Short Fiction — I Am a Cliché

Debra rounded the side of the school just as the skies opened up. She shifted boxes of snacks as she struggled with her umbrella and rushed over to the visiting team’s bench.

She was only ten minutes late but this part of the city confounded her with its labyrinth of tiny narrow streets. She hoped Melanie would forgive her. She made a big deal of waving frantically when her daughter looked up and noticed her as she settled into a spot on the bleachers with the other parents from the visiting school.

They were a conservative-looking bunch under their umbrellas and hooded jackets; polo shirts and khakis for the very occasional dad, with the mothers dolled up in their upper middle-class soccer mom finery of cropped pants, ballet flats and pretty cashmere sweaters. Debra cheered enthusiastically when Melanie’s team got control of the ball.

On the next set of bleachers, the home team parents were a rougher-looking bunch.

“Goodness, it’s all very ‘urban’, isn’t it?” asked Ginny Wilson, the goalie’s mother, as the home team parents erupted in a raucous cheer when one of theirs scored a goal.

Debra tried to ignore the racist insinuation in Ginny’s comment. They came from a very white suburb and this was obviously a very mixed community; kids and parents were clearly from a variety of cultures and backgrounds, represented by everything from blue dreadlocks and tattoos to hijabs, turbans and door-knocker earrings.

“It’s good for the kids to meet new and different people,” she replied, trying to sound open-minded without triggering a debate. Debra liked the folks in her community well enough but found some of them excessively narrow in their views on other cultures. She hated debating with them, and made a point of avoiding discussions on anything resembling differences. It wasn’t that she agreed with Ginny but she’d rather not have to defend her point of view.

Ginny sniffed with disdain. “I guess, but there are some people I’d rather my kids not interact with, you know?”

At that moment the home team scored another goal and a bunch of parents stood up to cheer. One women in particular was louder than the others, her distinctive voice echoing across the field.

“That’s it Katy, kick ’em in the bleedin’ arse!!”

The visiting parents uttered a collective gasp at the swear word, loud enough to be heard, and the woman turned to look at them with a wide grin on her face as she twirled her umbrella. “Oi, you bunch of pearl-clutchers! Get over yourselves!”

It was then that Debra paired the woman’s distinctive voice with her wild, curly hair, big eyes and sarcastic smile. Patty Smash. THE Patty Smash. At her daughter’s soccer game.

 

The last time Debra had seen Patty was twenty-five years previous, when Patty was being carried offstage after having what appeared to be a nervous breakdown in the middle of their set at the 100 Club. She had smashed a microphone stand directly into the face of an audience member after the man had reached up and tried to pull her skirt down, then stood screaming over and over for everyone to just leave her the fuck alone. Finally, the band’s manager rushed out and carried her offstage while she screamed and cried and kicked and that was, to Debra’s knowledge, the last time Patty Smash had ever performed live.

Not that she had kept current about such things.

Debra had taken over vocals for The Dirt Girls, but she could never rouse the crowds as Patty had. Plans for the band’s third album fell apart without Patty to front them and the record label pulled their support. Two months after Patty’s breakdown, the rest of the girls had gone their separate ways; none of them managing to maintain a career in music.

After that, Debra vowed to put her time as the guitarist of an all-girl punk band behind her. The music world had changed, punk was pretty much dead and she had bills to pay. With no regrets, she grew out her mohawk, packed up her leather jacket and bondage pants, and got a job in an office where she blended in with her mainstream co-workers. She dated, got married, and moved to a posh suburb with little thought to the person she had been in the late 1970s. Unless she was flipping through a box of old records at a car boot sale and came across an album cover with her face on it, she seldom thought about those days at all. There was never any reason to. Nobody — not her husband and daughter, certainly not her neighbours or fellow parents — knew who Debra had been in her wild and misspent youth.

“Oh My God! Is that Debbie Downer the Dirt Girl?!!”

Until today.

Debra cringed and looked away, angling her umbrella to cover her face, but Patty was persistent. “Debra!!! Holy shit, it’s really you! I thought you were dead!” Patty clamoured across the bleachers as Debra desperately hoped for a hole to open up and swallow her.

She had to think fast. Her voice was hoarse as she managed a reply that she hoped conveyed to the other parents that this was someone from her past that she did not particularly want to be reunited with. “Heeeeeyyy Patty! Long time no see! Hang on, I’ll come over to you.”

