If only Joanie hadn’t been worried about the war, if only she didn’t have her head craned high in the air, scanning the Chicago sky for Japanese bombers emerging from cotton candy clouds. If only her head wasn’t in the clouds, like Sister Matthew told her when she struggled with long division. Then maybe she would have avoided the Bogeyman.
Mama had been making supper and ran out of oleo to fry up the cabbage so she sent Joanie to the grocery store with a quarter and a tiny red ration stamp. Mama warned, “Don’t lose that Joanie! Put it in your pocket.”
“Can I buy some candy?”
“Only a penny’s worth!”
Mama told her not to take a short cut through the alley but she never paid attention. The fronts of people’s homes were boring, but their backyards revealed their lives. Underwear of all shapes and sizes hung on laundry lines. Vegetables too big or sloppy for front yards grew free, guarded by mangy grey mutts. Wild weeds pushed their way from the asphalt seams that separated yard from alley, and tangled themselves in chain-link fences where they were visited by insects too exotic for the neat green lawns up front. The alley was a dangerous place, but now the whole world was a scary place where anything could happen. Joanie checked the sky for Japanese bombers. Nothing but big black birds—crows or starlings? How could they tell Jap planes from American if even the birds look the same when they’re up real high? If she saw a Japanese plane, what would she do? Scream? Then what?
“Whatcha got for me?”
He was older than Daddy, her grandfather’s age, and wore a wool coat although it was hot outside. She looked behind her, thinking that maybe he was talking to somebody else.
“I’m talking to you, girly.”
And before she could run or scream he grabbed her arm, pulled her against a storage shed, shoved his calloused hand under her blouse, beneath her undershirt, and squeezed her budding breasts: one squeeze on the left, the other on the right. He even said, “toot toot” as if he were squeezing a horn, but before he could get in another toot she somehow squirmed away and began running, the smell of stale beer and urine following her down the alley and onto the safety of 26th street, which she ran across without looking for busses.
Once she got home and gave Mama the oleo, she locked herself in the bathroom and washed her breasts where the Boogeyman touched them. She scrubbed until the bristles left red tracks around her nipples, all the while praying to sweet Jesus that she could wash his germs off quickly enough.
“I scrubbed and I scrubbed and I scrubbed,” my mother laughed.
“What did you scrub with?”
“Grampa’s nail brush.”
“I thought I could get pregnant.” She noticed the quizzical look on my face and added, “People back then never talked about that kind of stuff.”
She thought I was surprised by her naivety, but at age eleven, I myself was naïve. At least now I knew that women could not get pregnant through hand-breast contact, adding another piece to the puzzle. My other clue came from the drive-in movie Village of the Damned, in which every fertile woman in a small town, including virgins, gives birth to platinum-haired baby geniuses. Endless scenes of shamed women crying to their doctors, “But I didn’t do anything wrong!” led me to believe that pregnancy was caused by A) nameless things married couples did, B) shameful things unmarried couples did, or C) blonde space aliens. Complicating my curiosity was the Catholic church’s directive against “impure thoughts,” which suggested that my attempts to solve these mysteries was in itself a sin.
I had a minor meltdown over this directive only two years prior, when I contemplated the odd shape of my babysitter’s behind. She was our neighbor, Clara, who squatted down to search the bottom shelf of our refrigerator, her backside and hips forming an strangely-shaped oval. Perhaps my mother bent over more than squatted, or perhaps her butt was perkier, but for whatever reason, my “buttocks contemplation” suddenly spooked me—was I having an impure thought?—and I broke out in tears. Already an insecure woman rendered more nervous by her inability to find the mayonnaise, Clara now had a hysterical child on her hands who refused to explain why she was crying.
Later, when my mother asked me why I’d been crying, I couldn’t find the words to articulate my lunacy. Clara never babysat for me and my little brother again.
