At some point I’ll have to check with people in the US about the current density of chocolate Easter Bunnies but, over here, the chocolate Easter Bunnies are hollow; I’ll have to ask my Wife whether or not they’ve always been hollow. If chocolate Easter Bunnies are no longer solid in the US and if they haven’t always been hollow over here, in Berlin, then the global cartel in charge of the chocolate bunny trade (the chocolate Santas, too) have pulled off quite a coup. Which reminds me of the cartels in charge of selling novels: quite clever, isn’t it, charging just as much money for radically hollowed-out versions of objects? I vividly remember the rapid suffusion of a nearly-psychotropic cocoa-rush, fanning out across the endless tracts of my blinking synapses, as I’d bite, from an oblique angle, the satisfying density of a bunny’s haunch, when I was five, scalloping the chocolate with my incisors, a crayon-annotated copy of Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor open upon my little lap… (ahem)…
The subjects (or preoccupations) of my Novels are Sex and Race and Sex-and-Race. I don’t address these preoccupations in the standard way and certainly not in the glib and facile (hollowed out) style we’ve been duped into thinking is just as good as Writing ever was. Readers used to be, on the whole, smarter, and writers were forced to keep up. What else, besides chocolate bunnies, chocolate Santas and the contemporary Novel, are famously hollow? Trojan Horses, of course.
The second half of my big book starts off (after a gear-shifting interlude) in the late 1950s. The POV shifts from Third to First person. I think I’m doing this First Person… well… not too badly….
TRACK TWO / SIDE THREE: JILLENE and ANNIE
If you’d have told me five years ago that I’d one day be sucking a blind fat Negro drummer’s cock on a lower bunk in a musicians’ touring bus in the Upper Midwest in a blizzard, I may or may not have thought you were crazy at the time but I’m sure I would have raised an eyebrow at the prospect. My parents (Douglas Winnicott Bellamy Tremain, b. 1872, d. 1957 and Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Travers Tremain, née Smith, b. 1916) were, by contemporary standards, racist as the day is long. We had a servant, a nanny, named Nellie, and my mother would point to Nellie at a distance as Nellie crossed the curving driveway to fetch a ball I’d kicked too far, or to wade into the fountain in our rose garden to retrieve a mitten or a shoe I may have flung in a fit of exuberance or pique, and mother would comment, “Nellie is not half as stupid as she looks. Negroes are very clever at playing dumb. Always remember that. Never hire a Negro cook and never take your eyes off a Negro nanny for as long as it would take to drown or poison a fair-haired child.”
Being a fair-haired child myself, this made quite an impression on me and I was terrified to be alone with Nellie, which happened from time to time, resulting in fits and tears, for as long as she worked for us, though I never, when I was young, thought to ask of my mother why, if this is true, hire a known potential assassin, as a nanny, in the first place? Some of the children I was friendly with, coming up, had golden-haired Swedish or German nannies who stood out, among the dark round faces of the normal nannies, at every birthday party, Fourth of July picnic, Thanksgiving gathering and Christmas Day service at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City. I remember, after learning of the concept of Fatness in first or second grade, asking my mother, innocently, why most of the nannies were fat, with shiny round cheeks and bulging bellies and dimpled elbows, and my mother responded, cryptically, that the women who hired skinny nannies were not as smart as the women who didn’t, as a rule, a remark I didn’t understand until I remembered it on the day I made my first best overweight friend in college.
Jillene T. wasn’t a Negro, she was of English and Dutch stock, she told me, but she was a large girl and therefore a kind of second-class citizen at Smith, where so many of the co-eds of my class (class of ’59) were not only slim but far above average in the looks department. In fact, there was a running joke at Smith and Amherst et al, my freshman year, that the class of ’59 alone was more than capable of providing the country with Miss Americas for the next 80 years, the weathering effects of Time notwithstanding. My graduating class was so famously beautiful, in aggregate, that we even made it, as a running joke, into various school publications, in gags and skits regarding where the college men of the greater Boston area aimed their jalopies, every weekend, for recreation.
