially ones with strangers in big liquored up and/or stoned crowds. Small talk raises my hackles.
But according to JC, this was supposed to be a low key gathering in a pool house where JC’s friend, Alex, lived. Going there was, in hindsight, not a good idea.
Rumors flew about Alex and his family. There was speculation that their lavish lifestyle was acquired via nefarious means in the booming “Import/Export” business in South Florida. Some still talk about when the patriarch of the family, who was in deep with the feds, crashed his plane in the ‘glades and only his thumb was recovered. The popular theory is that he faked his demise and headed south to someplace in the islands.
“Please? It’ll be fun.”
And there it was: The declaration that always sets off alarm bells in my head. Subsequently, the words “Take me home,” were forming on my lips when JC followed up with:
“There’s something there you just have to see. It’s a surprise.”
Curiosity, it turns out, is a powerful motivator for me. It is the big cat in me, I guess.
We rolled up to the gated estate where Alex lived and JC pressed the intercom button.
“Hey, it’s me.”
And the gate swung open and then closed behind us as we drove into the compound. What I assumed to be the Main House was artfully landscaped and lit with up-lights splashing color on the orderly ranks of palm trees and twinkle lights in the hedges.
“Follow me,” said JC. He led me down a stone paver walkway that was not so lit.
It was pitch black. A moonless windless night. On one side of the path, I could feel the rough stucco wall that separated the estate from the property next door. And on the other side was chain link fence that I was using to steady myself. Naturally I wore the worst possible shoes for this foray. Every time I laced my fingers through the links in the fence, it made a loud chattering sound.
“Crap. I forgot something in the car,” said JC.
I bumped into him hard not knowing he had stopped short on the path, and the contents of my purse fell to the ground skittering in all directions like ghost crabs on the beach.
“I’ll be right back. I’ll get a flashlight. Just stay here. Won’t be a minute.”
“WHAT? No way. I’m coming with you!”
“Don’t be a puss. Just stand still right here and I’ll be back in no time. The pool house is just around the corner.”
"ARE YOU MAD? No!”
“ I dare you…”
He said it in the dark. I couldn’t see his face, but his delivery of those three words was infected with mischief.
Down went the gauntlet with a resounding thud. By reputation, I could not back off from what looked like a pretty easy, albeit terrifying, challenge.
"OK. I’ll stay here. But hurry UP! This better be worth it.”
“It will be. Trust me!” And his footsteps faded down the path.
Leaning against that chain link fence, alone, in the kind of black darkness that won’t let you even see your fingers waving in front of your face, it’s easy to imagine time slowing down. The crickets stop. The water rolls up in waves in the river. With every rattle of the chain link, there was a response from beyond the fence. A sigh. A soft footfall displacing gravel. A deep resonant buzzing. A gurgle…
Maybe they have dogs in a run here? Shouldn’t they be barking?
Finally losing patience, I began feeling my way along the fence confident I would see the lights in the pool house “just around the corner.” My hands came upon what felt like a gate and I lifted the heavy metal latch.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said a voice noticeably suppressing a laugh.
I let the latch fall.
Blinding light, or blinding due to the sheer contrast of being plunged from blackness to white, flooded in and overrode my retinas. JC and Alex were standing at a breaker box barely able to contain themselves.
Eyes adjusting, the resident of the fenced enclosure came into focus.
She was standing in front of the gate, her neck extended slightly as she snuffled my fingers clinging to the chain link.
She held my gaze with bright liquid eyes.
She was a full grown female lion.