The parents around her stared and whispered as Debra made her way down the bleachers and across to the gap where Patty was standing in a sparkly purple kaftan and combat boots. Debra could feel herself turning bright red as the eyes of her friends and neighbours followed her. She heard someone say “Patty Smash” with a note of awe in their voice.

The tiny woman grabbed her in a huge, enthusiastic, patchouli-fogged hug. “Oh my God, it’s been too long!”

Debra angled Patty towards an empty space past the far side of the home team’s bleachers, away from the stares of the other parents.

“Debs, are you afraid your swank friends will recognize me and want my autograph?” Patty asked, emitting a sarcastic laugh. Debra noted to herself that Patty still looked fantastic, not a wrinkle on her 45-year-old face, her skin still luminous despite the life she’d led.

“No, I just… It’s nothing, how have you been? What the heck are you doing here?”

“The forward, Katy, is my granddaughter. Julie’s kid. She’s almost eleven now.”

“Julie had a daughter?” Debra thought back to the day she heard the news that Patty had given birth to a baby girl. Late 1979, about 3 months after that night when Patty had broken down. She had sent flowers but had never received a reply.

“Isn’t she gorgeous? She’s the light of my life. I’m making up for all the things I did wrong with Julie.”

Debra hadn’t gone looking for gossip, all those years ago, but stories had made it into the tabloids; Patty addicted to heroin; Patty losing custody of Julie; Julie herself being killed on 9/11 at the World Trade Centre. She watched the young girl move across the pitch with the ball, her hair wild like her grandmother’s.

“Which one is yours?” Patty asked.

“Oh,” Debra was startled. “Melanie, there on the far side, with the dark hair. She’s ten. Football is her life. She plans on going pro and hopes the professional teams will allow women by the time she qualifies.”

Patty’s expression got serious. “So you’re a for-real ‘soccer Mom’. I’d never have predicted that.”

Debra blushed. “I guess…”

“I figured you guys would go on to great success without me. That my crazy was what was holding us back.”

“The fans loved you, Patty,” Debra shrugged, uncomfortable at the boldness of Patty’s conversation. “You were the driving force of that band. Without you, your voice, your look, we were just mediocre.”

“You know I was a hot mess, right?”

“Yeah,” Debra said. “I tried to contact you when I heard you gave birth to Julie. But then I heard lots of other stuff and thought maybe you just wanted to be left alone.”

Patty kept her eyes on the field where Katy was running after the ball. “I was raped by Julie’s father. I never even knew his name, he was just some hanger-on at an after-party. The record company jerks knew; they tried to get me to have an abortion, forbade me from telling anybody. Did you know that?”

Debra shook her head, a wave of shame overtaking her. She had guessed about the pregnancy at the time, when Patty had started wearing voluminous stage costumes and huge sweaters instead of her usual tight skirts and revealing tops. But things were so acrimonious between all of them by that point that she seldom talked to Patty at all if she could help it.

Patty continued, “Had a breakdown, as you might remember. After Julie was born, I spent most of her life resenting her very existence, got hooked on, well, a bunch of different things. Fucked up my health pretty bad. Lost and regained custody half a dozen times. Julie took off as soon as she was old enough and never came back. I pretty much alienated everyone, and didn’t really realize any of that until the news of her death. That really made me rethink my life.”

“I’m so sorry, Patty.”

“She was living in New York, working at the restaurant at the Trade Centre. She had become a really great pastry chef. Her partner was a sous chef there, too. When it happened, Katy was all alone. She got stuck staying with a schoolmate because there was nobody else. Nobody could track down her other grandparents. I was in Bermuda working on an album, it took me days to get to her. And we had only met once when she was tiny. It’s been freaking weird, let me tell you. But also really fucking great, y’know?”

Debra was startled. “You’re making music?”

“Yeah, have been for years, even before 9/11 and getting clean. Mostly producing stuff for other people. Behind the scenes. But I’m working on my own stuff now, too. I never wanted to play live again after what I went through back then. All those fuckers pawing at me, nobody making any effort to stop it. Getting the shit beaten out of me more than once for resisting. It was just safer. And better for my head.

“Didn’t you feel that way too?” Patty asked Debra earnestly. “That we were always just treated as objects?”

“Well, yeah, I guess…” Debra could see some of the visiting team parents had moved to the home team’s side and were peering at her curiously from the edge of the bleachers. She adjusted her umbrella to block their view, thinking about the conversations she’d be forced to have with her friends, neighbours, and her husband when word got out. “They always just wanted you, though. You were the face of The Dirt Girls, you were the outspoken one. It’s part of why the band fell apart after you left.”