Which made things even harder for Jillene, whom I spotted, those first weeks away at school, eating alone in the cafeteria, day after day until the special breakfast that I approached her solitary table and asked if I might join her. I couldn’t help noticing, as I pulled my chair up to Jillene’s table, that her plate was stacked very high with a sagging bluff of waffles, the waffles swimming in butter and syrup and powdered sugar, and that, in contrast, my own plate featured one polished red apple, which I ate with a knife and fork, to slow the eating of it, knowing as I did that the brain receives the stomach’s signal that one’s appetite is sated only after a dangerous lag of twenty minutes, an interval a fast eater like Jillene could do irreparable self-damage with. Meeting Jillene led me to reflect on the difference between what I have grown to term Voluntary, versus Involuntary, Minorities and the peculiar affinity of the former for the latter. My first original philosophical thought.
Jillene had volunteered to play the role of social outcast/ inferior by eating herself into pariah-hood, and I was fascinated by the choice. She was very good company, extremely funny, extremely attentive and more than willing to talk largely about me, my problems, my little triumphs, conquests, quirks and peccadilloes. She also made a damn good amplifying foil to my own good looks; striking enough on my own, next to Jillene I seemed to rival Grace Kelly. Jillene preferred, in large part, not to talk about herself at all, and in my self-centered youth I was perfectly happy to keep our times together as me-centric as Jillene appeared to want. I can’t imagine how she must have suffered at the time.
She seemed so genuinely eager for every little detail regarding idiosyncrasies in the respective styles of lovemaking, for example, of the swains I collected in my first and second year. She liked, as she put it, “the gory smut,” and I taught her a trick I never guessed she would ever have an opportunity to use, which was how to disguise a handjob as a blowjob. I saw Jillene as a virgin with a two-hundred pound cherry. She was doubly damned as one of those fat girl with small, shapelessly spreading breasts and two of my lovers, I remember (they were friends and came to me consecutively, separated by a month; engineering students at Tufts) referred to her as The Beast. My wittiest date (now a once-famous author of literary fiction) dubbed her Jello (accent on the second syllable), the nickname that secretly stuck.
It was the week before the Christmas vacation of my sophomore year that Jillene uncharacteristically interrupted one of my grisly, Monday morning romantic post-mortems (Harvard game) with news of her own: she had successfully used the handjob/blowjob trick on a date. I was, to use my mother’s favorite word, flabbergasted. I ran through a mental catalogue of every male biped we all knew, in the hemisphere, and couldn’t even picture one of the tubbier college boys, in our orbit, stooping that low. While I was still reeling from Jillene’s first revelation, she sucker-punched me with the second.
I’ll never forget where I was when Jillene told me: we were standing outside the Botanic Garden. We had met only minutes before, were walking to somewhere else and stopped in front of the Greenhouse as Jillene put her hand on the arm of my camel-colored cashmere coat to interrupt my monologue with news of her own. I remember looking away from Jillene as she started her shocking story; I remember there were two seniors, arm and arm and giggling in their long dark coats (one of them the pre-fame Gloria Steinem, before her trademarked center-parted hairstyle), skipping down the path in front of us. It was cold enough to snow and it was an overcast day but there was no snow, which was a great disappointment; there was something depressing and austere about the sunless Smith campus in winter without snow, and I remember sort of vaguely thinking, or feeling, as Jillene squeezed my arm with the intensity of her news, her milestone: first no snow, now this. Jillene at that moment became a sinister changeling, disappointing me with her metamorphosis away from the purity of her former identity as a kind of Holy Eunuch, the sacred clown, untouched by Sex, no competitor in the Game of Animals, lost to me forever, in an instant, lost as my perfect Confessor, the Funny Fat Girl with No Stakes in the Game. Jillene has betrayed me, I felt, as I watched those seniors skip by, so silly, so happy that I bitterly wished I was skipping away with them. Three pretty, over-educated, upper-class girls with not a care in the world. So imagine how I felt when Jillene hit me with the second blow.
“And don’t, of course you can never, tell a soul but he’s a Colored!”
