The Queen of Hearts
Shetland sweaters were a must, but they were expensive, especially at Steve and Anna’s, the select little shop in Westhampton where St. Catherine’s girls bought their clothes. My mother rummaged in an attic trunk and found a sweater, dusky rose in color, with the large yarn look of a Shetland, and she gave it to me. She had worn it in college, she said proudly, and since I was tall, it just might fit me. Wearing it and my fashionable new shoes—clunky boats of brilliant white leather with saddles of brown and broad white laces—I made my way toward my assigned desk in the Middle School’s study hall, avoiding the ring-binder notebooks that edged into the narrow aisle as a few intent girls finished their homework assignments. Study Hall was silent at all times, except for morning announcements and morning chapel. I could hear the scrape of pencils, the dull friction of erasers.
The seventh graders sat one behind another in long rows that abutted matching rows of eighth graders. My desk was next to eighth grader Armistead Merriweather, to whom I had never spoken because I only saw her in Study Hall. Armistead was as exotic to me as a movie star. Her skin looked velvety, tawny. Hers were the largest, most liquid brown eyes I had ever seen. She had fingernails—polished—and a little gold ring. Her clothes came from Steve and Anna’s. Our teachers counted on their authority to keep the silence in study hall, but it also helped that to a seventh grader, most eighth graders appeared to be unapproachably mature and experienced. I wouldn’t have dared begun a conversation with an eighth grader. When I looked at my seventh grade classmates, I saw the bodies of girls still coltish and unsure. The eighth graders wore their sweaters and skirts with grace and style. Lipstick wasn’t allowed at school, but we knew that many older girls had a tube of lipstick hidden away in their pencil cases. Hair combed and lipstick ready for a quick swipe once they were released onto Grove Avenue at three o’clock, the eighth graders gathered at Doc White’s pharmacy on the corner of Grove and Maple, to talk with the boys from St. Christopher’s. If a boy had a crush on you, he was “snowed.” From the bus stop on the opposite corner, I watched the crowd at Doc White’s, and like most of my friends, I was gawky, tongue-tied, and envious.
In field hockey, an eighth grader’s body followed Miss Fleet’s instructions with apparently flawless ease. I stumbled over my stick, failing to send the ball with a confident crack to its destination in the field. How did they do it—Kitty Anderson, Marty Davenport, Lucy Day, Isabel Rawlings? In their short yellow uniforms with bloomers, they couldn’t have looked more comical, and yet, given their skill, they managed to give off a gritty allure. Studying them from a distance, I imagined my own body into existence, burgeoning toward a maturity that wouldn’t have to think about itself. Eighth grade was the future close at hand, beheld but not grasped.
With a swift, side-long glance I studied Armistead Merriweather. She was perfect.
Perfect, but not a top student or a top athlete. Perfect, but with a most peculiar manner during morning prayers, the time I had my best look at her. During chapel at our desks, I couldn’t take my eyes off Armistead, even though my head was bowed, and my mind supposedly focused on an omniscient and omnipotent God with the same concentration I gave to ungovernable fractions. Together, both grades prayed what we had memorized from The Book of Common Prayer, reciting by heart the required General Confession: Almighty and most Merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Thy holy laws.
As she spoke the words softly, Armistead’s head bent so low to her desk that her mouth met the wood. Her full, generous mouth opened slightly, seeming to kiss the desk, an open-mouthed kiss that skimmed the surface, not quite kissing, but what else was it? I heard small gasps of breath. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done. And we have done those things which we ought not to have done ; And there is no health in us. The desk was a dark mirror. I could almost see Armistead’s warm breath upon it. Was she kissing herself? An imagined boy? God? Now her mouth opened wider and her lips rested on the wood, murmuring Spare Thou those, O God, who confess their faults.
I held my breath as Armistead’s mouth married her faults to the study hall desk, her lips wet, her eyes closed, her soft hair fallen over her forehead—she was the carnal embodiment of the words we had recited in the call to prayer: O Lord, open Thou our lips. To which we had responded, And our mouth shall show forth Thy praise. Whether it was praise or plea, Douglas Noel—and all of us—concluded the confession: That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of Thy holy name, Amen. As we straightened in our chairs, Armistead looked at me and smiled, gathering her books, making ready to sprint out of study hall to class. Did she know I adored her? Spent from the labor of my attention to her praying, I smiled shyly back and ducked my head inside the slant-top desk to gather my notebook and pencils.
Miss Hood, our history teacher, was a fairy godmother in tweeds, her body a tidy little barrel on bird stilt legs. She wore lace-up shoes that seemed too large for her little body. She wouldn’t hurt a fly, if one judged from the sweetness of her face or, less charitably, from the wavering warble of her speaking voice. And yet there was a ferocity to occasional remarks and predictions. “If your parents think the Russians are bad,” she warned, tapping a map of the Middle East, “let them look to the desert. Here is where the future wars will be fought.” She lowered her voice an octave. “Oil,” she said, and the heating pipes in the old bungalow, one of the three original buildings, knocked and hissed.
Melissa Banning dutifully wrote down the word oil in her notebook. Cookie Lewis was still my best friend, but it seemed as if the classroom seating assignments in Middle School had been designed to part friends and scatter cliques. I saw Cookie only from across the room, rows of classmates between us. By chance or design I was placed next to Melissa Banning in History, Biology, and Math. I was getting used to showing my grades to her at her request when our papers were returned, and she occasionally phoned me at home. Among the first in our class to wear saddle shoes and pleated wool skirts, she seemed to know everyone and even had a friend among the eighth graders, Meade Davidson, for whom the study hall had risked Miss Thruston’s ire by breaking into applause when Meade emerged from the bathroom with a triumphant grin which every eighth grader and many in the seventh knew how to interpret. Slight and underdeveloped, Meade was the last in her class to menstruate. Everyone knew she was waiting for Mother Nature to bestow on her the physical maturity which most seventh graders had attained. Her waiting was a physical trial, each month another chapter in a series of suspenseful moments. Her triumphant grin could therefore mean one thing only: finally! Her friends applauded, then everyone else did, Miss Thruston sputtered, shook the wattles of her chin and grew red-faced. “Girls!” she cried. In her maiden outrage and Victorian body, she resembled a hen turkey. “Girls!” Meade, with her childish body and a sophistication of manner than was second nature to her, merely bowed, blew kisses, and smiled.