“But you were all talented musicians. Well, except for Beverly, she was a pretty crap drummer.”

Debra laughed out loud in agreement. “She never could compare to you.”

“I should have stayed behind the kit, maybe my life would have turned out differently,” said Patty. “But listen, why are you not still playing?”

Debra watched Melanie on the field for a bit before answering. She thought of her guitars, packed away in her Mum’s loft years prior and never touched, not even when Melanie had briefly talked about learning an instrument before she decided on sports instead. “That’s not who I am anymore. Maybe I was never that person, only playing dress-up or something.”

“Oh bullshit!!” Patty’s exclamation was so loud, the eavesdropping parents gasped. “You were a fucking goddess. And a brilliant guitarist. What on earth are you talking about?”

“Debra, so sorry to interrupt, but it’s almost halftime, did you want to hand out your snacks to the kids yourself?” Ginny Wilson asked from her perch hanging over the bleacher railing. “Or are you too busy?”

“Sorry, Patty, I’m on snack duty. Gotta go.” Debra thought this was her chance to get away, but Patty had a different idea and seemed to be enjoying her discomfort.

“It’s alright, I’ll come with you.”

“You don’t have to, really.”

Then Patty let out her trademark chortle accompanied by a sly smile. “But I want to.”

Debra and Patty closed their umbrellas and headed to the visitors bench. Debra could feel the eyes of every parent in the place — from both teams — staring at them as she opened the plastic containers of sliced fruit and cheese. Someone held up a camera and snapped a photo. Patty smiled and waved while Debra kept her head down and arranged the food.

A father from the home team approached and asked for an autograph. “I had no idea Patty Smash was a parent at my kid’s school! That’s so cool! Are you guys getting back together? I was a huge fan back in the day, a reunion would be amazing!”

“Oh no,” Debra replied quickly, glancing around to gauge who among her peers was watching. “That’s… no.”

Patty chortled again. “Stranger things have happened, you never know.”

Someone else approached, asking for a photo of the two of them together. Before she could object, Debra felt Patty throw her arm around her shoulder. Debra looked up from behind her tasteful, stylish fringe and smiled shyly. “I thought you hated this part,” she said through gritted teeth in Patty’s ear as a few more people from the home team came up to ask for autographs.

“I do. But I also love it.”

As was the case in old times, Patty became the centre of attention and Debra backed off, focusing on handing out snacks to the children and avoiding her neighbours. When Melanie approached, Debra gave her a hug and words of support. “You’re doing great out there kiddo, are you having fun?”

But Melanie was more interested in the loud, colourful woman Debra had been talking to.

“She’s just an old friend, from when I was young,” Debra said, hoping that explanation would suffice.

“Some of the kids said she’s a rock star, that she was in a punk band.”

“That’s true, she was.”

“And that you were in the punk band with her.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, Owen says you were the guitarist. He said his dad plays the record all the time and that you’re on the cover. Naked.”

And there it was.

“Does Owen’s dad know it’s me?” she asked, scanning the crowd, thankful to see that the man wasn’t at the game today. But Debra knew that didn’t really matter; even if he didn’t know right now, by the end of the day Owen’s dad would be fully aware that Debbie Downer, of the all-girl punk band The Dirt Girls, was a parent at his kid’s very posh school. And by tomorrow morning, the gossip machine would ensure that every other parent and teacher knew it as well.

“How do you feel about that?” she asked Melanie.

“It’s cool, whatever.” Melanie shrugged.

“Are you sure?”

“Well, it’s weird that you’re naked, I guess, but Owen says you’re all covered in something and you can’t really see your private parts.”

Whipped cream and cake. It had been fun at the time, a big ‘fuck you’ to everyone who objectified them, who treated them poorly because they were ‘just girls’. They had thought it hilarious, but tasteful, because everything was hidden, only alluded to, their mohawks and Chelsea cuts dyed pastel colours to match voluminous, corseted dresses and huge cakes arranged for them to stand behind. The photo shoot had unintentionally devolved into a food fight (lots of things devolved into food fights for The Dirt Girls), as well as a striptease of sorts, and an image of the band covered mostly in cream and frosting had been the winning shot.

But the thought of Owen, or Owen’s dad for that matter, seeing her like that made her cringe now.

“More and more people have these camera phones now,” Patty said as Melanie went back to her teammates and Debra began to tidy up the leftovers. “They say every new phone will have one in a couple of years. Everyone will be paparazzi then.”

Debra blanched. The thought of that, of having zero privacy if someone recognized her as they had today, it was a terrifying thought.

