“Have you ever wanted to sleep with another woman?”
Like I said before, S. relished catching me off-guard with provocative, impertinent questions. In that way, he reminded me of Inspector Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” movies and his man servant, Cato, who's always setting elaborate traps in those movies to test his boss’s skill at avoiding danger (he fails to great comic effect). We were sitting at the kitchen table when he asked me as I slogged away at the Selectric. My head was turning to a bad grade of mush after typing, compounded by round after round of joking back-and-forth, both exhilarating and exhausting my feeble brain:
— Let me ask you this: if you could only love one person in your life, only find True Love in one instance, and the moment for choosing that person lasted no more than a single day—or even less— do you think you could recognize that moment as your one opportunity for happiness? Would you realize “this is the one”?
— I’ll do you one better: suppose that One True Love was impeded in some major fashion, what then?
— Why is it we assume love will come to us all neatly-wrapped up like a present? What if our Great Love, la grande passion as our Frog friends would say, was tied up in some manner?
— Tied up S&M-style tied up? Oooh, tell me more.
— No, tied up in a prior relationship: engaged— or even married.
— Likely only a loser would be totally free. Anyone worth having is already involved with another.
— Exactly, we have to compete for the object of our affections.
— What do you think romance is, a form of sexual Olympics?
— Why not? Simone de Beauvoir has turned sex into politics. Men and women are now fighting for power in the bedroom.
— They always were. It’s just that she identified the game. Beauvoir sketched out the parameters women have always felt and intuited, clarifying what once was only implied.
— Yes, and the superpowers have made the Olympics political, look at the East Germans.
— We have our Germans and the Soviets have their Germans.
— The Soviet Union is a fiction. They’re Russians, the same as East Germans and West Germans are still, underneath it all, Germans.
— Stop changing the subject!
— If you have any doubts, ask yourself why is it the East German Army still goose-steps?
I stopped typing so we could walk to the Orange Market to get some decaf coffee (real coffee and the usual amount of flirtatious banter would keep me up all night, there are limits). He’d probably been waiting for the right time to spring the question on me.
It unleashed a memory I hadn’t disturbed in almost eight years, and I didn’t answer just then. We were walking along Clark Street when he asked again (as I knew he would, S. never lets a provocative question go unanswered).
“Have you ever wanted to sleep with another woman?”
“Does having erotic dreams about Toni Tennille count?”
He tried cupping his hand to his mouth, but it was no use: most of the Scotch he’d sipped from the paper cupful he’d brought along came out in a geyser, spraying both of us with its bitter, acrid, aromatic cloud. We were laughing too much to care. “Dare I admit I get wet every time I hear ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’? You won’t reveal my secret, will you?”
“And ‘Captain’ Daryl Dragon is her husband? And just what army or navy would have him for a captain?”
“The same one that would have her luscious ass in that tight-fitting sailor’s uniform she wears on stage.” S. blinked hard, his mind hadn’t expected that kind of comeback or it revealing as much about my “uniform thing.” My short skirts and stockings had given him a completely different idea, and I thought it fun confounding his expectations of me. “Actually, though—“
It was the very last Saturday night of Summer vacation the year I graduated high school. I was starting at Temple the following Monday, and several girlfriends who were hanging out together called me to suggest we go out to a movie, a last “girls night out” before we went mostly separate ways. I started looking through the paper to see what was playing downtown, and my gaze fell on one in particular. In a brave voice, I blurted out “Therese and Isabelle. Let’s go see an X-rated film.” I knew nothing about it other than that it was X-rated, I’m not sure I even knew why it was rated X or even what an X-rating meant, other than that it was naughty in some mysterious way. I wanted to be bold and provocative; going to an X-rated film seemed brash and reckless (the ad warned “no one under 18 admitted, identities will be checked at the door,” insuring every teenager alive would try and sneak in).
“Why that particular X-rated film and not one of the usual stag films?”
“Simple— I didn’t want to go to a sleazy porn house full of degenerate men ready to jump on one or all of us and spray us with— uh, cum.”
S. burst out laughing so loud it echoed off the façade of the Belnord, this huge apartment building we had to pass each way. I was glad it was dark out, I was blushing from using that word for the first time in my life (except with P.). Because it was a first, I enjoyed my naughtiness, it made me feel brash and modern and audacious the same as that night we went to see “Therese and Isabelle.”
“I probably rationalized things by thinking or saying it would help me learn French.”
“Ah, what kind of French?”