Melissa Banning, graceful only on the athletic field, was gangly and unformed. In the class room she twirled a bit of hair with one hand and took notes with the other. She bit the side of her cheek during tests and moved the leg crossed over her knee up and down like a manic wood saw. Often chosen as class captain of the Gold team in our Gold-White rivalries, this year Melissa had been elected president of our class.
“Be careful,” prim Kate Pinckney cautioned, as we rode home on the #15 bus. She had noticed Melissa’s attentions to me, but would say no more than those two words. “Ask Susan Abbot,” she finally offered, closing the conversation firmly. But Susan was not in any of my classes, she lived on Patterson Avenue—too far to visit after school—and she was close to being another one of the outsiders in the class, those mysteriously unpopular, disregarded girls like Patty Wells, Shirley Fairgrieve, invisible Mary Hogue, or Annie Coleman. I tried to figure it out. Was it that Shirley’s voice was too shrill, her body too scrawny? Was it that Annie always said the wrong thing and wrung her hands? Was it that Patty’s clothes were too small for her and Mary’s skin so freckled that she slunk into the shadows for camouflage? Their lack of popularity hung on them like a faint sour odor, untraceable but persistent. They were solitaries, belonging to no group, no clique.
I thought of the scatter of stars in the night sky, some clustered, some far flung and solitary. I thought of jack rocks—the jacks thrown up and spilled randomly on the floor. Some jacks fell into clusters, some skidded off alone, too remote from the others to be gathered in. Considering that I was a relative new-comer to this class at St. Catherine’s, I was grateful for my friendship with Cookie Lewis, and I protected it.
Was I going to the slumber party at Bear Island? Melissa wanted to know as we changed classes. Good, she replied, when I nodded. Bear Island was the country home of Cookie’s grandparents, the Parrish’s. Cookie and her cousin Kathy Parrish were hosting a sleep-over, and Cookie had invited, predictably, her neighbor Sally Everson and me. Kathy had invited Melissa, Page Fitzgerald, Mary Tyler, and Corbin White—popular girls chosen from the athletic, brainy clusters in the class. It was my first slumber party with a large group of girls, and I was excited and a little nervous, more accustomed to the intimate and nearly familial weekends at the Lewis’ house, our rituals of movies during the afternoon and card games at night, and when possible spying on Cookie’s older sister Barbara, home from Hollins Abroad. “Baa” was as forbidding and irascible as brother Kent was pliable and sweet.
Kent had to cross through Cookie’s bedroom to get to his own. Saturday nights, he would knock, wait, and knock again as Cookie and I leapt into bed, pulling the covers to our collarbones. As Kent, a tenth grader, crossed the room and entered the sanctum of his own room, my cheeks glowed hot, a heat that gradually reached what must have been my heart. Clearly, I was “snowed.” Snowed and terrified that Cookie would guess it. Had she known, our friendship might have altered, and I knew that rompish, shy, awkward Cookie needed me as much as I needed her, lest we both be loners to whom no one talked at lunch. The years would pass, I imagined, following the movie in my mind, and Kent would notice me. We’d marry, and Cookie would be my sister until death parted us.
I liked the expression “snowed.” It didn’t snow in Richmond often, but after gray skies and the rush of snow came winter’s clean bright air and a changed world. Snow was beautiful in the air, treacherous underfoot, and like any weather uncontrollable. You could neither summon it nor dismiss it if it came. When I said “snowed,” I could ignore the raw terror and reluctant pride I felt in having a maturing body which, one day, I’d promise to a man. One man only. “Snowed” deferred commitment. In the flurry and rising wind of the storm, “snowed” masked feelings, just as whenever other girls dared speak of sex, they used exaggerated tones of comic and tragic awe to mask what they might really be feeling.
This mixed awe lurked in Melissa Banning’s voice as she let me know that Corbin White had promised to bring to Bear Island the book her mother was reading. Lady Chatterly’s Lover, written by an Englishman. “Just wait until you read the passages that sizzle,” she said Corbin had warned, relishing her power to bring us the forbidden. Hadn’t I heard that D. H. Lawrence was as randy as he was common? I didn’t know what randy meant, and I didn’t ask. “He writes about intercourse,” Melissa said in an impressive whisper.
The deceptive prudery in her voice reminded me of my cousin Nancy Reid, come for a visit in summer from South Carolina, with her salacious tales of blood and barely averted public shame.
“And there I was—Margaret Leigh, there I was, in a convertible—the top down, sun pouring down on us, it was like sliding through town on butter, me in the front seat with this gorgeous bau-ee, this divine creature, and right then and there I could feel the blood. It’s stained through one Kotex already, it’s nearly through the second. He’s talking to me about foot-bawl and the weekend paw-tee—he wants me to wear his class ring on a ribbon around my neck! I can tell he’s snowed, he’s in a white-out blizzard, and all the while, here’s the blood coming! I’m flooding! It’s gone through my panties, through the first crinoline—I’ve got on five crinolines, but it’s no good, it’s through the next . . . and the next . . . ”
She’d been forced to run through her front door, because the blood was just at the last crinoline, brimming toward her skirt. “I just about died,” she assured me.
I nodded, but I couldn’t imagine Armistead Merriweather telling such a story. I couldn’t imagine anyone in St. Catherine’s Middle School telling it. As if reading my mind, Nancy Reid concluded. “Of course I couldn’t tell muh-ther. I only told my friends, the closest ones to me at the sleep-over. And only with all the lights turned off.”
