Bob Penny, voted Most Self-Absorbed Hunk by a committee of me, said, I am in my big-boob period, as he pretended to swoon over Lisa Belia. I took his remark to be of the making-me-jealous variety. I didn’t even have to pretend to ignore it, because I was in love with you.
I was a Standard Beauty, well-groomed, Lord and Taylor-clothed by Mom, tastefully aloof with a hint of surly intellect, and a little on the cold side. Bob Penny was trying to “de-ice” me, one of those male fuck challenges, my name bruited about during foulmouthed towel-snapping sessions. In their eyes, I was the lank beauty: great legs and ass, but low on breast power. Lisa had the boobs. Now was her time. I was the wife in training, the durable, adorable future homemaker.
You, too, I feared, were in a big-boob period; whenever Lisa raised her hand, you went into a ruminative stutter and immediately called on her so that she could issue one of her stale, hand-me-down radical speeches, learned at the knee of her dropout revolutionary sister or hippie aunt or whoever this anachronism was who was the source of her dialectic. She was not the high-powered brain you made her out to be, I thought. Yes, Lisa, you said, calling on her, and we all had to listen to Ms. On-Her-Way-To-Total-Fat. In the hallway after class, Bob Penny said (within my hearing, of course) that Lisa would be some man’s last great fuck. All who followed would pale compared to her. Beware, Mrs. Penny, whoever you will be.
You had the thin build of a poet. Sometimes you looked like a skimpy little boy, doomed to play naughty games with some thirteen-year-old golden girl. But I was in love with your frailness. Bob Penny was a Standard Hunk — my counterpart. I know, like you always said, I should give human beings more credit for their complications, but whenever I see a couple matched in beauty, they look serene and vacuous, as though they are somebody else’s idea of them.
You must have feasted on our adoration. I love Mr. Slattery’s creative-writing class, I would hear constantly. Such nuggets certainly couldn’t have escaped you, either. I hated these voices. And I hated your away-from-school life, somewhere without me, where you listened to more-sophisticated adoration from middle-aged versions of your school groupies. But I remained silent, handing in stories you deemed “well written,” with “good structure,” “interesting complications,” and so on — monotonous, dehydrated praise. I hid my tongue behind my teeth, sharpening it, I told myself, for the day I’d use it in class.
Bob Penny and I dated. He had some sort of car. Let’s say it was red, though I’m a bit Alzheimer’s on the specifics. He smelled of after-shave and beer, wore ass-hugging jeans, his blond hair carefully awry, muscular without being body-builder muscular, strong white teeth (we had the same dentist) — I am just putting down details here as you always instructed us to do.
One night, he tried to deflower me in his red car. He started by nibbling at my neck, apparently trying to do what he thought a man should do under the circumstances. I love your neck, he said in some sort of comic-sounding porno whisper, a gentle tone with a boyish glitch in it. There’s more to your neck than I thought, he went on. I was doing the appropriate passionate exhaling, as if to prove to him that all my physical equipment was in working order. I feared being deemed ignorant by him, even though I found him despicable in any situation outside of his car and his arms.
All of a sudden (at least, it seemed all of a sudden), I had Bob Penny by the penis. This reversed things entirely. Feeling weirdly professional, I massaged him, producing grateful whimpers, a sound I had never before heard from this hunk of pompousness. In the midst of our front-seat sexual initiation, I began developing a treatise on the sexual politics of dick rubbing. Thinking of all the power concentrated in my one hand, I gave his organ a humorously intended yank and felt released from a tiresome destiny of being chased after and fucked over. The yanks soon turned vicious.
Say uncle, I said, sounding playful but feeling ever more vengeful.
Uncle, uncle! he screamed as I pulled, not caring whether it came out of its socket. I was an SB, a Standard Beauty, only newly awakened, treatise-obsessed, an enemy of presumptuous hunkdom (though still dippy at the thought of you).
How does that feel? I asked Bob with mock-seductive murmurs, my firmness of hand and purpose not a mite diminished. He begged me to stop, all bravado and smugness gone now, leaving just quivering, mother-dependent boyishness: right where I’d thought I wanted him, only now I didn’t. I felt no triumph, just the dissatisfaction of having done something I should have done in the first place. What I really didn’t like was his newfound potential for being human.