Luckily, by the time I was eleven, my butt-gazing and other sin-related phobias subsided, although the Catholic Church made sure my natural curiosity about sex was still tinged with anxiety, just as my mother made sure her titillating stories never provided definitive answers. Another of Mom’s favorites involved her overnight stay as a teenager at an alleged “girls only” party. A group of boys were also invited, but Mom hid this information from my grandmother, not wanting to upset her and assuming the boys would leave before bedtime anyway. Unfortunately, that night one of those boys slipped my mother a “Mickey Finn.” In the gangster movies of my mom’s generation, this meant spiking someone’s drink—usually with chloral hydrate—to incapacitate and rob him. However, no gangster movie or newsreel had warned my mother about date rape.
“I don’t remember getting on the bed, or even how I got into the bedroom,” she told me. “I woke up and this boy was lying on top of me, kissing me. My blouse was unbuttoned and my skirt was pulled up. My garter belt and underpants were still on, but he was trying to get them off. The boy still had his pants on, but they were unzipped. Nothing was, you know…”
I didn’t know.
“Anyway, I started to cry, and the boy suddenly got really scared and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ I was lucky I woke up before he did anything…”
Like what? I wondered. Grab her boobies and mutter, “toot toot”?
My mother told me these stories not as cautionary tales but as pure entertainment. Her favorite part of the date-rape story was its O’Henry-esque denouement: a few days later this boy declared his undying love for my mother and asked her to marry him.
She politely declined.
Mom loved telling me about boys who pursued her before she met my father. These tales were meant not only to prove how desirable she had been, but also to justify her marrying my dad. There was Walter the aspiring dentist who declared he’d buy her a sizable engagement ring if she’d “fool around once a week” until they tied the knot, or Billy, whose idea of dating was sitting on the front steps watching the grass grow. My father, she claimed, took her to plays and movies; they went skating, to parties, to ballgames—my father belonged to an amateur team—went to picnics, to the beach, to Riverview amusement park. Between the lines, the implication was your father wasn’t always like this.
When I was in seventh grade, I hoped our school nurse, Mrs. Winters, would put an end to my questions in an upcoming girls-only school assembly. The boys had a separate assembly, and we all needed signed permission slips from our parents to attend. Unfortunately, that day I was sick with the flu, so my mother decided to prepare me for my first magical day of menstruation on her own. I was already 12, but in 1964 had not been exposed to the nutrients or toxins that would soon create a generation of fertile nine-year-olds. But instead of sitting me down for “the talk,” Mom presented me with a book published by Kotex, and assured me that because I was “so smart” and “such a good reader,” I’d be able to figure everything out for myself.
One of the first things I learned was that I had ovaries. This snippet of information explained a quip my dad threw at my mother whenever she was angry: “Don’t get your ovaries in an uproar!” Now I knew why my parents broke out in hysterical laughter when I yelled the same at my little brother, Georgie.
I learned that my ovaries would someday produce eggs—not chicken eggs, but microscopic eggs that would cause my uterus to slough off a “lining,” a sweet euphemism that brought to mind satin and taffeta. Of course, this lining would stay put if the egg grew into a baby—but for that, it would have to be fertilized.
Fertilized? How does that happen? I turned the page, but Kotex refused to explain.
Several days later, my best friend Tina told me about the assembly. She said that Mrs. Winters made a big deal about how we should never flush our sanitary napkins down the toilets. Apparently protecting our school’s plumbing was a great responsibility of budding Catholic womanhood. Nurse Winters also told the assembly that pregnancy could only take place “within the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony.”
One girl raised her hand and said she’d heard stories of unmarried girls having babies.
Nurse Winters replied that these “wild tales” were “dirty back alley stories” and girls who spread them were nothing but filthy liars.
“Can you imagine her fibbing like that?” said Tina.
I said something inane like “wow,” and hoped that Tina would divulge the specifics—unlike my mother, Kotex, or Nurse Winters. But she didn’t, and I was too embarrassed to ask. By now I had seen movies like Aunt Mame and A Summer Place in which single women got pregnant without any help from space aliens. I knew the answer lay firmly in boys and biology—not magic Sacraments—but I didn’t know the details. Unfortunately, Nurse Winters felt the devil was lurking in these details, and that revealing them might cause some daring students to seek concrete evidence and the rest of us to think impure thoughts.