“The ads didn’t make it seem sleazy, and all my friends knew I was signed up to take Basic French.”
“But the movie was in English. I saw it with German subtitles.”
“I didn’t know that then.”
Four of us were planning on going: me, Stephanie, Gina and Rochelle, and it seemed as brazen and daring a thing as I’d ever done. I didn’t tell my boyfriend at the time, nor any of my other friends, and I’ve never told Patrick. I caught the uptown bus with Stephanie and Gina, and the three of us joked about whether we might run into someone we knew. When we got to the theater, Rochelle was waiting with her friend, Judy, in tow, and I remember being pissed about it. I didn’t want our going to this film to get around my old high school— I don’t know why, we were all going our separate ways, yet that night we were still five high school girls from South Philly. Plus I was worried they might not let us in. I was only ready to go so far in being bold, and this was about the limit of it.
My jitters passed quickly enough, we were soon preoccupied with buying the tickets. Rochelle was petrified we’d need ID, she was only 17 like me, but looked 12. It would’ve been really humiliating if they’d turned us away at the door.
“’Don’t worry,’ I boasted, ‘I’ve got fake ID if they ask.’ I don’t have to tell you the old man in the ticket booth couldn’t have cared less if we’d been school girls in stockings and uniforms.”
“Stockings AND uniforms? Ahh, what an absolutely lovely thought,” S. nearly licked his lips. I slapped him playfully on the wrist; it kept me from staring at those same lips— or slapping his face on general principle, both impulses came over me simultaneously. In the interim, we got our coffee and headed back to Clark Street, with S. pouring the remaining Scotch into his.
I think part of the reason I was mad at Rochelle was jealousy. She was my best friend at the time, and Stephanie and Gina were inseparable, so I felt a mild sense of betrayal Rochelle had brought Judy along, especially since she was in 11th grade and might’ve screwed up our getting in. Gina said we should all go in as a group, even though the movie was about two women, no one seeing us would think anything peculiar, right? Just girl’s night out, right? We all laughed a little too loud, all except Stephanie, who looked pained and seemed like she’d bolt if we hadn’t all locked arms and headed for the door.
We sailed in without a hitch, then found a section with only a few single guys and plopped ourselves down.
I don’t remember most of the movie, though some parts are quite vivid because I was concentrating REALLY HARD on them. Some of that was not wanting to look around, the I-don’t-want-to-be-recognized-in-a-porn-palace paranoia. I certainly didn’t want to look at the others, not Rochelle and Judy who giggled at all the sex parts, and not at Stephanie and Gina, who seemed serious and even sad watching. Mostly I studied every scene because I’d never seen anything quite like it. It was pretty tame by what you can see now, even at Yale: bare bodies, mostly bare breasts, and no shots of actual sex, though a lot was cleverly suggested.
Despite its limitations, somehow the story and the girl-girl sex fascinated me, especially the voiceover with all these literary allusions to her clitoris as a pearl or the artful way the act of Sapphic love was described. It was so gentle, two women loving one another slowly and softly. The film’s goal was to be arousing and titillating, not overt and aggressive. I felt cheated and let down that it took the two women so long to get together for the "main event," with so much of the plot about the boarding school they attended. And once they got around to having sex, the plot lost all its tension, sorta like a sagging rubber band. The ending was even worse: the movie just seemed to run out of gas. I especially disliked having one of the lovers recall the whole thing years later during a return visit to the boarding school where all the action took place. The film ended, and the five of us headed straight for the exits without saying a word.
"I guess that was my first initiation, both into X-rated films and the vagueness of French movies."
S. laughed out loud again, so loud a neighbor walking into his house looked up and scowled at us. I stuck out my tongue. I felt sagacious and witty, and as we were almost at the apartment, I didn’t feel ready to go in just yet. Besides, this discussion needed to remain outside.
"All in all, an X-rated movie made a good beginning to our 'bright college years.' [the Yale anthem] I don’t recall any of us mentioning a thing about it on the bus home; stranger still, I never discussed it with any of them afterwards. There’s also a really funny ending to the story—not funny ha-ha, but weird. Only a year or so ago I found out why Stephanie and Gina were so serious and sad: they were having this passionate schoolgirl Therese and Isabelle affair no one knew anything about at the time. Then one day freshman year of college Stephanie broke it off, and got engaged to a guy at almost the same time. Gina nearly had a nervous breakdown. She’s still carrying a huge torch for Stephanie, who’s cut off all communication with her. Won’t even speak with her on the phone. After she got married, Stephanie and her husband moved to some hick town in western Maryland. He teaches at this tiny college, and they almost never go back to Philadelphia." S. simply went "Hmm" or some other sound indicating thought and pondering, then looked at me with his most piercing smile.
