In October 1973 I sat in the Keith Albee Theater with my best friend, Sandy. Fifteen, Catholic, and sheltered, I knew little about actual sex. Though I’d gotten an eyeful at drinking parties where classmates made out like fiends, I was not one of those girls led to the couch or the bedroom while “Killing Me Softly” spooled from the radio.
On that October Saturday I hunkered down with my Jujubes in the theater watching The Way We Were. My eyes flared ever wider as Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand did the mating dance. It was stunning to watch fictional Katie, the loud-mouthed, frumpy, outlier, land Hubble, the golden WASP. I always felt like a frumpy outlier, so perhaps there was hope. Even more staggering to my virgin eyes, ears, and everything else, was the scene where they actually did it. He was drunk, I think. She was dismayed. When he mounted her, mounted her, I was sure Sandy could hear my thudding heart, feel the heat flaming from my face. It’s the first time I was turned on—in public, but then I was a late-bloomer. When Hubble finished his business I looked as baffled as Katie. That was sex? That? It was over so fast.
My world was different after that. I watched the dance more closely at those drinking parties, but was still not eager to be led to the couch. I wanted to protect my prize, as the nuns had taught us, the sacred hymen. The family who owned the Keith-Albee was also named Hymen, a word I couldn’t say out loud, nor could anyone else, without laughing. Hymen. The thin tissue separating good girls from bad. The boys who penetrated the barrier were never shamed. Boys will be boys. It’s amazing how little we’ve progressed.
I knew the mechanics of sex. I had read the facts-of-life book my mother gave me one day. She didn’t read it to me, just casually dropped it on my lap as she walked by with a basket of laundry. I was sitting on the pull-out couch in the living room of our first house. I was nine or ten, and I have no idea what inspired her to hand over that how-to guide. I had four older siblings, so maybe the book was making the rounds. She’d done the same with chicken pox, intentionally exposed us to my sick brother so we’d all scratch and moan together.
Puberty hijacked my body and started sending out signals without my permission. Six months after I had jittered inside the Keith-Albee, I stood outside the Field House after the basketball tournament. I don’t know if our team won or lost, but I hovered by the box office with Cheryl and Dee Dee as we waited for our ride. Suddenly a boy ran up and swiped his hand across my crotch. I was too mortified to move as he raced to his buddies, laughing. I was grateful for the giant Kotex strapped between my legs, a fortified hymen that had protected me. Mostly I wondered what I exuded that made me a target. Why not Cheryl? Why not Dee Dee?
A few months later Sandy and I were waiting in front of The Peanut Shop for the bus to take us home after school. I was wearing a sizzler dress: a short, jersey affair that buttoned up the front. I held a stack of textbooks to my chest, a bag of sunflower seeds. I saw the boy half a block away heading toward us. Suddenly he broke into a run, and as he raced by me he jammed his hand between my legs. I sputtered and choked as he disappeared around the corner. “Did you see that?” I said to Sandy. I wanted to cry at this violation. “Did you see that?” Because girls are taught to take the blame— I must have done something. It must be the short dress—I wondered what arrow had flashed above my head signaling me as the mark. After that, I started carrying my latigo purse in front of my pelvis.
As a young teen I was routinely shanghaied. A pair of neighbor sisters would show up at my house: “Hello, Mrs. Me-mell,” they’d call to my mother. To me they’d say, “We’re kidnapping you.” Off we’d go to race their German shepherd through Ritter Park, or for rides in the country, cattle auctions, horseback riding. They were also the first people to get me stoned. On trip after trip I would sit in the back of their orange Pinto—dangerous enough, but we didn’t know that yet. They’d roll a joint and pass it between them. Over the previous couple years they had asked a dozen times: You want a hit? No. You want a hit? No. You want a hit? When I was fifteen I said yes. By the time we got to the stables I was a giggling fool. It’s amazing I didn’t fall off the horse.