It was later that day, after dinner, that I very discreetly tapped on the door to Jillene’s dingy, off-campus accommodations, bearing a potted plant and a curiosity so powerful that I nearly shed tears of gratitude when she opened the door and ushered me in. Jillene was renting a room on the first floor of a divorcée’s house on Hatfield Street. We passed very quietly through the parlor, the living room (with its de rigueur piano) and the surprisingly chilly kitchen. What I mistook to be the pantry’s entrance at the kitchen’s rear was the swinging door to Jillene’s windowless bedroom, a long narrow room just wide enough to hold the folding barracks-cot of Jillene’s “bed” and the overstuffed chair at the foot of it. Jillene took a place on this “bed” and I on the dingy floral pattern of the chair; the potted plant Jillene placed carefully on the floor between her shoes. I turned the chair to face Jillene and sat on it with my gloved hands folded in my lap. We spoke with our hats, gloves and coats on: there was nowhere to put them but Jillene, to her credit, seemed to be beyond any sense of embarrassment about her mean circumstances, relieving me of any responsibility to be embarrassed for her.
“Jillene,” I said, softly, “Before anything else is said, I have to apologize for my unsophisticated reaction to what you confessed to me this afternoon. It was inexcusable.”
Jillene smiled and nodded tolerantly.
“I can’t even claim to understand what got into me, ” I continued. “I’ve always considered myself a well-travelled, well-read, well-rounded kind of person, not easily shocked, no puritan… not some red-faced, shaking… ”
“But it is quite shocking,” said Jillene, “There’s no use denying it. My life is over now, in a way, but I’m glad it is because the life I called my life was unbearable. Mine was a life unfit for a dog. I never knew there was a way out, you see, or any way other than suicide. Don’t look so surprised. I’ve thought about it since… oh, I don’t know. Since a very, very, very long time. When you and all the other normal girls…” I winced at this but Jillene did not, “…were playing with your doll houses and daydreaming about your prom dates and weddings, I was imagining killing myself, how it would feel, how I would do it, what my mother would do when she found out. Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine my mother crying over my dead young body, freshly cut down from the long silk I fantasized about hanging myself from the apple tree in the front yard with. I was stuck with imagining my mother being relieved or rolling her eyes or even laughing at my purple-faced corpse with its tongue sticking out. I’d close my eyes and all I could see was my mother laughing at the stupidity of the joke of the girl with no life throwing her lack of a life away as if any of it mattered. Sometimes I fantasized beautiful gowns to hang myself in but those dreams were unsatisfying, they didn’t provide the escapism you require from a daydream, because I knew, of course, that I was too fat for any gown to fit, even at that age, I was born fat… no, please, don’t say I’m being hard on myself or that all I need to do is get out more or ride a bicycle or any of that: I’m fat, I was born fat, I will always be fat, I will be too fat for my coffin when I die. I’m used to it. But what changed everything was learning, this last Friday, when I accidentally got off the bus at the wrong stop, that you can end your life without doing harm to your physical body. In fact, you can end your life with great pleasure, more pleasure than you ever knew was allowed or possible. Maybe that’s what my mother always meant by the word Satanic. Maybe this was what they were always warning us about, I was thinking, as so much pleasure filled me I thought I might burst. Maybe this is what those sermons are against: Bliss. Actually, I’m utterly sure that’s the case, Sierra. I now finally know exactly what I am talking about. I am absolutely sure I finally understand the whole thing, now, all of those sermons and Sunday school parables and the terrifying prayers we were raised by God-fearing parents to repeat slavishly as if we were being roasted on a spit over Hell fires, morning and night. It was all, all of it, to keep us from falling into the clutches of Colored people, the most wonderful people on Earth.”
I felt the room spinning around me and I needed to close my eyes to keep from falling off the overstuffed chair at the foot of Jillene’s “bed” as I faced her. But the sensation was not unpleasant. It was very much like the dizziness you queue up for, with anticipation, to buy a ticket for a ride at a travelling fair. Part of the roller coaster’s nauseating thrill is the unsavouriness of losing control of oneself, and one’s decorum, among strangers; the unsavouriness of the fair-workers themselves, their grimy hands and stubble, the unabashedly experienced way they might size a girl up as she lifts her skirt to climb into the ride.