“I wouldn’t know,” my mother replied when I asked her what was so awful about Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Why, no one she knew would read such a book! Airy and too easily dismissive, she forgot to ask me why I was asking. Perhaps she trusted me, or perhaps she had something to hide. And so it was with a little guilt that, on a hunch, I searched her dresser drawers the next afternoon as she walked down to Stanley’s Market, and I found the forbidden book. It was giving off heat in her slips and stockings. As I turned the pages, reading quickly, I listened for mother’s returning footsteps on the front porch. Lady Chatterly’s lover was the game-keeper of her estate, and he lived in a cottage, which she would visit. When they were naked, he touched the two openings between her legs and said, “And I don’t mind if ye shits or pisses. I like a woman who can shit and piss.” His ruff of pubic hair was red. I read as much as I dared and replaced the book in its hiding place. Then I made a resolve. I would tell her I’d found it, but I wouldn’t tell her I’d read any of it. We could both have our lurid little secrets.
“It’s not as terrible a book as they say,” she told me, after a pause.
“Now don’t you tell your friends your mother’s reading it!” she exclaimed shortly.
“That man, that man in the book, he really knows what a woman likes,” she mused. The smile on her face stunned me. It was tender, as if she had made the man in the book her lover just by reading the book. Mistaking my expression, she added, “Your father’s a little rough.”
She shouldn’t be telling me that, I thought, wishing I hadn’t tried to trip her up, catch her in a lie, shock her with my knowing her secret. She possessed, I realized, secrets I couldn’t hope to fathom, secrets that tipped into view in the quick lightning flash of words that gave me a glimpse of the woman my mother was, the man my father was. In that flickering light, I’d see but I wouldn’t know what I’d seen, and then it would be dark again. Telling me once about her wedding day, she described her dress, the church, Aunt T’s house made festive with greens and flowers, the box of baked sweets the cooks sent them off with, the smell of the ocean when she and Dad arrived at Virginia Beach. “We were so happy,” she said. Then, “And next morning on the boardwalk I could hardly walk, I was so sore.”
She shouldn’t be telling me that, I remembered thinking then, too Mom didn’t talk to my sister like this. Mom needed a friend, I realized—and I was it.
Becoming a woman appeared to be a process of repeated shocks and perplexities. I had existed until now in a lull. Until now I had floated in shallow waters. Now the tide was in, bringing with it a stiff undertow, and I was borne by currents I couldn’t anticipate or govern. My body had a mind of its own. I could obey Commandments, school regulations, my parents’ rules. I could obediently refrain from stealing, I could keep to schedules and codes, I could follow Proverbs and not call my sister a fool, I could say “Yes, Sir” when my father’s eyes darkened and he could no longer be teased by “Poor Daddy, all alone in a house with three women!” But I couldn’t ask my breasts to stop growing. I could tweeze the random hairs that sprouted between my eyebrows, but I couldn’t ask the month blood not to stain my bed sheets.
In the summer, I longed for the simplicity of earlier trips to Virginia Beach. In earlier years, I would run on the beach, shoot the waves with Dad, eat a full plate of Mom’s rare sirloin and new potatoes, rough house with Elizabeth and her black cocker spaniel who chased fiddler crabs into their sand holes on the beach. Now I worried that my Kotex showed in the crotch of my bathing suit. Take frequent showers, counseled the pamphlets on female hygiene, but Mom rationed water, Kotex, shampoo. Now at the beach we dressed up in the afternoons and attended “dances” with the famous Lester Lannin band. Invited to dance, or not, all the wall flowers and short boys joined in a daisy ring of follow-the-leader—the band called it the “bunny hop.” Dah de dah de dah dah, dah de dah. Dah de dah de dah dah. DAH DAH DAH. The rhythm pounded like surf as we kicked and hopped, holding on to each other’s waists. I worried that I smelled like rotting fish. Elizabeth and I refused temptations of salt water taffy and Coca Colas, spending our money on perfume, powder, bobby pins, and deodorant. Mom and Dad had rented a cottage on the cheap because it was owned by a family whose daughter Mom had taught in second grade. The next week we stayed for free at a cottage owned by Elizabeth’s friend Cabell’s unmarried aunt. “Divorced, I’ll bet,” grumbled Mom, looking around the cottage as if for a lurking gamekeeper.
On rainy afternoons, Elizabeth and I stayed in the spare bedroom and listened to the aunt’s records, Frank Sinatra singing “Autumn Leaves” and other songs of love and loss. Over and over we played them to drown out our laughter and chagrin as we read Cabell’s aunt’s love letters, which we’d found bundled and shoved behind the records. They had been written by a Navy man, a sailor. “I’m polishing my white shoes buck naked on my bunk. You should see me!” he had written. Our eyes widened to take him in, and we giggled.
“I think he’s a bit too coy,” Elizabeth suggested, and we exhausted ourselves in a fit of laughter, avoiding what we wouldn’t say.
Committed to being virgins, sworn to virtue until we gave ourselves to the “right” man, we couldn’t admit that already we touched ourselves in secret, tasting for ourselves a pleasure we weren’t supposed to know lay so near at hand. Until you were with a man, it didn’t count, it didn’t exist. Since you went away, the days grow longer. . . sang Sinatra, and the mournful longing in his voice would all but blot out the image of a suitor buck naked but for his own shoe polish, writing letters to the beloved he wanted with him in his bunk.