A few months later, I was lying in bed reading my new Catholic Missal—revised to include the post-Vatican II all-English Mass—while my parents entertained their old chums Maureen and Lenny from back in the days when my father’s social activity consisted of more than just spending his evenings getting smashed at the local pub.
In the kitchen I overheard the four of them laughing, my father whispering dirty jokes and shouting out the punchlines as he stomped his fist on the table: Whisper, whisper, whisper—How in the hell did you win first prize?— Stomp, stomp, peals of laughter. Meanwhile, my new Missal encouraged me to examine my conscience to detect recent sins against purity:
- Did I commit impure acts?
- Did I think impure thoughts?
- Did I dress in an impure manner?
- Did I look at impure pictures, photographs, or movies?
- Did I read impure books?
- Did I tell impure jokes? In same or mixed company?
- Did I enjoy listening to impure jokes? In same or mixed company?
- Did I dance in an impure manner? In same or mixed company?
- Did I touch myself in an impure manner?
This was the same interrogation presented by my earlier “children’s” Missal. However, a new
bullet point suddenly garnered my attention:
- Did I use artificial birth control?
I don’t know, did I?
That night the presence of Maureen and Lenny emboldened me. If my parents didn’t know, maybe they would provide me with answers.
“What’s artificial birth control?” I suddenly appeared in the kitchen, jumping straight to my scandalous question without even prepping my audience, who gazed at me over the tops of their playing cards, dumbstruck. Years later I’d hearken this moment to the scene from The Exorcist when little Reagan comes downstairs—ostensibly to say hello to her parents’ guests, but instead pees on the carpet.
“Where’d you hear that?” my mother asked accusingly.
I handed her the Missal, which she shared with her guests. Mom was relieved that I was introduced to this concept through Catholicism and not some filthy back alley story and within seconds everyone returned to their card game, ignoring me. I’d have to pee on the carpet if I wanted to regain their attention.
Days later, however, when my mother was out Christmas shopping, my Dad asked me, reproachfully, if I had finished my homework. He was sitting in a flannel shirt and long underwear at the kitchen table, nursing a Manhattan, and pissed at my mother who— although she had left him pork chops in the fridge—was still out spending “a shitload” of his “hard earned money” at nine o’clock at night.
“Yeah, it’s finished,” I said, hoping I could sneak away before he made me listen to a litany of drunken complaints.
I knew—at least I thought I knew—what was coming. He would use his squeaky, ear-piercing voice that supposedly mimicked my mother but sounded like a drag queen Donald Duck: “I have to buy Christmas gifts for all my friends and all the neighbors . . .”
But surprisingly he didn’t bitch about my mother—at least not about her spending habits. He lit a cigarette to hold me in suspense, then blurted out, “You wanted to know about artificial birth control.”
I thought I did.
“Your mother and I…”
When my father talked to me, there was no real conversation, especially when he was plastered. He asked no questions and expected nothing but a rapt audience. He’d leave long pauses between sentences to take drags off his Newport, between clauses to relish his drink, and between words and even syllables to burp, sigh, or collect his tipsy thoughts.
“…use rubbers …”
Huh? Was he telling me they use artificial birth control? Isn’t that a sin? Was my mother going to hell?
“… also called condoms. Now, a rubber is something that a man puts on his…” He mixed his Manhattan with his finger; the ice made a clinking noise.
I was stupefied with embarrassment. I mean, here was my father talking to me about his penis like it was no big deal.
“Now the rubber, see, keeps the sperm that comes out of the man’s penis from getting into the vagina so it doesn’t swim up there into the uterus and fertilize the woman’s egg.”