Jillene told me that his name was Byron and that Byron was the best looking man, Colored or not, Jillene had ever seen and that, partially clothed, Byron was a living Greek statue with perfect teeth and powerful hands and the warmest, most natural cocoa laughter she had ever heard in this life. Jillene said that she was unashamed to say that Byron’s bronze body made her awake and alive to appetites that she never knew she had, or that she had misinterpreted for all of her life until the acrid warmth and frankness of Byron’s flesh and his laughter confronted her with a mirror to her own deep animal nature. Jillene said she ended her life as a phony, striving, pathetically unnatural white, whatever a white really is, and found herself reborn as a happy animal in Byron’s strong brown arms. Jillene said Byron said that he loved Jillene’s chestnut tresses when she let them down wearing only her slip and a vulnerable smile. She told me there was a nightspot in Boston, a club, a kind of secret club, members only, called The Last Will and Testament of Crispus Attucks that Byron had taken her to. The password that one was required to say to the deep brown eyes that appeared in a slot in the door when you pushed the buzzer, Jillene told me, was “tinklebox”. I was profoundly impressed by the unforced aura of superiority Jillene took on when she told me this. She looked, for all the world, at that moment, like someone who had been raised with the notion that fat girls are the lords and masters of the good green Earth.
I decided to go the following Saturday night.
My roommate at the time was a girl named Annie Druse (not her actual name, as neither is Jillene’s), a girl as slender as most of all the rest of us Smith’s girls were but she was homely, with a weak chin and the smallest eyes and I recall, with a twinge, that I often took poor Annie’s homeliness as an invitation to exploit her, borrowing money or even items of clothing I never intended to return, for example. Annie’s lack of sophistication meant the queer fact that although she was always being exploited, she never developed a wariness in response to her experiences of being exploited and was always open, again, to being fooled to someone else’s easy advantage. I would offer to do Annie a specific favor if Annie made my bed, for example, and she’d make my bed and do it quite well and I would never do her the specific favor I’d blithely promised in return and she just wouldn’t seem to mind.
Annie would go along with almost anything with her harmless smile, grateful to be included. Her breath was often quite bad, as if she had the habit of surreptitiously eating crispy old nuggets of cat manure, and her sheepish grin, which often gave birth to hysterical giggles, added to this impression. I always maintained a distance when Annie was speaking directly to me, her bad breath pushing in purple curlicues into the air around her head from between her gappy teeth. Her hair was very thin and the color of a nondescript nylon thread and it broke in curly wisps at her pimply temples when she pulled it back, a velvet ribbon in her childishly artless ponytail, another thing to pity her about, but, anyway, Annie had a good clean car and I needed a lift into town that I might discreetly visit The Last Will and Testament of Crispus Attucks the Saturday night after Jillene’s astonishing confession. I was feeling very urgent about it and didn’t care that I’d be boxed in the confined space of Annie’s car, with the phosgene of Annie’s breath, for the long ride; that’s how much I wanted to go. I remember the mix of the sensations of impending excitement and doom as the evening approached.
I concocted the scheme of convincing Annie that we should visit the very ordinary working man’s bar that was called Dooley’s and try to meet there men who had never gone to college, just for the insane thrill of it, a scheme I brought Annie to fits of her giggles the more I went into it because I could always be very convincing when I got going, I was always a worryingly convincing liar, especially when I was young and not yet chastened by life, still young and unshakably sure of my attractiveness. There is something in physical beauty more powerful than brains or morals, a kind of license, a biological license that overrides every other consideration, though how that figures into Evolution, which privileges strength or speed or cleverness (none of which depends on looks), I still can’t understand. Perhaps it’s a spiritual matter, though we’ve been raised to consider physical (ie sexual) beauty to be trivial on the scale of Eternity… in any case, I still don’t know but there is something there, a Force, that is on a par with the power of the atomic bombs they dropped on those Japanese cities when I was a child; why don’t scientists, or philosophers, at least, address it properly, as a topic for study? I never understood the power of beauty when I had it and still don’t, now that it’s slipping away.
