I never understood why tough girls were called tough. The girls called tough often seemed to me to be the most vulnerable. T, whom I mentioned a while ago as being the daughter of one of my mother’s friends, had a neighbor about a year or two older than we were. It would be a dozen years or more before she would earn the title of Limbo Queen of Pleasant Green, but we’ll call her that anyway. If the waif look had been popularized a decade or so earlier, she would have been very fashionable. Girls wore boys’ jeans back in those days and the Limbo Queen’s fit her narrow hips. Her blue eyes always had a look of apprehension, like those of a small animal. Like a lot of the tough girls, she was nicer to me than the nice girls.
I can’t remember her story, but she lived with her aunt. Maybe I never knew her story. Her mother wasn’t around and why is one of those questions you just don’t ask.There was just a general impression that her home life wasn’t a happy one and she often came over to T’s place as an escape.
I remember one day, it must have been either the weekend or the summer because, although T lived in the same town, she lived at the other end and it was too far to walk after school and still be home in time for dinner. Or maybe my mother was visiting T’s mother and I got a ride with her. In any case, I recall being in T’s basement, with the checkerboard linoleum tile. Of that much I have a clear recollection. The Limbo Queen had brought over a small pile of records albums. I remember distinctly that one of them was by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It was not much to my taste, but I was always intimidated by the confidence other people had in the superiority of their musical taste. Music, at that age, was never just music. It was burdened by a complicated set of social signals that I never felt that I quite understood. Simply liking the wrong song, or the wrong band, or not liking something, would have you tagged as a “fag” or a “queerbait” for the rest of the week, or maybe longer. Generally, when other people brought out music, I just faded into the background and didn’t express an opinion. I had a reputation as someone who was not at all interested in music. I also remember her describing to us what Quaaludes were.
Another day, we were in T’s dining room. That might sound odd, but there was something about the layout of the house that we often wound up there. T implored the Limbo Queen to run back over to her house and fetch her guitar. “The Limbo Queen plays really well.” T told while we waited. “She’s too modest.”
When the Limbo Queen returned, she pulled a chair away from the table and settled into it with her guitar. She seemed oddly reluctant. Finally, she took a deep breath, as if she was willing herself into another world and began. She sang the most moving version of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” The tough girl with the wounded eyes. The wise waif. She had lost all self-consciousness. Indeed, she seemed to already be far away. That was over thirty years ago and I can still see her and still hear her.
A few days later, I spoke to T on the phone. The Limbo Queen had run away from home.
More than a decade later, I saw the Limbo Queen again. No longer a waif, she had a womanly beauty. She wore a sheath dress and high heeled pumps. Her blond hair was done up in a French twist for T’s wedding. She had, I was told, become a bond trader.
In the intervening years, T had moved to Pittsburgh where she was living a bohemian life with her filmmaker boyfriend, now husband. The friends I didn’t recognize, her Pittsburgh friends, all fit a slacker-hipster profile, men with hats and interesting facial hair and women in thrift store dresses. She got married at home and group of her friends who were in a band played on a small platform that served as a stage. They mostly played their own music, but they did incorporate a few songs appropriate for the occasion.
Then the band broke into a Carribean rhythm and a stick was brought out. Limbo time! I probably hadn’t done this since I was a kid and I was quickly out and watching the Limbo competition from a prime seat. My dancer sister didn’t last much longer. Rapidly, the line of dancers was narrowed down to about three highly flexible people. The bar went lower. The Limbo Queen kicked off her pumps and hiked her dress up to the tops of her thighs. The bar went impossibly low. One person was out. The next was out. Only the Limbo Queen was left. She shimmied under the bar, bent backwards, her torso horizontal to the ground. She came up, her feet bare, her dress wrinkled, blond tendrils escaping her French twist, and her face beaming. There was still a wild child inside of the bond trader. Someone grabbed her wrist and held her arm above her head. One of the members of the band shouted, “The Limbo Queen of Pleasant Green!”