Fertilize?! This should have been a pure “eureka!” moment for me, but I was too mortified to appreciate the fact that I had finally solved the mystery. Forty years before “too much information” became a catch-phrase, Dad was its king.
I learned that my conception resulted from naivety and bad planning; my little brother’s, drunken horniness and closed drugstores. I also learned that Dad didn’t like rubbers because they cut back on sensation, and that Maureen and Lenny used diaphragms, a “barrier device” that a woman “stuck up there.”
“But your mother says . . .”— he switched to his drag-queen Donald voice—“’I don’t like diaphragms.’” His statement caused him to muse deeply. The ash on his cigarette grew so long it threatened to fall on the tablecloth. Then he muttered, “I think she’s frigid.”
Suddenly, Clara’s oddly shaped posterior was tiny compared to the burden of knowledge I carried.
My parents had a “finished basement,” our Chicago neighborhood’s status symbol, equivalent to the suburbanite’s “rec room.” Here my father installed a bar and built several shallow rooms along three walls: two clothes closets, a furnace room, a laundry room, a junk room, a tool room and even a Cold War “can room” to store provisions for the impending nuclear holocaust. The leftover space was for recreation: a party room.
My father covered its concrete floor with wild stripes of 9-inch tiles that came into his possession very inexpensively. (Dad worked in construction; Mom often accused him of getting “cheap shit” either “hot” or “through friends” instead of “from Sears like normal people.”) Dad laid a long, wall-to-wall row of salmon pink tile with metallic gold flecks, then next to it, a row of phony wood-grain tile, and next to that a row of faux grey-green marble—and continued on in this fashion until our floor was striped with over a dozen different clashing patterns. Dad’s friends ribbed him and called him a cheap Polack, but my and Georgie’s friends thought our “psychedelic” floor tile was cool.
Dad bought a used refrigerator and installed a working sink behind the bar, but his biggest source of pride were a hundred or so miniature airlines liquor bottles he got “through a friend.” Mom’s pride was her decorating skills: She turned the basement support beams into palm trees with crepe paper bark and plastic leaves, and hung fisherman’s nets and seashells over the bar to complete her tropical theme.
A party room this glorious needed a party, and when I was 14, it finally got one. In preparation, Dad stocked up on big-boy bottles of various alcohol—the airline bottles displayed behind the bar were for decoration only—and mom went into a cleaning frenzy.
At 35 my mother was no longer svelte, but still had her hourglass figure, albeit a bigger hourglass. She may have eschewed the skin-tight tops of her youth, but she still championed cleavage-baring necklines. Mom’s youthful looks and playful personality attracted men who flirted with her and women who sought to befriend her. It seemed that only the most humorless tight-asses—and my father—ever expressed annoyance at her eccentricities.
Speaking of tight-asses, my parents’ invite list for this party was shockingly bereft of any. None of the neighbors on either side of us were invited, nor were any of Dad’s much older siblings. Dad called it a “work party,” as he invited most of the folks from his job; however, the greater number of guests were my parents’ friends from the halcyon days of their youth. Some I knew well, like Maureen and Lenny; others I’d never met yet were legendary, like Artie.
“Artie’s coming and he’s still single!" Mom told me breathlessly. “He was the one, remember, who had a thing for me. He said if I ever divorced your father, he’d be waiting.”
I couldn’t understand why she expected me to share her excitement, or why she was thrilled in the first place. She had no intention of divorcing my father, and no serious interest in “fooling around on the side.” Mom always let it be known that she was “not that kind” and a virgin when she married. Boys had called her a “prick tease” and her answer to them was “so what?” She seemed equally proud of her ability to incite impure thoughts as her unwillingness to bring them to fruition.
After all, she was frigid.
But apparently that didn’t stop her from also mentioning that Dad’s bachelor workmate Frankie was also coming to the party, and that he looked like a cross between James Mason and Montgomery Clift. “You can tell me if you think he’s good-looking too,” she said, as if we were both giggly fourteen-year-olds.