Thrown together on vacation, Elizabeth and I were without the refuge of separate friends, separate class rooms, separate bedrooms, and we fashioned an alliance of sorts. “I’m ashamed of my fat,” she confessed one afternoon as she tried to conceal her body from my view as we changed into our bathing suits. For once I didn’t respond with a fact or observation I’d been harboring to squelch her. I didn’t say, “Well, if you hadn’t gone and eaten the entire cake on the sly . . . .” She had eaten a cake. Just before we left for the beach cousin Sandra, for whose young children Elizabeth had been baby sitting, had called to tell Mom just that. I’d waited to hear Mom reprimand my sister, but instead she’d only confided her embarrassment to me. Perhaps Mom wanted peace. She had in April bribed Elizabeth with an early birthday present, saying “I’ll give it to you if you’ll only stop nagging me.” Now I said nothing to Elizabeth about the case of the disappearing cake. Instead, hearing my sister’s candid shame, I felt a thrill of sympathy, surprised to feel it, more surprised to be glad to.
“Mom stuffs us,” I agreed. Gone was my contempt for my sister’s choice of favorite foods—hot dogs, spaghetti, chicken drumsticks, milky way candy bars, chocolate covered cherries, butterscotch almond ice cream, baloney. Gone was my scorn for her plump thighs and calves, her double chin, the soft and pasty white skin of the bulge her belly made, the dimples in cream look to the flesh over her ribcage. We had a common goal—to be sleek as movie starlets. And we had a common enemy in our mother, who couldn’t help herself—or us—but urged on us fried chicken, mashed potatoes with pan gravy and butter, sausages, batter bread, black-eyed peas and stewed tomatoes with sugar; our mother, who in Richmond on summer nights several times a week would call out, “Daddy go and get your three girls double dip ice cream cones.” And she’d call out the flavors she wanted for each of us, the chocolate I found hard to resist, her own peaches and cream, and the butterscotch for Elizabeth.
Quietly Elizabeth and I began to help each other hide food, sneaking half of a sandwich beneath the table to the complicit cocker spaniel, wadding toast into a napkin or a pocket, stuffing fist-sized lumps under cushions or into dresser drawers, reminding each other to retrieve them and throw them out before the mayonnaise turned rancid and the bread blued. It was an uneasy alliance. Elizabeth mocked me with dramatic disgust when I’d wiggle a finger down my throat to make myself throw up. And I’d taunt her when she couldn’t resist gobbling half a box of salt water taffy or chocolates. But momentary slips and stings were ameliorated by our generally united front: we would be beautiful. Thin and svelte, who could resist us?
Returned to Richmond, Mom and Dad increased our weekly allowances so that we might save for clothes we wanted for school. I’d go to Steve and Anna’s to look, then take the bus downtown to Miller & Rhoades, buying whatever came closest to what was fashionable in the West End. With me once in Steve and Anna’s, Mom placed a mink cuffed collar, which could also double as a hat, onto my head, stood back, and gazed at me with admiration. It did look nice—but mink? The salesgirl, sensing a sale, closed in with flattery Mom could neither resist nor afford. So that she wouldn’t be embarrassed, I adopted a cool and distanced expression, a regal detachment close to boredom. I removed the little crown of mink and flipped it back on its shelf. No, I didn’t want it.
And really, where would I wear it? At the dinner table? At the dinner table, nightly the struggles with Mom over calories and serving sizes became a stubborn stand-off which Dad resolved by speaking with his mouth full in a curt voice to demand that we obey our mother. More back-talk, we’d be grounded. Sullenly I picked at my food, then gave up and gulped what I was compelled to eat, hid what I could.
I was, in fact, starving, and in school I ate hungrily. Or I took only one forlorn bite of the sandwich and one more of the apple as Melissa regarded me critically. When I said I was too fat, she shook her head and ate a competitively smaller bite of her own sandwich. If I said I was too thin, automatically repeating my mother’s pronouncements, she cast a furtive glance of amusement toward any nearby friend. Too thin! Her gaze settled below my collarbone seven inches. Suddenly I understood. No matter how thin I became, no matter how flat my belly, slim my hips, taut my buttocks, I had breasts. I had big breasts, my mother’s breasts: I would look just like her. A stout edifice with an expansive front porch.
At home I began to sequester more food, and now not simply to support the alliance I’d made with my sister. I was angry at my breasts and at my mother, the source of my inheritance, never mind that she once mournfully suggested that I should not only be grateful for the engineering of the modern bra, but grateful to have a mother who would buy the bras I needed. As a girl in the country she’d had no money for a bra, and as her breasts lengthened and spread, she had sewn handkerchiefs together to cover them, using ribbons to hoist them higher. Whereas I had earlier responded with sympathy as she described that not quite credible brassiere, now the story only made me angry. She knew what it felt like to be too big. She had felt a similar awkward shame. She too had walked into study hall with her head high and her shoulders tilted forward and ever so slightly rounded, hoping to conceal her breasts. Uncertainty she would have disguised as dignity as she entered a room with her notebook held before her like a heavy platter, her cheeks unbearably pink. Mrs. Lewis helped Cookie count calories; Mrs. Banning split a turkey sandwich between Melissa and me and gave Melissa, who was dieting, the “smaller half.” Why couldn’t Mom help me? Why couldn’t she see me?
In order to see myself, I locked myself into my sister’s bathroom and took off all my clothes. Hers was the only interior door in the house that locked. I stood on my toes to see more of me in the small, high mirror. I preened. I struck a pose. I touched myself here and there and down there. I closed my eyes and imagined a man who would see me. That’s all I could manage to say: a man. I had no boy friend, no one specifically in mind. Outside the bathroom window, a spring robin bumped and pecked at the window glass, pecked and fluttered, flew away, flew back, fluttered and pecked rapidly, madly, repeating the nonsense over and over, seeing himself as a rival male, or as his own mate, I couldn’t tell. I laughed at the robin. Silly bird that couldn’t see itself.
Before Cotillions in the winter, I’d sit at the vanity table Mom had bought for Elizabeth’s room. She had starched the frilly white skirt, rubbed the glass top to a shine that squeaked. Every Southern young lady should have one, she said. Dressed up and wearing the only shade of lipstick Mom allowed—“powder pink”—I studied my face to see what others saw when they looked at me. The lowered lights in the room made the lipstick appear darker than it was. The vanity table sat where my piano had been moved in my last year of piano lessons. Seated now in my finery, I gazed uncertainly at a face and flesh that were, according to the preacher in Ecclesiastes, grass: Vanity, Vanity—All is Vanity, said the Preacher.