Why you, anyhow? Was it the insouciance you maintained in the face of your celebrity? You weren’t handsome, weren’t cute. What you had was charm, a word we never used on ourselves. I suppose charm to us meant being older; it meant you knew something of the land beyond high school. I loved you, even though I knew it was a school tradition to fall in love with you: standard. You were unique and standard all at once, the one and only, yet dependable and familiar, Mr. Slattery, now and for all time. Was it boring always to be you, while we allegedly grew up and each became someone else?
As a result of the Bob Penny episode I attained the status of Cold Fish Weirdo. I don’t think Bob revealed any details at first, but he indicted me through the high art of innuendo, vulgar yet subtle, side-of-the-mouth wit for college-bound brutes. In this case he derided and ran, knowing I knew enough to expose him.
Until the incident, I had only been able to imagine Bob Penny having a penis, and I’d never done much imagining, surely not as much as others did. Was something wrong with me? I started to wonder. Why had I chosen such a malevolent use for it once it was in my hand? I’d had a real boy with a real prick, and here I was off stargazing at you. I looked at Bob Penny now and saw that he had big biceps and shoulders and an expressive, sensual mouth from which sentences full of stirring sexual cynicism flowed for the benefit of adulating girls, peers, classmates. He was my natural match. I could see us smiling like a commercial, people disguised as products. But you and I, what could that ever be?
Yanking Bob Penny’s dick, I told myself, was a means of not becoming his triumph, the subject of salacious rumor. Or becoming pregnant. Or becoming Mrs. Penny. Yank, yank, yank: the harder I pulled, the softer it got. But now he had to get his hard-on back. From Cold Fish Weirdo I was demoted further to Lesbo Mutant, Dyke City. Bob Penny, his pride (and his dick) smarting, threw me to the gossip mongers: my tearful car confession, how his hetero body had craved me, how he’d gone sick on this monstrous revelation. What a waste, all those potential fucks unrealized.
And now that I’d had Bob Penny’s actual organ in my actual hand, I hated to think of your actual one, having heard that they get veinier with age. My adventures in the imagined land of us-sex had never included the real pungent stench of the act, dribbles of spittle and hot moans, gummy liquids dripping from us. I hadn’t imagined entry, the bloody passage. When I rubbed my fuzz and did the self-dirty, it wasn’t you in my fantasies. When a cock popped up in my mind to vivify my autoerotic romps, it wasn’t yours. I wanted you to have an ethereal dong of a type unknown to humankind. I loved you, but veneration and sex didn’t mix.
When talk got back to me that I was considered lesbian material, my brain went haywire. Sex got to where it wasn’t sex but a single obsessive question: Am I? I had often thought it would be easier with a girl: cockless, bloodless, and painless, just a gentle meshing; no entering the strange land of men, where you ran the risk of getting flung down and split in half. I started to think of girls as potential sexual partners — I did. Could I make it with a girl? I tried floating both boy and girl body parts through my head to see which got me hotter, but it didn’t work.
I had once been a Standard Beauty, a loner, smart-mouthed and mysterious, but now they’d unraveled me, decoded my enigma. Oh, that’s it, their high-school brains said to them. That’s what she is; I thought so.
Bob Penny, he who had wrought all of this, wore a distant smirk on his face, and Heidi Fletcher, airhead sex queen, on his arm, a deliberately unsubtle statement: Here is what I was not. You continued to flatter Lisa Belia, your mouth shifting lustily from side to side as you ate up her banal, histrionic diatribes against the dominant male culture. It took all I had, under the circumstances, to maintain my grace under such pressure. I felt I inhabited a new body and didn’t know quite how to sit in it. I had lost something more crucial than virginity — which would have left in its place a familiar, man-centered view of the future. Instead, I was confused, airy, squirmy, unknown to myself. I wasn’t a lesbian, but I didn’t feel like a clearly defined SB anymore, either, even though I struggled to comport myself as one.
Of course, in the solid, reasoning part of my brain, I knew I wasn’t what everybody said I was. I had my moments of perplexing duality, but I coped. This was one of those overcrowded, white, middle-class high schools with all kinds of cliques and social groups, plenty of which didn’t know me or have any interest in rumors about me. I took solace in their ignorance and indifference as they rushed off to class with their eyes on only what was in front of them. I gravitated toward areas of stairwells and corridors where I knew I’d be ignored. To put it poetically, I sought to dwell in precincts of oblivion.