The sisters’ house was filled with lava lamps and hippies. The ghosts of a dead father and brother. A widowed mother in so much physical and psychic pain she spent most of her life in bed. Of course I didn’t understand this then. There were four daughters, the youngest my age. When I was sixteen I was at that house, Mom in her bedroom, an older pregnant sister in the back room with the TV and aquarium and pictures of the cosmos taped to the walls. The pregnant sister’s husband was in the living room with another guy, both in their twenties. They were trying to start something with me and the sister my age. I don’t remember the language, but I do remember that my protective instinct took over. When I wouldn’t relent to sex pressure, the man whose pregnant wife was just down the hall said: “Are you a virgin?” It was a test and a taunt. I don’t know why I lied. “No.” The implication being that I was making an experienced choice not to sleep with him. Over the years I wished I’d said too loudly: “Yes, and when I do have sex it’s not going to be with my pregnant friend’s husband.” I was glad when he moved out of state.
The last time the sisters kidnapped me I was seventeen. We went to a folk festival at a state park in Kentucky. Tents pitched everywhere, hippie vans rocking. As the sun set we wandered from the stage to the woods to pee. Somehow I found myself inside a tent with a woman wearing a peasant skirt, patchwork hobo bag in front of her. I didn’t know her; I don’t remember if the sisters knew her either, but I think an acid purchase was involved.
The woman rummaged through her bag and pulled out her wallet, comb, spare underwear, toothbrush, and finally, a dildo. I’d never seen one and it was gigantic. I gawked as the woman laughed, unashamed. She picked it up and started sword fighting. I crawled outside and wondered what would happen inside the tent that night.
As I made my way back to the stage, a girl staggered from the tree line everyone used as a toilet. She was laughing, sort of, and gripping her breasts. She bee-lined to me, my red arrow apparently guiding her path. “I was just raped down by the lake,” she said, still laughing. If that’s what it was. “He bit off my nipple.” She cupped her breast and I expected her to show me, but she didn’t. Just bumbled off, grinning, red arrow above her head marking her too.
My first sexual encounter wasn’t scary. It was with a sweet boy, thankfully, who was totally smitten. It was fast, though. Just like Hubble and Katie in The Way We Were. When it was over, I remember thinking, “That’s it?” All that holding out and holding on. I felt neither pain nor bliss. No ripped hymen. No blood.
Once the mystery was revealed I didn’t think about the red arrow until I was twenty and started allowing dangerous men into my life. The sweet boy and I didn’t work out. Then another sweet boy who ultimately wasn’t so sweet. Then a disaster that had me living in shame. There’s a reason I no longer drink tequila.
At college, I was still and always an outlier. One night after a party I walked home up one of those treacherous Morgantown hills. I was still smoking then, lungs and legs burning. Of course it started to rain. A car pulled up beside me. The man inside leaned over and cranked down his window. “Let me give you a ride.” I said yes, stupidly stupid.
The man looked to be in his thirties, fidgety. We talked, about what I don’t remember. Life. The rain. Walking home on dangerous roads. Eventually we crested the hill and he pulled into the trailer court where I lived. It was better and cheaper than the deathtrap housing available to students at the time. He parked in front of my trailer, and just as I was about to pop the door he said, “I was on my way to kill my girlfriend when I picked you up.”
For some reason I was not afraid.
“The gun is under your seat. Go ahead. Feel it.”
I leaned forward, reached underneath, and did indeed feel the gun. I did not pull it out. “You really don’t want to do that,” I said. I had always been steady under duress.
He nodded in the blue dark. Rain pattered the metal roof.
“She cheated on me.”
“You still don’t want to do that.”
We talked a good while longer, half hour. An hour. About what, I’m still not sure. Life. Death. Life. When he left he was on his way back home.
One deadbeat, unemployed, alcoholic prince took me to the Indy 500. He and his two pals and I drove to Indianapolis. All the men had nicknames; one of them was Froggy. I assumed we had a hotel waiting, but we did not. For two nights we slept in our car by the curb in a modest neighborhood. A kind neighbor let me wash up in his bathroom if I promised to leave it as tidy as I’d found it. I did my best, and he seemed relieved to learn I was in college. The look on his face expressed I was making bad choices. I wanted to drive back to Morgantown and call my dad.
The race was loud and boring. The better excitement was that Walter Cronkite sat in our row, and I was mistaken for Linda Ronstadt. That was the summer I wore a stuffed Wile E. Coyote strapped around my waist. I have no idea what statement I was making. Maybe I wore it as protection, a different kind of hymen men would have to get beyond. On the second morning while the three men slept in the car, I got out to roam the closed street where vendors were cleaning up from the night before: collecting plastic cups, paper plates and napkins. Women fried funnel cakes. One man sold baggies of Mount Saint Helen’s ash for a dollar. The volcano had erupted just a week before.