I went to First Presbyterian now, because a few of my classmates went there. Unbelievably, Mom and Dad had allowed Elizabeth and me to change our memberships, and they attended the church with us, keeping their memberships intact, however, at St. Giles. “We’re doing it for the girls,” I heard Mom tell Floyd Adams when he phoned, puzzled. To change churches for reasons I secretly considered frivolous was vanity, too. I divided my attention between the service and watching other families. I watched Alan Davis and his family in their accustomed pew. Formerly our neighbors on Lexington Road, the Davis family had moved to Three Chopt Road, a better address, and Alan was the smoothest dancer at Cotillion. Louise Hamilton an Upper School girl whose family was remarkably wealthy, swept into her pew, always late, heavy gold bracelets clanking against the wooden pews when either she or her mother reached for the hymnal. Mrs. Hamilton wore a full length mink coat. Everything Louise owned was monogrammed—even the door of the turquoise Thunderbird she’d been given for her sixteenth birthday bore her initials. Better a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. I repeated the words in my mind after the preacher said them. Changing churches made me doubt myself—wasn’t this the toil and striving after wind the Preacher berated? And so was this struggle to dress right, dress up, be beautiful.
Before the mirror of the Vanity table, I tried to see myself through the eyes of my dance partner, whoever he would be. I tried to see myself as Kent Lewis would see me. As Melissa or Carolyn or Corbin, Armistead Merriweather or Meade Davidson would see me. Only when I saw myself as my mother would see me was I beautiful, and that was embarrassing, because she saw—I had to admit it—herself. “It’s all up hill until you’re seventeen,” she had told me. “And it’s down hill after that.” Her words were dismaying. I didn’t think I was beautiful yet, and I only had a few more years, if she were right, to become beautiful before the gradual decline began. My mother had grayed early, and her breasts had obeyed the laws of gravity, child-bearing, and nursing. She’d told me that “once upon a time” she had been “raahther beautiful” drawing out the “ah” vowel until it was as velvety as her pride.
She had her pride, I had mine, I thought grimly, hitching back a bra strap. At least I hadn’t let the girls at the slumber party peer at my breasts. It seemed a long time ago, that slumber party. We’d played strip poker, and I had lost. Cookie, sensing the conspiracy to embarrass us, had thrown in her cards early, complaining that she really didn’t understand the game. Too proud for such a claim, which would have been an accurate one, I played hand after hand until I was sitting there in my cup C bra and panties. This is as far as I’ll go, I’d protested. You’ll just have to imagine the rest, I’d said, smug the following morning when Melissa was teased about her sparse pubic hair, through which we could see the little mosquito bite swelling itchy and perilously, just there on the outer rim of the pubic fold. The nerve of that mosquito.
“It’s harmless,” Mrs. Parrish had remarked to Mom, who had mortified me by calling to complain about the strip poker.
“They’re just at that age, curious. I’d rather have them explore the gifts and perils of the flesh together and at home than. . .”
“Don’t they have sisters?” Mom finally laughed.
“Only some of them do,” said the woman who had married the man Aunt Billie once had dated. “Don’t worry. They’re a lot more prudish than we are. We raised them right.”
I put down the receiver on the other phone quietly, hoping they hadn’t heard me listening on the line as if my life, or reputation, depended on it.
“Women Rule the World,” Mrs. McCue had decreed in an Upper School assembly a few years before. The upper grades studied above ground in Ellett Hall. Now I sat with other ninth and tenth graders in the basement room of Bacot Hall, called Lower Study Hall. If we studied hard, we would rise to the Upper Study Hall, the upper ranks of the school.
Mrs. McCue had retired, but her words had not. Before us was Miss Abbey Castle, her successor, repeating Mrs. McCue’s words as, late to the morning assembly by twenty minutes, I whispered my excuses to Miss West before I prepared to slink to my seat in shame. I’d been in the bathroom, sick, I told her. Actually I’d been in the library reading in the stacks and had lost track of time.
Speaking before the lower grades, Miss Castle, Head of Upper School, was busy preparing us for St. Catherine’s Day at the end of the month. On that day, a Senior voted most like St. Catherine would appear before the entire Upper School in McVey Auditorium, dressed and crowned like the Saint the school honored for her faith and for the martyrdom that had elevated her. Miss Castle then repeated Mrs. McCue’s famous dictum, affirming the moral preeminence of women in our civilization. Although men might hold the visible positions of power and influence, behind every President, Senator, General, and business executive, there was a woman: his mother. Women ruled because, standing behind, like a good wind at your back, women trained the minds and governed the hearts of those children who became the world’s leaders. Wives took over where mothers left off. “You are in training to be the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world,’” Mrs. McCue was said to have concluded proudly, quoting an English poet.
I had seen Mrs. McCue’s portrait in Ellett Hall, a trim woman in good shoe leather and a wool suit, her face as Scottish as those I would, years later, see in restored photographs of women on the island of Harris, fulling the wool that would be sewn into Harris tweed jackets, like those later worn by the natty fathers of St. Catherine’s girls in Richmond. Miss Castle revived Mrs. McCue’s words with a gaiety that proclaimed them gospel. Years later I’d recognize that the gaiety, a mask for defiance and resignation, was intended to offer us comfort as we learned to accept our place in the scheme of things. It also allowed the comforter herself to be comforted.. At the time, the boast fell on my ears without any slur of complicity. Hearing, I was simply pleased.