When not in school, I took long walks, stayed in my room, and delved into homework in needless depth. You seem to be alone so much lately, my mother said, her lips pursed, fearing she had a stay-at-home nerd on her hands. She was, I now know, a disappointed woman, victim of an early failure in love, a tragedy that eventually cast my father in paler colors as time heaped up the romantic imaginings of a life not lived. Still, she was a conventional woman who feared some fatal form of oddballism in me — too much intellect, perhaps — and saw before her the ruinous possibility of a mateless life of the mind. Here I was, full of the promise of a good marriage to a wealthy husband, and instead I was heading down the road to academic impecuniousness, ending in an urban apartment without a man.
I wanted to engage you in a private discussion, if you could have spared a moment away from your role as everybody’s favorite human being. I wanted to tell you:
I have this problem. I am this evolving creature. I don’t know what I am. You know, the teen angst thing. You have us write about it all the time: write what you know and discover what you actually know, that’s what you tell us. I don’t know what I know anymore. Have you heard the latest about me? Of course you have; you get the gossip. Why do you make us keep diaries and then hand them in? What’s that all about? Is there a voyeur inside you? I can see you reading these things, these supposed self-revelations, and yawning comically, as you do in class over some cliché, with a look like, Here we go again.
Bob Penny was on his way to college, the best in the state. Everybody knew that. He was touching all the essential bases: athletic, musical, intellectual, social. He took creative writing only because all the top 5 percent took it. You have to take Mr. S.’s class, they said. He despised you, I know for a fact, but he kissed your ass and sang your praises in public. Mr. S. is the greatest, he’d say, with unoriginal gusto, but to him you were a mere teacher, strutting and fretting foolishly to help him pass his time in high school. When you read Bob’s work to the class, the reaction was approval, wordless and tepid. So you pointed out some merit in his piece that we, possessed of mere high-school minds, could not perceive. Then you elicited reluctant comments from us: Bob’s work had precise sentences, good structure, substance.
You took me by surprise when you asked me about Bob’s story. I was sitting there in my usual SB camouflage, the enigma that was me, while underneath, all my nerves were jangling and my heart fluttering; I was on the spot.
Not much to it that you wouldn’t expect, I managed acrimoniously.
You seemed mildly perplexed, then got that mischievous, lovable Mr. S. smile on your face. I’m not so sure, you said, holding a finger to your chin and leaving your incomplete thought to dissolve in the air, while all eyes in the room focused on me, SB, she of dubious sexuality, awaiting my critique and explication.
It’s an exercise in emptiness, I said. (Or now wish I had, as I move my present pen across a present sheet of yellow legal paper, permitting myself everything: inaccuracies, revenge, slips of the pen, wishful thinking — why not?)
You nodded and looked down at the (I’m certain) flawlessly typewritten work of Bob Penny. I don’t know if I’d say that, you said.
Then what would you say?
I was feeling bold, playing the role of defiant student. I was giving Bob Penny a repeat dick pull, while you pretended to try to save him. You were putting on your helpless act, as though you’d entered the field of teaching five minutes ago. It was a heady moment.
Suddenly, you asked: Lisa, what do you think?
I agree, she said. It’s careful and well written — and nothing. It sucks.
I looked at her and she smiled back. You blinked, held on to the sides of the typewritten pages like a person trying to remain standing during a dizzy spell. But it was an act. You’d known the answer Lisa would give. It was really your answer, but it was better placed in her mouth, because you had your part to play, tentative and searching, wearing a mask of courtesy and humor. I think you hated the life Bob Penny was headed for, his future as an arrogant moneymaking phony who despised the human race.
Those are hard words, you told Lisa and turned from her. She gave me a thumbs up. Were we now a team? Had I been recruited for the next revolution? Disguised as an SB, enveloped in the mysterious aura of a cold female, I might have my uses.
You were congenially dismissive, taking up another manuscript to read: something innocuously comical. You had a flair for pacing the acts.
He’s a phony, Lisa said to me after class. He’s a charmer, she mocked, her mouth wet with heresies.
Who do you think?
That’s obvious. Bob Penny doesn’t pretend not to be a phony. He makes a point of it. I’m talking about our beloved teacher —
— who you can’t stand, either. I can tell. He wants to fuck me. The trouble is I’m not a hole for some man’s waste material. Are you?