I got Annie so wound up about this hypothetical adventure of ours together to Dooley’s, two sophisticated Smith’s girls drinking luridly-named cocktails in the deliciously low-rent smoke and sweat of a slimy place like that, all eyes on us, our pick of the proles in the smoke, Kerouac types in their lumberjack shirts, dirty fingernails, big rough mitts and after teasing them and playing princesses for an hour or two we would run laughing into the night, breaking all their working class hearts, Annie by this time rolling around her bed, on the other side of the sturdy night table dividing our homey digs, clutching a pillow like the limbless torso of an imaginary lover as she giggled and shrieked, hardly able to catch her (foul) breath. The plan, of course, was to slip out the back (I counted on there being a rear exit in Dooley’s) a reasonable interval after arriving and hurry up the street and around the corner to the forbidden Negro club that was my secret destination. In my mind I suppose I imagined that by then Annie would have caught the eye of some married mick prole, in Dooley’s, a mick resembling Annie’s idol Johnny Brunette, with red eyes and pungent, slurred charm, who’d see her as an easy target, a girl to molest in his tawdry car for a quick lay before opening the passenger door from the inside, for her, and easing her out and driving the dark roads home in a fug of sated hopelessness and so Annie would hardly notice, by then, that I was gone and had been gone for hours. It’s almost as though Life is the work of a Hidden Writer whose specialty is anticipating and inverting your lazy assumptions, isn’t it? Or even more as though there’s a machine built into Existence for automatically doing just that.
The days before The Bold Adventure passed slowly but richly. I had been working on a paper regarding the works of Mary Shelley, that week, and continued to do so intensely under the creepy old eye of my instructor Professor Arvin, who, despite his age, I felt, had designs on me. If you are young enough and even just a little bit pretty, who doesn’t have designs on you? Your vulva is Nature’s sacred representative on Earth, the Consulate of Creation, or, a better analogy would be a fresh warm hamburger. You are designed to be hungered for and eaten. Professor Arvin would get me in his office before or after class and make what I considered very subtly suggestive remarks about Mary Shelley in our discussions about Shelley’s disputed authorship of the seminal (Mr. Arvin’s word-choice) Frankenstein.
There was renewed academic gossip in those days, not yet expressed in the form of a contemporary theory or any completed dissertations, to my knowledge, that Percy Bysshe Shelley had not only contributed editorial aid in the writing of Frankenstein but had authored the text entirely and allowed it to be attributed to his wife for reasons of his own, an accusation first made by Walter Scott in the very early 19th century. Having begun work on the Shelley paper with the objective disinterestedness of a student motivated entirely by the desire for a good grade, Mr. Arvin’s insinuations against Mary Shelley’s great talent and intellectual range, along with his repeated use of the word seminal, turned me, in the course of a week, into Ms. Shelley’s passionate supporter and, better, or worse, I found myself becoming a secret zealot on the topic of race-mixing. I had gone from being unthinkingly horrified at, and offended by, Jillene’s confession of amorous activities with a Negro… to becoming some kind of righteous sexual abolitionist. John Brown’s wild-eyed granddaughter.
Professor Arvin, patronizing and very old and Caucasian and hyper-intellectual and secure as a boulder at the beach, in his social station, projected, into the malleable inflammations of my sophomore mind, the icon of his biological opposite, a paragon to admire, cherish and desire: a well-built and handsome young working-class Negro of not much education but noble simplicity, the mortal nemesis that Arvin’s national type had created, in a way, as a Frankenstein’s monster of their very own, the kidnapped Africans enslaved and bred for strength to build America, isolated and unnatural on American soil, miscegenated with the ounce of irony of their oppressors’ blood and now as beautiful, in my young mind, as they were ugly to Mr. Arvin and all the rest of the conservative old white men on a campus dedicated to the education of progressive young (largely white) women.