Rigorous in their self-discipline, enthusiastic in their scholarship, their aspirations high, their expectations demanding, many of our teachers were elderly ladies who still wore their fathers’ names. Miss West, Miss Castle, Miss McKenney, Miss Fitchett, Miss Walton, Miss Keim, Miss Ruffin, Miss Salley. No one called them old maids. Old Maids was a card game; our teachers were authorities to be reckoned with. The celebrated prank of locking Middle School’s Miss Thruston in the lavatory adjacent to her class room would not be tried in Upper School. In my new studies, whole worlds were opening to me, and the heralds of the unlocked doors were these maiden ladies who had missed their chances to stand each behind a man and rule. But they didn’t need that opportunity to exercise their wisdom and authority. They had us.
In rare moments of day-dreaming in class, I studied my teachers.
Miss West taught us Latin. Her hair might be too short, her glasses too cat-eyed, her stomach prominent, her breath bad, but she loved the Latin language and Roman Civilization so much I forgave her transgressions of appearance. Latin she raised from the dead, tracing our English words to their Latin roots, fulfilling her duty to deliver me spell-bound to Miss Fitchett’s Julius Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil.
Behind those Roman statesmen in togas stood tiny Miss Fitchett, who embodied her name, swatting away the indecisive as if it were a fly.
Behind the Old Testament stood Miss McKenney.
“What did you girls see when your parents read you about Noah and the Ark,” she challenged. I remembered imagining a globe of water, an atlas of flooded plains, a tub-like boat rocking on the waves of the South Pole. When no one said anything, I offered these images, and Miss McKenney smiled. “Good, that’s good. Your parents taught you to believe literally every word.” She paused. “You saw doves and rainbows, too, I suppose.” We nodded. I watched the corn-gold stubble over her upper lip, a mustache brilliant in the sidelong sunlight coming in the classroom window. “But that was seeing through a glass darkly.” Again she paused. “Now you must learn the spirit of the old stories. You must learn to see by metaphor,” and she began to rework the story. I gasped. We had permission to think for ourselves, even about The Bible?
Miss Ruthalia Keim, our French teacher, was given to humming Maurice Chevalier as she made a quick turn on tiny ankles, finishing with a wiggle of her ample body. Her bobbed gray hair and bangs fringed an equine face. Down she’d plop, elbows on the low teacher’s desk, standing with her generous rear end jutted out, facing the class with her low neckline and elderly cleavage. From this position, smiling knowingly, she’d quiz us on vocabulary, tossing out whole sentences of complex French to us. We had to be daring enough to return aloud a reply in French. “Je ne sais pas,” was heresy.
Mrs. Coleman, my only married teacher, taught as sweetly as a grandmother would, gaining her authority through a humility so evident that she became transparent. Reading aloud passages from Dickens or Shakespeare, she vanished, and in her place stood Sidney Carton. Pip. Puck. Lady Macbeth. Through her we met Silas Marner. Jane Eyre. Becky Sharpe.
“You really like reading books, don’t you,” Melissa said, close on my elbow as we left Mrs. Coleman’s classroom. “I mean, you really do, don’t you?”
She’s right, I thought, amazed that her simple, succinct sentence summed me up. I couldn’t have said it myself, even though I knew that in the hours I spent reading, I never missed a living human soul. Unwittingly, Melissa Banning had handed me myself. A lover of books. That was who I was. That was me.
“You’re what my mother calls a blue stocking,” she added, but the label—perhaps intended to link me to the fate of an old maid—fluttered away. I knew Melissa well enough by now to recognize her talent for giving a compliment and mocking it with a little sting.
“You’re right,” I said, disarming the sting with a smile.
Spending more time at her house now than at Cookie Lewis’, I considered Melissa my best friend in the large group of girls that regularly met on Saturdays to play bridge, four tables of us. We had organized the bridge club as our mothers organized theirs—so I was told. In any attempt to emulate our social mothers, I was at a disadvantage. My parents, I realized, had no social life beyond what they’d known at St. Giles, from which they were now distanced. I wondered if they missed their previous participation in choir practice and deacon’s meetings, covered dish suppers and study groups. The thought of their increasing isolation glanced by me and fluttered off. I was focused on my own social life, even though when it came time to organize the bridge club meetings, I stood back and let the other girls make the arrangements. The location of our meetings rotated, and the hostess of the day served a lunch of sandwiches, chips, cupcakes, and coca-colas. Corbin White brought her older sister’s cigarettes, or if we were in Melissa’s paneled basement, finding packs of cigarettes behind the bar was a snap. She had older brothers, and both of her parents smoked.
I learned the game of bridge quickly, taking out books from the library and devouring Charles Goren’s column in the newspaper. I loved the sly innuendo of bidding, the discipline of counting cards, the triumph of the trump. A giddy pleasure it was to figure out who held the Jack, who the King, reserving my Queen to cancel the Jack when the unsuspecting opposition played it, protecting her from the King, should that more powerful card be lurking. All of us, the “smart” girls, strove for the ideal bridge table—a game played with savvy and acumen, with no table talk or distractions.
Elizabeth mocked us. It was school on Saturday, she said. Had I made an “A” in bridge yet?
So different from my family, the Bannings fascinated me with their worldliness. Mr. and Mrs. Banning were socially engaged every Saturday night. They went to the Country Club, to the Commonwealth Club, to the houses of their friends for drinks and dinner. They also dressed up, black tie and evening gown. Mrs. Banning descended the basement stairs one evening, ostensibly to remind Melissa and me of a minor duty, actually to display her purple satin dress with a daring single shoulder strap.
I gasped, “You look beautiful!”
Mrs. Banning smiled grandly.