If my mother saw and heard Lisa Belia, she would say, There’s something short of feminine about that one. Right now, Lisa looked like a DA who’d just asked the killer question of the trial. I had to laugh, because I didn’t have an answer. I was a tall SB, in my expensive sweater and designer jeans, necklaced and braceleted, beside Lisa’s lusty, going-to-fat, bosomy raggedness.
Not for just anyone’s, certainly, I said.
Then for someone? Lisa’s voice rose an octave.
I didn’t answer.
Are you saving yourself for Mr. Wrong? she asked.
Otherwise known as Mr. Right. Only, if he’s a he it can only be wrong, right?
I tried to appear as enigmatic as I could. Not a quiver of response. Queen of the Cold Country.
In the ideal world, Lisa recited from her stock of revolutionary wisdom, there are only females.
What about reproduction? I asked.
I said the ideal world, she retorted. Obviously, we can’t do without them for the human race to survive. But I can do without them, personally. Haven’t you found the same thing?
She seemed to be making some sort of an assumption that I was more than just another oppressed sister. Was this a lesbian proposition? My mind raced. Did these people ask each other to the prom? What did they do when it came to sex? We stood rather far apart from each other, two classmates discussing a test.
When we departed I felt a sense of profound regret, and in some way swindled. Something of me had been taken. I had failed to disavow what she had assumed. What am I? I asked myself, teetering between confusion and laughter. No wonder my mother had chosen to be who she was. It had to be easier than this.
When I next spoke to Lisa, she drew physically closer. I got a close-up view of her distended nostrils, flaring operatically with male-hate. She breathed heavily as she spoke of a worldwide women’s revolution. In class I began to feel her brown eyes on me, her conspiratorial glances. Was I, the rumored lezzie, her underground cohort? I wasn’t anything, it occurred to me. Nobody knew the simpering, mushy sentiments I held for you, as you went on being deceived by the Boob Queen, to all appearances a Standard Hippie Slut.
Dear Asshole [I wrote to Bob Penny],
Wake up. Lisa, the woman of your dreams, is an undercover lesbian whose scheme for world peace is to deball all men, starting with you, stupid.
What is this supposed to mean? Bob Penny asked, confronting me. You’re the lesbian, he said. He had lost his treasured cool and was showing his naked teenage emotions.
Why, I don’t know what you-all mean, I said, doing my very bad Scarlett O’Hara.
I don’t like this shit. Even for you it’s stupid.
Why so mad? I asked.
You’re a slut.
Are you upgrading me? Or is it that you don’t want to be caught having yearned for two dykes?
Who can explain attraction? you asked the ceiling a day later, in class. You were teaching one of the masters, the usual white male whom most of us could never be (though you told us aspiring is everything). And here you paused and became lost in reverie, inducing speculation about some yearned-for woman in your mysterious past. When you snapped out of this you gave us that smile, as always, to let us know it was just a joke contrived to make us see the folly of our high-school overseriousness.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t rid myself of Lisa’s perpetually catching my eye and trying to hook me into some sort of admission.
I approached her after class. Her eyes came alive as she focused her attention on me, as if expecting some amorous declaration.
I spoke to Bob Penny, I said.
Jerk, she said without blinking.
I told him off. I told him to get out of my life. (I was reduced to docile reportage, as though she had me entranced.)
He’s a pig, she said. They all are, more or less, including Mr. S. He may sound all thoughtful and supportive, but he’s really a subjugator, a promiscuous fucker and woman hater.
These denunciations never seemed to be coming from her, but rather through her. She always spoke in a tone of anger that didn’t really sound angry. The other students just elbowed past her as though she were some eccentric character they were accustomed to seeing. She continued her pat rendition of the history of women’s struggle to survive in a male-dominated world, citing statistics on women abused, women abandoned, women murdered, women underpaid, slaves of home and workplace and bed. She looked wild and unstoppable, speaking with the fiery assurance of a fanatic. All the while, I was trying to prevent my head from nodding assent, trying to keep my brain from clotting around her narrow viewpoint. I have my own mind, I have my own mind, I was thinking when she took me by the shoulders and kissed me on the lips.
My reaction? I looked around, caught a few furtive glances, saw amused shock on the faces of several spectators. I remembered her theory that revolution is theater. Then I lowered my gaze to my puny, ineffective school flats, unable to carry me away at the speed I desired. I smell like her now, I thought, still unwilling to face that crazy conqueror’s look I knew was on her face. My clothes would have her odor of too much sweat, my breath her deliberately cultivated halitosis. Why did revolutionaries have to have lousy clothes and bad breath? All at once, those confused and questing-for-myself thoughts were suddenly dispelled, and I realized that I’d been steering a wrong course.