As stooped old Arvin paced before me, clasping his elbows, monologuing, in his little office, against the backdrop of his leather-bound, high and mighty tomes I began to fantasize that big Black Negroes in sturdy proletariat dress (workman’s gloves and boots, corduroy trousers, billed plaid caps with ear flaps for the winter) might muscle their way into Arvin’s office and gently (but firmly) rape me while forcing Arvin to watch. Every consultational appointment in Arvin’s office, that week, I added another element to the theatrical perfection of the fantasy… the sound of the distant commotion of Negroes invading the campus, the screams of the snooty secretary in the Office of Admissions (killed), the frantically-locked door of Arvin’s office splintered on its hinges and the weightless feeling of being passed, again and again, from one sated Negro revolutionary to the next rapaciously erect and naked militant in a long line, my disinhibited (anti-Arvin) cries of passion and fulfilment. New and artful details were added during every subsequent visit to Arvin’s office. A fully developed and now-embarrassing, to me, fantasy that managed to hark all the way back to the violent boudoirs of the plantation and twenty years forward (Patty Hearst) at the same time, the first (but very secret) act in the sudden war I thought I must be waging in daydreams against Professor Arvin, Smith’s Caucasian President (Wright), Eisenhower in the Whitehouse and the white-haired, white-skinned Deity our fathers worshipped on his golden throne in the lily-white showplace of Heaven. I suddenly understood Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s desire to unseat that Deity by challenging His right as the sole author of Life, of consciousness, and learned to see Her Frankenstein for the deeply subversive, almost frighteningly heretical, and irrefutably Female , work it was… the most satisfying epiphany of academic interpretation I ever experienced at Smith College while under (nay, over) Professor Arvin, who grudgingly, weeks later, awarded me an “A” for my “passionately-argued, theoretically misguided yet impressively coherent, one must admit” paper.
The day arrived, the hour came, I hurried down the dormitory stairs to meet poor Annie Druse on the side street she usually parked her sky-blue Bel Air sedan on. It was a chilly, cloudless, windy late afternoon and I could see Venus, or Mercury, or just a very bright star in the darkest, highest part of a sky divided into two distinct sections, the lowest lightest section more like a pinkish dawn than the wise mauve prelude to the suppertime that usually commenced, in the cafeteria, at that hour. I remember that detail because I made a wish on that bright deceitful star, or planet, at the very moment a co-ed came clattering down the dented pine of the uncarpeted dormitory stairs with an urgent note to telephone mother, at home, as soon as possible and reverse the charges. I took the note and crumpled it into a ball and stuffed it into the deep soft pocket of my burnt bisque Lilli Ann coat, the coat I’d only worn twice, the coat that smelled nice, and I crossed the street and followed it around the corner to meet Annie in front of her Bel Air. I had been theatrically deliberate in the crumbling of the note, right in front of the note’s messenger, a gesture of cool self-possession right up there with rolling and smoking one’s own cigarette in front of a younger cousin. A declaration of independence. I’m sure it made the desired impression but I can remember wishing, at the time, that I’d balled the note up and tossed it in the street instead of stuffing it conservatively in my pocket but my deeply-ingrained aversion to being a litterbug supervened.
When I walked around the corner to rendezvous with Annie I found that she was already in the car and the motor was already running. I leaned through a ghostly cloud of accumulated exhaust to tap on the driver-side window and saw with a shock that my roommate Annie Druse was balling her eyes out and when she rolled the window half-way down, without looking at me, she explained, after clearing her throat, that her father had died. She elaborated that she wouldn’t be driving into town that night but I was free to borrow the car, myself, after dropping her off in Chicopee.
The drive down to Chicopee reminded me of the dull excruciation of waiting for an ugly haircut to grow out. Annie sniffed and gasped, squinting just barely above the knuckled rim of the wheel like a precocious child in the driver’s seat and she said nothing, largely, and there was nothing I could think of to say to soothe or honor her grief. From time to time her squinting and sniffing (and alarming tendency, while the car was in full flight, to squeeze her eyes shut as if to ignore the cruel world away) erupted into sobs and these sobs would bloat and rupture into the full dimension of her inconsolable grief and this grief would overflow for ten or fifteen minutes at a time until, exhausted again, the slick red mess of Annie’s face went quiet. The trip was a workout for both of us but in very different ways, because while Annie was depleting herself, her depletion was making me feel stronger and more grateful for my unremarkably stable life, a life so stable I could afford to experiment sometimes, creep out on a limb, pursue my little curiosities like the absurd caper that had thrown me into that absurd little car with a co-ed whose world was now inverted as trivially, summarily and totally as a sock turned inside out.