Making a face, Melissa turned away from her mother. The spitting image of her plain father, she did not choose to compliment her mother, who worked hard to remain beautiful. Whenever her mother ate an entire box of Sara Lee cupcakes, Melissa told me, she would perform rigorous exercises—in the nude—in the privacy of her bedroom. Perhaps she wanted to see her indiscretions melting away. We had all seen Mrs. Banning striding up and down Grove Avenue’s sidewalks grimly, too absorbed to acknowledge the toots of the horn a friend might sound to encourage her onward. Her curious incivility fascinated me, and I gradually realized that Mrs. Banning wanted to be ignored. She was merely “out for a walk.” She wasn’t “exercising.” A lady was effortlessly fit and trim or effortlessly pleasing and plump. Willing herself thin, Mrs. Banning resembled the grim, angry reaper. She also resembled my mother when she was angry at my refusals to eat, frustrated by her failure to persuade or force down me another mouthful. To be thin, my plump mother asserted, was unnatural.
One Saturday evening when Melissa’s parents were due to go out for the evening, her brother Henry Banning was hosting a party for his friends, home for the semester. College age, they seemed as remote as Rock Hudson, although not as handsome.
“You girls stay upstairs, let the boys have the basement to themselves,” Mrs. Banning advised as she gathered her gloves and checked her lipstick in the hall mirror. Mr. Banning nodded, tossing a scribbled phone number on the hall table. He seemed impatient.
My father had recently gone to Ted Banning’s office to sell him tickets for a church raffle. Too hurried to hear out my father’s carefully rehearsed words, he’d tossed the required money on the desk. “Sure, sure,” he said, looking at his watch. My father, who had grown up with Ted Banning, was incensed. I could imagine him pausing, jaw slack, eyes darkening—insulted. “Don’t offer money if you don’t really want to go,” Dad had told him. I knew the tone of voice he’d have used. Hoarse, shocked, a touch prudish.
“C’mon, Margaret,” Mr. Banning said, and my shoulders twitched, as if he might have been reading my mind. But he was only getting after his wife, whose name was also Margaret.
From Melissa’s bedroom upstairs, we heard the music of the Kingston Trio, and laughter. A male voice called up the stairs, something about “robbing the cradle.” Ill at ease, Melissa kept opening her door and peering over the banister whenever she heard the front door bell. Her brother had promised a modest gathering, subdued and chummy—cards, drinks, a few girls back from college, old pals. Considered something of a disappointment to his ambitious parents, Henry Banning squired about with his wealthy friends, all with reputations for careless banter and the allure of dissolution. Some of these boys had been at Horace Montfort’s house the night it burned to the ground in the early hours of the morning. Had a cigarette been dropped in between sofa cushions? No one knew for sure. Horace’s young brother had not made it out of the burning house, and so Henry Banning and his cronies had about them the glamour of deadly danger and unpunished guilt.
Melissa and I were playing double solitaire in her room when a knock on the door became a door rapidly opened and closed behind a flustered young woman. “Do you have a phone up here,” she cried, “I have to use the telephone immediately!”
She was blonde, dressed in good wool, a gold charm bracelet. Her eyes sought ours for comfort or rescue—and remained aloof. We were, she was discovering, so much younger than she. Melissa gave her the phone, and the girl asked if she could be alone in the room when she used it. To my surprise, Melissa said no.
Turning her back to us, the girl began talking rapidly, asking for a ride home. Yes, right way. No, she couldn’t call a cab. She wanted to be picked up as soon as possible. She’d say why later. No, she couldn’t tell him now.
Handing the phone receiver back to Melissa, the girl asked if she might stay upstairs until her ride arrived. We made attempts at conversation, but she was too nervous to sustain sentences. I remember that she attended Wellesley College. When the front door bell rang, she leapt up, dashed down the stairs, leaving behind the scent of her perfume, the door closing on the abrupt voice of whoever it was had come to bear her away.
What was it all about?
“I’ll bet nothing much,” Melissa declared. “She seemed awfully naïve to me.”
“She was scared,” I suggested.
“You don’t have brothers,” Melissa said, sounding as worldly as her mother. “I’ll bet Goldilocks doesn’t either.” Then she marched downstairs to talk to her brother. She was chuckling when she returned.
“Not to worry,” she told me. “There was a little teasing and Cinderella in distress didn’t take it well.”
“What did they say?”
“Oh, you know. . . boys. There was a teddy bear downstairs and somebody opened its legs and patted it. No big deal. May I pat you on the po-po? Henry Banning asked the girl, and he demonstrated what he wanted to do, with the bear.”
“Who was she?”
“A friend of a friend. Girl from out of town, a blind date. I’ll bet her friend’s Dad was put out to have to come pick her up.”
I frowned. “What if it had been you, or me. Wouldn’t your. . .” and I stopped. No, I wouldn’t have found it easy to call Mr. Banning for a ride home, had I been the Cinderella with the po-po a rich boy wanted to pat. But how odd, I thought, how odd that Melissa was responding this way. Of all our friends, she was the one most interested in social infractions. Who was making out on a date? How far did she go? She talked about “getting to first base” or second or third, and “going all the way.” You can kiss, but don’t tell Melissa was the way one friend put it. We all knew the probable fate of any girl foolish enough to go “all the way”. Pregnancy, personal disgrace, family humiliation—it started innocently enough, with a kiss; but that kiss was a flirtation with the devil.
“It was just talk,” Melissa insisted. “No one did anything.”
“Don’t be such a Pollyanna,” she said next, more sharply. Then she laughed. “That girl just could have used a little more gumption.”
“Women rule the world,” I rejoined, glad for a platitude that would cover my confusion.
Had I told my mother about the distressed college girl, she would perhaps have offered familiar advice: the girl needed to have more faith. If you had faith, you could do anything. With faith, any trial might be endured. If you had faith, you had only to wait a moment and God’s grace would deliver you. With faith, you could renounce any temptation, sure of success; overcome any loss, certain of restoration. Whenever I listened to my mother echo the words of assurance given from the pulpit, I would shake my head. It sounded too easy. Only have faith. Faith and, well. . . a little gumption, and character.
At fifteen, my character had largely been untested. Mrs. Coleman, citing Milton, said that our virtues were “cloistered,” and that was just fine, she smiled. We were heroines in training.