Meanwhile, Dad was equally thrilled that the “colored guy” at work had accepted his invitation. “Wonder what the neighbors think when they see Milton and his wife come to our door. Ha!” Ironically my father felt no solidarity with the civil rights movement and would later vote for segregationist George Wallace in the 1968 presidential election. He just liked the idea of sticking it to the neighbors.
Dad stood behind the bar, in his Jackie Gleason as Joe the Bartender mode, mixing highballs and Manhattans for the men, and dessert drinks blended with crushed ice for the ladies: screaming banshees, white Russians, grasshoppers, and pink Cadillacs. Dad may have been an alcoholic, but tonight he wasn’t a nasty drunk who fell asleep at the kitchen table, his face in a bowl of spaghetti. Tonight he was immersed in the niceties of cocktail culture: cherries and lime wedges and little umbrellas and cocktail napkins with racy cartoons.
Mom never drank, but that night she sucked down a screaming banshee and invited me to take a couple sips of creamy chocolate-banana wonderment. Then she asked me to change into my bell-bottomed leopard jumpsuit, which was supposed to be only for lounging around the house. Coincidentally, that night both my mother and her friend Dorothy wore low-necked, belted, wide-legged jumpsuits that accentuated their ample breasts while diminishing their prominent hips. So at 14, I momentarily became the youngest of the jumpsuit triplets, posing with Mom and Dorothy for my first cheesecake photo: sucking in my tiny gut, jutting out my tiny breasts—foam falsies, actually, that my mother encouraged me to wear. Snap! As Dad changed the flashbulb, and bright haloes of light flitted before my eyes, I noticed Frankie, the only handsome man at the party, with his chiseled features and five o’clock shadow. Unlike the other men who dressed like the ‘60s never happened—including Artie— Frankie wore a black turtleneck sweater that made him look like a beatnik, and he was staring at Dorothy, my mother, or maybe even me. Snap!
Later I also managed to weasel a taste of a minty grasshopper from Dad, who was eager to show off his drink-blending skills, but then Georgie was at my heels demanding his share.
“You’re not old enough,” said Dad.
“Neither is she.”
“Ya gotta point,” Dad told Georgie, and just like that, I was cut off.
Then Dad said to me, “Make yourself useful,” alluding to the nickname he had dubbed me, “Useless.” He continued: “In the bedroom, in my top dresser drawer, is that little silver book—you know what I’m talking about—bring it down.” The book was titled Female Sexual Behavior and supposedly was written by Alfred Linsey.
I brought the book downstairs and Dad immediately shoved it at Milton’s wife. Perhaps he felt that as the only “colored” woman at the party, she’d be honored to be chosen as the butt of a practical joke.
Go ahead, open it,” he said. But she saw the title and demurely said “no thanks.”
“It’s not what you think,” said Maureen, who I now knew used diaphragms.
“Then you open it!” said Milton’s wife.
“I’ve already seen it!” said Maureen, and of course, as a regular guest at our home she had. Everyone Dad knew had seen the “book,” actually an empty shell holding a nine volt battery and a primitive electrocution device, designed to jolt the curious who ventured a peek inside. Mom shrieked and laughed hysterically the first time she opened the book, and Dad felt it appropriate to let Georgie and me lift the cover and get electrocuted, too.
Tonight Dad needed fresh blood. He surveyed the room and saw Dorothy.
“Dottie, come over here!” he commanded.
It was time to go upstairs. The men were getting loud and obnoxious, all except for Frankie, who silently brooded. But he was too old for me, and I was too young for anyone, even though Channel Nine ran the movie Lolita late at night and Susan Lyons was only supposed to be fourteen, like me, but she looked older and probably had real breasts, not foam ones.