And then I began to wonder if I loved my parents at all and if the cordial relations I maintained with them were not, as I had felt, a moment before, a sign of health and balance but a symptom of some kind of painless lack, like having no sense of taste… a lack of something that one wouldn’t miss or comprehend, even if people, who had taste in their tongues, described it all day long. I began to wonder if puffy-eyed, rashy-faced, snot-leaking Annie Druse was in some abstract way actually better than me in the voluptuous raptures of her genuine grief? It wasn’t an urgent question. Closer to a fascinating philosophical problem.
I’d always had a preternatural ability to see myself from the outside; see myself as a stranger might; see the world with a stranger’s eyes for long enough to compare whatever I was seeing to a “second opinion” of the same thing (a friend… one of my fraternal collegiate affairs… once fingered that unnatural ability as the source of my talent in writing). Peering hypothetically into Annie’s sky-blue Bel Air sedan, in this way, as a stranger in a car passing us on the left would, I could see Annie’s all-too-human grief, in very sharp foreground focus, in contrast to the slightly blurrier, slightly more distant, cool and collected figure of the well-dressed beauty with the upturned nose and the chillingly tolerant smile on her face, not one golden hair in her fashionable chignon, in bloom above the cowl of her burnt bisque Lilli Ann swing coat, out of place. The kind of not-very-likable character which handsome, unpretentious and very decent hunks, in popular films, will have as fiancées until some revelation or happy coincidence, shortly before the credits run, delivers, with a sigh of relief from the audience, the decent hunk into the arms of the “girl next door” with whom he should have been billing and cooing all along. My parents always referred to it (with contempt) as “canoodling”.
Then I began to think of the handsome hunks I’d been with since coming to Smith. Had any of my conquests ever, once, been the kind of unpretentious, down to earth and easygoing hunk that the “girl next door” wins at the end of those populist movies? Had I ever had a young Gene Kelly or a John Garfield in my arms? No, they’d all been well-to-do shits, the lovers I took, steel-hearted Adonises I had (with some skill) never allowed to get the better of me. The kind of lovemaking I was familiar with was always very much like riding a horse who thinks you’re the horse. And you let them think it; you let them think whatever they want until you’ve gotten what you’ve wanted, which is a little exercise. Plus the practise, and status, conferred by riding.
No, I thought, glancing at the damp figure of the grief-stricken Annie Druse, clutching the wheel in her doomed mission to get to Chicopee before the last little sip of her father’s spirit, ie the warmth in his cooling flesh, had quit the premises: I’ve never had an earthy, hearty, tender and easygoing lover in my arms and I’ve never wanted one. The very thought of it, of big dumb decent and caring hands on my hips, if I can be trusted to remember my feelings clearly, at that age, gave me the creeps. Those were the years (the late 1950s) that the makers of popular film were extolling the virtues of only a handful of masculine archetypes: the earthy hunk, the level-headed businessman and the older, somewhat Olympian genius. Perhaps the average studio head saw those three types as phases of his own biography, or maybe it was that each particular studio head was quietly queer for one of the three types and his studio, therefore, was best at bringing out, say, dramatic tragedies about earthy hunks who sacrifice themselves for chums or country, or screwball comedies in which level-headed businessmen win young and ditzy pin-up love, or grand biopics in which older visionaries roll up their shirtsleeves to bring us penicillin, pasteurized milk or otherwise save the world.
The lower half of the sky went from color-drained to ink-stained and the view out my passenger-side window got scrubbier and patchier and less developed as we drove, as if Annie, to retrieve her father, was driving us to the past, a decade per mile, and then I began to imagine I saw slaves out on those barren lawns and in those fields, shirtless and shining, despite the cold weather, indistinct where they weren’t explicitly sculpted by anachronistic flood lights, bulging black muscles and sombre black faces in stark relief.
As Annie navigated the familiar streets of her neighborhood, the tears began anew and she was such a gulping, wailing mass of grief when she parked in the dirt lot, with a jolt, beside the house (a dirt lot with several cars already on it), Annie climbed out, car still running, without a word of goodbye, running up the stairs and into the gabled New England house like a spark into a powder keg. The whole family must be in there, wailing as one, I thought, as I sat in the dark lot in Annie Druse’s idling sky-blue Bel Air sedan with the dawning realisation that I hadn’t a clue how to drive it.