I bought lemonade and took the first tart sip when a young man came up to me, doughy body, muss of amber hair. “I’m looking for the highway. Do you know where the onramp is?”
I pointed. “I think it’s that way.”
His eyes followed the direction I’d cast, head dodging as if he couldn’t clearly see that far. “Can you show me? I need to hitch home.”
Again I pointed. “It’s just that way.”
He gently gripped my wrist. He looked desperate to get home, to get something.
I teetered with my decision even as I felt him tug my arm.
A voice called, “Don’t go with him.” I swiveled and spotted Froggy at one of the beer stands. He shook his head and mouthed the words again: Don’t go with him.
The man and I both looked at his hand on my arm. I tried to pull free, but he didn’t want to let go. Why would he? I was a hooked fish. Finally I yanked my arm loose. He ran off just as those other boys had back in high school, only he wasn’t laughing. Or maybe that boy who’d turned the corner by The Peanut Shop had run all the way to Indiana. I don’t want to think of how close I’d come to real horror. That was the very minute I began to believe in the power behind my mother’s prayers.
After college I moved to Houston and dated even more men who wanted to lay me out. Self-worth is more important than a hymen.
I finally settled on a wounded man who loved to wound. I was trying to learn, really; half of the insanity was mine. On one of my escapes from him, I moved into a duplex downtown in the gay section of town. It was a lovely brick street with lovely gay neighbors who let me use their pool when the heat was unbearable. A few blocks over was Westheimer where I attended my first gay pride parade.
It was the eighties and we’d just learned about AIDS. I remember the night the gay prostitute holed up in a Westheimer donut shop. He was threatening to sleep with as many johns as he could and take them all down with him. The police surrounded him out front. A donut shop, of all places. Desperation and innocence mixed up altogether. I think the boy made it out alive, at least that night.
I made it out of Houston alive, barely, and swore off sex for several years. I started having anxiety attacks that acted as a different kind of protection. Just the thought of intimacy had me heaving over the toilet bowl. Religion was a protection, too. Nothing will guard you like the zeal of being newly saved. I was that desperate.
When I moved to Iowa for grad school this new faith saved me in a secular way. I was in a laundromat one summer afternoon. A man tried to rope me in and he reminded me too much of my previous rough choices. I was becoming more discerning. I was eager to share the good news, though. These were my door-knocking days, I’m embarrassed to confess, but we take our lessons were we find them. We’ll take any life raft too. So I let the man chat me up so I could cast a few pearls. I noticed that he had no laundry. There was also what might have been a pubic hair on his chin. He kept eyeing my legs. “I like your red shorts.” I understood they might as well have been an arrow when he finally and unabashedly said: “So you want to have sex?”
I was definitive. “No.”
His next comment floored me. “You frigid?”
I’d heard about this sexist, narcissistic retort but never had it been directed at me.
“No!” I blurted. “I’m a Christian.”
The man scampered out of there so fast it was as if I’d pulled a loaded gun out from under my seat.
It took a while to find a decent man, and when I did, it took a while longer to let him in. Still, when I’m vulnerable, when I’m crazy, I send up signals. Predators are drawn to the neon light, the hum, but I’m better at fending them off, shutting it down before it goes too far.
Age also offers protection. Sagging jowls. Neck wrinkles. Drying skin in once-sacred chambers; welcome deterrents, even if it stings. I see my friends getting older, some growing more conservative when they look at young people, and so judgmental. It’s as if they’ve forgotten the dangerous mistakes they’ve made. And we’ve all made them.
But when I see girls, younger and younger every year, on the cusp of lost innocence, I want to shield their eyes. Don’t look yet. Wait one more year. Especially the ones with hunched shoulders and red arrows trying to punch through their spines like molars. I want to press my fist against the protuberances and force them back. How I wish someone had done that for me. ●
West Virginia native Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), received the Weatherford Award. Shrapnel (RCP, 2012) won the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, Still Life with Plums (WVU Press, 2010), first appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. She lives in Huntington, WV, her hometown.