Upstairs was where the adults had to use the bathroom, because according to my mother, “your father’s too cheap to put a bathroom downstairs.” Georgie and I sat at the kitchen table, watching TV and playing Monopoly. The basement stairs led directly into our kitchen, and we were constantly interrupted by a parade of alcohol-loosened adults and their ridiculous questions: Where’s the bathrooms? Which one’s the ladies? Where did your mother put all the coats? People are getting too tanked up down there—they need food--when’s somebody gonna order the pizzas? This last question was the dumbest one to ask two hungry kids, but fortunately Mom came bounding up the stairs a few moments later.
She picked up the kitchen phone and ordered one pizza with sausage, onion, and green pepper (my favorite), some oddball mix of pepperoni and olives and ham that had never entered our home before, and a couple with just cheese. Then she went into her needless story-telling mode, telling the guy on the phone, “We’re in the middle of a big party, and it’s really noisy, so could the driver ring a couple times just in case nobody hears, and could he possibly rush the pizza because the guys are starting to get inebriated…”
Like always, Georgie cheated at Monopoly, stealing extra money from the bank whenever he passed “Go” or my back was turned. Finding no joy in playing a crooked marathon, and knowing Georgie would whine and fuss if I quit the game, I purposely allowed him to win—even miscounting my moves around the board so I’d land on his high rent properties. After eating a couple pieces of cheese pizza, I was ready to go to bed.
At age fourteen, I no longer read my Missal at night. The Beatles were my new gods, the Monkees, Herman’s Hermits, and Paul Revere and the Raiders my new saints, and each night the transistor radio beneath my pillow lulled me to sleep. But tonight sleep was impossible. I was wired on caffeinated cola and pizza, and the raucous adults below me with their tropical lounge music were drowning out my rock and roll bliss. Worse, my radio’s volume was waning—a sure sign that I needed a new battery.
I heard my mother come upstairs into the kitchen, laughing. I was going to bug her for a fresh battery when a man’s voice joined hers. Because I didn’t want any of the men seeing me in my dorky flannel nightgown, I quickly changed into my jeans and T-shirt. As I did, I heard them come down the hallway and turn the corner into the living room. I figured Mom was walking someone to the front door, saying goodbye—probably a couple. I opened my bedroom door and turned into the darkened living room. Mom was saying goodbye all right—to Frankie. They were standing too close when suddenly Frankie pulled her in and kissed her. This wasn’t a pursed lip peck; this was a tilted head movie kiss that lasted a few seconds, right in the middle of our living room. He grabbed her hand and led her past the tropical houseplants and cage of nine assorted finches to the front door, where a tiny atrium blocked my view; I moved a bit closer—not too close, just enough to see Frankie lean my mother against the wall and kiss her again—pressing his body against hers. I felt energized, excited, but in an unfamiliar way that disturbed me, like I was watching a movie that refused to telegraph its ending. Anything could happen. They stumbled out the door toward Frankie’s car—would they drive off together?—and he kissed her a final time, a shorter kiss, in deference to their public setting—neighbors could be peeking through curtains. Then Frankie got into his car and sped off.
Mom floated back toward the front door, yards of polyester swishing in the moonlight, yards of polyester carrying her up the stairs and I, like a fool, stood there behind the birdcage, strangely grounded to that spot. I woke up the strawberry finches that had been sleeping on their perches, and the cordon bleu who rested in his wicker nest; they began to flutter, just like my mother fluttered when she walked through the door and saw me.
She giggled—not her usual “hih-hih-hih” giggle but a wilder, liberated devil-may-care chuckle as if nothing in the world mattered.
“No more banshees!” she said.
If only she hadn’t married George, if only her head wasn’t in the clouds, clouded by love, clouded by dreams of white tulle gowns and white sand beaches. The war was over and there was enough sugar and nylons for everyone. But sweets and a house and a husband and babies-- was that really enough? It was only a kiss. Her daughter could prove it. He tried to fondle her derriere but she swiveled her hips and he kissed her again but it was only a kiss. He gave her his number but she’d never call. Even thinking about calling frightened her to the core. But she thought about that kiss—those kisses—again and again. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stared at her face in the mirror, at her smeared pink lipstick. She thought about washing up, but didn’t.