I had driven a few times in my life but the majority of those instances had been with college boys who had asked me to take over the steering while they stuck their hands down, or up, my dress (a popular technique among Harvard’s cads: you’re too petrified to take your hands off the wheel in order to slap them; there was a convenient campus legend of the co-ed who had done just that and ended up with paraplegia). The controls of the sedan, from where I sat, in the passenger seat, in shock, in the dark, listening to the group hysteria rise and fall and rise again in the over-lit house I’d never have the courage to walk up those stairs into, might as well have been the controls of a Piper Cub. It wasn’t often that I accused myself of being unforgivably stupid, at that age, but that night, at that moment, I did.
The car was still idling when I slipped out of it, perhaps thirty minutes after the car had come to rest, and the house with Annie’s family in it (and her father’s body, too?) was still releasing the pressure of its grief, but less hair-raisingly and with sudden gaps in the lamentations, almost calm, although, clearly, it was still very, very far from possible for me to climb those stairs and press that chipper doorbell in order to summon raw Grief to contemplate sophomore Slapstick in its Lilli Ann coat and heels. I clopped up the street in the New England dark, hoping it might connect to a larger street, which might then connect to a major thoroughfare with taxis or buses on offer, following up my big mistake of the day with a bigger one, possibly.
I remember being grateful, at least, that it wasn’t very cold that night, or raining or even terribly late. The very faint luminous (radium) dial on the watch I’d gotten for getting straight-As, in the eighth grade, ancient history, a gift from my father, told me it was seven fifteen. Such was a pretty, young, upper-middle class Caucasian female’s place in the world, then, that I could be as far away from my own bed as I was, in a strange town, after sundown, yet my thoughts weren’t drenched in panic but steeped in affectionate self-mockery and a sense, at worst, of profound inconvenience. I knew that four out of five of the doors I might knock on, if I chose to knock, would open upon people more than happy to help me. As a pretty young college-educated blonde, I inhabited a special class within the special class I had been born into. I was a treasured resource and I knew it and the world knew it and Hollywood (and Grace Kelly) made sure we never, for a moment, forgot it. Men (the powerful ones) had all the power in the world and I was what they wielded all that power to pursue, protect and own: I was the world’s point. Marching along absurdly in my heels and burnt bisque coat, on the streets of quaint little Chicopee, I felt like a princess among the kind-hearted commoners of her pipe-puffing father’s kingdom. Not that my actual biological father was the King, in this metaphor. The King, in this metaphor, a metaphor I felt in my bones, was a secular American deity made of equal parts Dwight D. Eisenhower, Spencer Tracy, Walt Disney and Santa Clause.
Think of this as an adventure, I thought to myself, gamely.
I had given up any notion of making it to the eye-in-the-door-slot of the password-protected club of The Last Will and Testament of Crispus Attucks that evening. In fact, as I walked toward the bright lights of a shopping thoroughfare ahead, I wondered if I shouldn’t abandon the original, impulsive project altogether. Yes, somewhere, deep down within me, I still had a pang or itch or faddish compulsion, I guess you’d call it, to try slumming it with the kind of men, the exotics, I’d never had meaningful contact with in my life, but wasn’t that kind of thing best left to doomed and chubby girls like Jillene T.? Jillene was just as likely to become a Communist or reefer-addict as she had become a shameless lover of Negro men and, for all I knew, she was already all three. Could I really see myself skulking, fallen, in the half-light of that half-world? No, as it turned out (as I came to my senses): I was not John Brown’s wild-eyed granddaughter. In fact, in any case, I realized, I had completely forgotten, in all the confusion caused by Annie’s father’s death, the password to the private club. Rendering the question moot for the night, if not forever. I amused myself by imagining somehow making it to the door of The Last Will and Testament of Crispus Attucks, anyway, and, when the brown eye appeared in the slot and demanded the password, I would say, simply: Grace Kelly and walk rather regally away.
I found, on the well-lit shopping thoroughfare of Chicopee, where I could see my own breath and a Christmassy halo around each street light: a butcher shop, a bakery, a big window with mannequins wearing wedding gowns and, directly across from a movie house with An Affair To Remember on its marquee, a Crown grocery store.