“Which reminds me, did anyone ever contact you about the film?” Patty asked offhandedly.

“A film?”

“I got a call a few months back from someone at the BBC. Apparently there were some rumours of a reunion. And someone wanted to do a documentary. I think they’re in the research stages. Did nobody contact you?”

“No! I am not contactable!” Debra replied with a tight vehemence. “I don’t want people to contact me. Do you hear me?”

Patty looked at her oddly, then turned to look at the parents on the visitor’s bleachers, most of whom were watching them both with intense interest. “Debra, do your family and friends not know about your past?”

“No, and I want to keep it that way.” Debra kept her head down and turned away from the other parents. “They wouldn’t understand.”

“And your husband doesn’t even know?”

“Stephen does not know. Although I’m sure he will soon enough. I don’t expect he will be impressed.” Debra stuffed her plastic containers into a shopping bag.

“Deb, tell me if you’re in an unsafe situation. I mean it.” Patty’s armful of bracelets jingled as she placed a hand on Debra’s shoulder in what was meant to be a caring gesture.

Debra shrugged it off. “Of course not. He’s a wonderful, loving man. He’s just conservative. They’re all very… conservative. In an Oxbridge, country house, sort of way. Punk was not Stephen’s cup of tea at all. He spoke once about seeing the Pistols on telly that time and how disgusting they all were. How he thought Siouxsie was so awful for smoking and cursing.”

“And how do you explain the royalty cheques?”

Debra rolled her eyes. “Those tiny little cheques that wouldn’t even buy a coffee?” She hadn’t checked her royalty payments since sometime in the late 80s. They went to a postal box that she emptied maybe once a year, and then she took the contents and moved it to a safe deposit box, never even opening the envelopes.

Patty looked incredulous. “Deb, were you in a coma for all of the 90s? Did you miss the Riot Grrl movement completely?”

“What, like the Spice Girls?” Debra snorted with derision.

“Well, sort of, but, not really. I’m talking… girl punk bands, American girls, like Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and L7? You’ve never heard of any them? They’re all fucking brilliant. And when they got popular, that whole ‘girl power’ thing sparked an interest in the old female punk bands. I’ve had great money coming in for years from the back catalogue sales. Not enough to make me rich, but enough to put a dent in the bills when I was living modestly.”

“Stephen takes care of us,” Debra said, her eyes pointedly on the field and the ball instead of Patty. “I haven’t needed to work in years.”

“That’s great for you,” Patty replied. “And none of my business, especially if you’re happy with that. But you’ve got a pile of money sitting somewhere. Probably more than me, since you’re also getting writing credit for all the songs. There’s even been a couple of cover versions of things over the years. You could use that money for something fun. Or invest for your kid. Money that would give you the opportunity to do something other than…”

“Be a suburban housewife?”

“Other than be a suburban housewife. If that’s what you want.”

Debra thought it was ironic that Patty Smash was offering her financial advice. And life advice.

From the field a voice got louder. “Nanna… Nanna! You’re not watching!” Patty’s granddaughter had scored a goal and she had missed it completely.

“Alright, gotta go,” Patty smiled her big joyful grin as she pulled a business card from the small purse she wore across her chest. “I’m going back into the studio next month. I still need a guitarist. The gig is yours if you want it, and from there we can talk about other stuff like the documentary or a reunion. It was amazing to see you, and I really hope I see you again very soon.” She hugged Debra tightly, and threw a facetious wave at the gawping parents as they watched her strut back to her seat on the far bleachers.

Debra stood trying to concentrate on the game, knowing that she couldn’t go back and join the other parents, knowing that running into Patty had somehow irreversibly changed her life.

Her mind kept wandering to her guitars, tucked away in the loft behind her dad’s old steamer trunk and a dilapidated wire dress form. Why hadn’t she just sold them years ago? There were certainly times when she could have used the money. She imagined picking up her candy red Stratocaster; would it all come back to her, like riding a bike, or would she have to learn how to play all over again?

“Your friend seems… interesting.” Ginny Wilson said from behind her, condescension in her voice as she pulled Debra from her reverie.

Debra closed her eyes and took a deep breath before turning around to face Ginny. “She is. She’s the most interesting, amazing person I know.”

“You must tell me all about how you came to know her.”

Debra watched Ginny’s sly expression and thought about what possible explanations she could offer.

“I wish I had time Ginny, but I just remembered something that I have to do,” Debra replied, looking at her watch and calculating whether she could make it to the bank before it closed. “Can Melanie get a ride home with you?”