Keep your fucking mouth off my mouth, I said loud enough for our gathering audience to hear, drawing on the strength of crudeness and bad syntax. I wiped my lips in exaggerated disgust, and made my furious way through the parting waters of my shocked, thrilled, and amused fellow students. I think she said something as I stalked off, but I just kept going.
In the midst of drama, you’d tell us, keep the narrator’s eye on the solid, but I wasn’t noticing much about my surroundings just then. I couldn’t stop seeing her and the assured way she took hold of my body and pressed her parched, lipstickless lips on my Revlon-coated ones. I didn’t think one second about her vaunted boobs, though. I must be a boy’s girl, I thought, as I fled the school and wandered up and down the suburban streets.
And I thought of you. I thought of how weak you were (dominant male, my ass) compared to Lisa, or to the predatory airheads, or even to the wan, screwball poetic types who worshiped you, wanted to ravish you, capture you. You were too contemplative and poetic for the high-school sexual rat race, much less the more destructive one I was sure dominated the world beyond high school. I felt a true and overwhelming love for you, no schoolgirl’s crush. I would save you from drowning in popularity, care for the you beyond the classroom. I felt clearly defined at last. I knew, as they say, who I was. It was, for me, an epiphany, although I know you scoff at such.
I went to find you. I had cut all my afternoon classes, and the building was empty now of noisy students, leaving just the metallic echoes and far-off footsteps, vast and hollow and postnuclear. You were still there in your cubicle in the English office, marking papers, as I knew you would be. I remembered what you always said: I prefer marking institutional papers at the institution; it’s your purgatory to write them, and mine to mark them.
Before I approached, you looked irritated, a bit gray in the face. You were sighing and frowning and marking, tired from having to be you all day and now having to do this. It must have taken great patience and restraint never to burst the illusion of being you. I tapped on your cubicle partition.
Oh, hi, you said, not quite in classroom form, showing equal parts surprise and annoyance. Anything on your mind? You sat back and folded your hands, awaiting another earthshaking teenage crisis. I felt a bit foolish for being there.
No, I said. Not really. You’ve probably heard all about it. I can’t really express it in words.
You never really can, you said. It’s like having the perfect story in your head; when you set about writing it, it becomes a pale impersonator of your dreams. (You seemed to be back in classroom mode, and it made me feel safely depersonalized for a moment.) I hear you set a personal best for cutting classes this afternoon.
Yes, I said, and laughed. I was kissed by a female.
It just came out.
Now you know what it feels like, you said. Growing up, I always used to see girls hugging and dancing together. I marveled at how comfortable they were with each other. I was mixed up and afraid of girls and totally uncomfortable in the company of boys.
I’m not at all comfortable with girls, I said. Or boys.
We talked for a while. It was easy to talk to you. You were both in your classroom role and not in it. You seemed to know exactly when to step back and forth. There were moments when we just looked at each other and you seemed on the verge of saying something important. But then you’d say something funny in Mr. S. mode, as if you had to keep holding up the about-to-fall walls of your real self. Just like me.
What’s the rest of my life going to be like? I suddenly asked with a laugh.
Big question, you said. The answer is it’ll only be something if you keep on going. Do you want to go on?
I hated your playful smile. I knew how young I sounded. Here I was asking for some adolescent absolute, and you were going wise on me. I’m just a stupid little schoolgirl, I said.
Who isn’t? you said, looking at your watch. It’s late; I have to go.
I didn’t like how our conversation ended. I wanted it to end more like a movie, with close-ups and tears. It was a good conversation with a nonending. After that, I saw what a typical girl-fool I must have seemed to you, nothing special, another screwed-up loser in the game of high school, fading from your mind already, as you dreamed of vacation and dreaded the endless repetition, all those sad teenage stories endlessly repeated.
There was talk about me, but I went about duly coiffed and fashionable and angry, a forbidding combination: a beautiful ball-breaker, a bitch with brains. I wanted to get out of high school as soon as I could.
I must tell you, though: that afternoon in your cubicle was one of the better conversations of my life. But then, as you would probably say, what does that say?