"A MOST interesting story, Mis-sus Campbell. You have, however," and here he adopted a perfect imitation of the Hollywood Gestapo interrogator, "avoided answering zee qwestion: have you ever vanted zu zleep mit anodder vooman." He was right. I'd gotten too absorbed in my remembrance of things past, and I didn't even have a Madeleine to show for it like ol' Proust!
"You are cor-rect, Herr Retter," I teased in my best "Hogen's Heroes" accent. "Ever since I found out about those two, I have not-- unlike most of my friends-- spent time looking for clues we failed to pick up on. All they can think about is 'how did we ever miss it?' and 'oh, I knew all along.' Me? I wonder how Stephanie could feel so intensely, then simply slam the door on those feelings." I was shivering from the cold by now; on the other side of the door I could be warm and safe, my home with P. beckoned to me, yet I was more sure than ever I didn't want to go in right then, at least not as long as we were discussing sex.
It sounds weird, but I not only never told P. anything about "Therese and Isabelle," I never mentioned Stephanie and Gina. Let this kind of talk stay outside, especially with P. not home yet. "To answer your question: have I thought about sex with another woman? I would have to answer: yes."
"All right, give, Mis-sus Campbell. You don't think I'm letting you off the hook with a one-word answer do you?"
"No, but I figured I would make you wait for your gratification."
"Gratification postponed is gratification enhanced! And postponed gratification is better than no gratification at all."
"Shut the fuck up, you silly boy. Yes, I've thought about it. More than thought about it."
Last Fall, I tried out for a student production of a play at Jonathan Edwards, one of the residence colleges. See at Yale, they group the dorms into "colleges," walled, gated compounds turning their backs to the outside world, perfect wombs for growing loyal alumni who'll fork over big bucks later hoping to get their own spawn admitted. Morse-Stiles where S. lived is the one modern dorm complex on campus-- modern and UGLY. I've seen better-looking Holiday Inns. Anyway, I'd never been in a play before. My chorus teacher senior year suggested I try out for a part in "The Bells Are Ringing," but my father was in a bad mood that night at dinner when I told my parents about it, and he made fun of the idea. That was the end of "The Bells Are Ringing."
I picked a goofy choice for a first-time play, too: Pirandello's Right You Are If You Think You Are, a weird modern play with all kinds of weirder associations. I didn't care. I'd read about the auditions in the Yale Daily News, and tried out and got a part! I was excited and nervous and thoroughly entranced. At least it would take my mind off Manuscripts. I enjoyed the whole experience on many levels besides; for one thing, it meant no time to fix dinners and my evenings were taken up with rehearsals (no time to be bored and restless).
One of the other women in the cast was so pretty and glamorous-- of course she knew it and flaunted her looks all over the place-- so much so, the rest of the cast and crew called her "The Mirror," because she was always combing her hair or checking out her make-up. At one rehearsal, she and I were sitting off by ourselves waiting for our scene. I was on the edge of a prop crate, she was above me perched on a step ladder, combing her long hair with her hands, dangling it against my cheek.
"I felt a shiver go right down into my, well, crotch." I felt bold saying that word in front of him, too. Sigh, I guess I am provocative.
"Hmmm, I'd like to have seen THAT."
"My crotch, or her and me?" I shot back.
"Well, it would be ungentlemanly of me to say anything more than 'the two of you together,' though that's a fairly roguish idea in its own right, if I may say so."
I'm sure Carol (that was the woman's name) knew her hair was brushing against my face, and it infuriated me her playing the tease that way. I kept wishing I had the guts to stand up and kiss her right on the mouth. I kept daring myself every time the hair brushed along my face, and Carol kept letting it brush against me until finally, I don't know if it was my dare to myself, being pissed off at her goading me that way, or what, but I really did stand up, kissed her hard on the mouth.
"She jumped like I'd shoved an electric cord up her ass, fell right off the ladder and burst into tears. I turned around and walked away."
I was getting so cold I was shivering, my teeth chattered enough to make me mangle my words, so we went inside and slogged away some more on the typing. Afterward, if S. ever wanted to tease or tweak me, he'd pretend to brush long hair or make a kissing gesture with his hand. I'd simply smile.
I didn't tell him just then about Alex.