Like everyone else, she seemed to think that a girl’s virtue and her virginity were one and the same. If that were true, certainly I could agree that I had not yet been tested, and hardly tempted. My “beaux,” as my mother liked to refer to them, hadn’t been dangerously appealing. Donald Smith had kissed me before a Cotillion, hastily, as if unsure of the sweetness of his breath, or—worse thought—of mine. Lowndes Nelson had phoned to ask me over to Garland Moore’s house in the afternoon. They had planned a little music and dancing. Other girls would be there, he said. They were “nice” boys, and so I had bicycled over. Other girls were there; Garland’s mother was not. Innocent enough, I thought, and enough not that it was interesting. I stayed and tried to do the new dance steps—the chicken, the mashed potato, the tried and true jitterbug. Moving toward each other for a slower dance, Lowndes and I were both startled when his hard penis—it had to be that—pushed into my skirt, grazing my pubis. I felt him, he felt me, and we leapt apart as if lightning had struck the floor between us. The shock of contact had been too intimate and, unprepared for it, we looked away, pretending nothing had happened, then danced, careful to keep our bodies far apart.
More recently John Page Williams, the son of a minister with a name my mother ranked “as old as Virginia,” was escorting me to the movies every other weekend. We weren’t “snowed.” John Page was licensed to drive, and when we single dated, he would count “pididdles”—cars on the highway with only one headlight on. When he saw a “pididdle,” he said I owed him a kiss. “Who made that rule?” I laughed, but when he parked the car in front of my house—with the front porch light on, bright as stage lighting and meant to discourage the devil’s temptations, I let him kiss me.
Leslie would write in my yearbook at the year’s close, “Be good with J.P.” She might have saved her ink. The temptations offered by Satan, said to be a smooth talker, had left me cold. I was content to wait and see who would enter my life and change it. Wasn’t that the plot line?
Waiting, I fixed my eyes on the handsome tenor in the First Presbyterian Church choir, concocting romantic encounters. Not as handsome as Cary Grant or William Holden, nor as polished and misunderstood as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, nor as doomed as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, nor as wealthy and decadent as many a European in Henry James, he was—the handsome chorister—at least as distant and more malleable. I thought up what he would say to me and what I would reply. I let his words—my words—swell and roll in my head, where I could be as passionate as I dared, as demure as called for.
It would have been far more daring to summon into my fantasies the boys I danced with, or yearned to dance with, at the boy-girl weekend parties I was occasionally invited to attend. With parents upstairs, teenagers gathered in the recreation room of the basement or in the den, with fast music followed by slow music followed by fast music, the lights lowered or turned back on by the chaperoning parent. These parties netted me at best a waltz with tall Seldon Harris or Benjy Winn, during which I had to be careful not to dance too close because the other wall flowers, from whose tight bouquet I was only temporarily released, were watching to see if flesh pressed, where it pressed, and how long.
Once, just once, Seldon’s fingers brushed my shoulder carelessly, grazing near my collarbone, or lower, and I felt between my legs a stupendous flash of yearning. It was sudden, unbidden.
“Sexual intercourse is a communion,” as my mother described it. It was sacred. It was like the Lord’s Supper. Partaken. Holy. Sanctioned only by married love and sacrifice. I wondered if Mom wanted us plump and unattractive so that the boys would stay away. It would be easier then to keep her daughters virginal. Whether I believed these thoughts or not, fat felt like punishment.
I wondered if the many lovers in the movies were punished because their attitudes toward love-making were not so devout. In wedlock or out of it, women who were too ambitious or too successful—like Eleanor Parker in Interrupted Melody—suffered. At the height of her operatic career and married to a good man, Glen Ford, partaking of life’s abundance, she was struck down with polio. Or Jane Wyman, struck blind and having to have her sight restored in a risky operation performed by the man she’d wrongly spurned, Rock Hudson. Or Deborah Kerr, struck by a car as she was running to her tryst with Cary Grant, whom love had reformed from roue to responsible fiancee. They would both have to suffer before they could have each other. In the movies, the suffering gave new meaning to romance. No passion was legitimate without it.
Into a darkened and candlelit McVey auditorium, the Upper School filed quietly, each class sitting together as a class, waiting for the curtain to be raised on the senior most like St. Catherine. She had been broken on the wheel in Egypt, in Alexandria. The seniors’ gold school rings, designed to resemble rings with family crests engraved on them, showed the Crown of victory and the Wheel of pain that were the proof of her faith and love. The voting for the girl who would be St. Catherine had been very close, so said the rumors, and there was a sense of suspense. Who would she be?
The curtain rumpled, rippled, then tugged itself into an ogee arch that made an alcove of light. I recognized the Standard Bearer, kneeling before St. Catherine’s, dressed in choir robes. She represented our devotion to the martyred saint. I did not, however, recognize St. Catherine, perhaps because of her crown or the make-up, or more likely because she was a boarding student. There was whispering among a few of the Seniors. They clearly knew who she was—a girl like them who took Latin or French, who dissected frogs, who played hockey or tennis, and who beyond any worldly accomplishment was well known for acts of tender self-abnegation, doing what was needful, never for her own sake, but for God’s.
I liked not knowing who she was. Now I could see the St. Catherine before me, dressed in her long silk dress and crown of fulfillment, as the Saint herself, or at least as close as wardrobe and make-up allowed in the transformation of an ordinary mortal who had, in all probability, kissed boys. If you believed the back lighting, the saint was shot through with light from the far side of the world’s limits. Before the upright, slender, and awkwardly transfigured image of the martyr, before this living icon that had opened up to an inner dimension with clarity and humility, I felt fallen. I was a sprawl of darkness and division. I was the heart’s perplexity incarnate. I pressed further back into my seat in the dark auditorium as the Glee Club and assembled classes began singing “Jerusalem.” It was a very strange moment, this one, with St. Catherine radiantly before me—whole, virginal, and inexplicable.