My past lives tend to have a Vaseline filter over them, like a Doris Day close-up in an old movie. Not just because I like to gloss over unpleasantness and focus on the joy or fun, but because a lot of it really does just blur together for me. My memoirs will be fuzzy in that respect; I now have a pretty good understanding as to why the best ones are slightly fictionalized.
I’m a naturally quiet person, though when I do get to talking, I can keep going for quite awhile. But my tendency to not do that has resulted in a lifetime of other people making what I feel are wild and illogical, sometimes oddly emotionally-based assumptions about my character, “beliefs,” and practices. I don’t quite see why; I don’t assume things about them, after all. So anyway, I’m going to start my memoirs with some stories that should demonstrate to any thinking mind why I’ve never been some things others have claimed me to be. And am a few other things no one even bothered to notice...
As a little girl, I loved men. I mean, I really loved them. But when you’re an ordinary little girl, you don’t sexualize something you love; you imitate it, being cowboys and detectives and space explorers and race car drivers. When I was a little girl, there was no question that only men did those things, anyway.
Our parents, who experienced childhood in the 1930s and 40s, were sometimes reluctant to buy us the “boy” toys or let us wear “boy” colors. I didn’t even own a pair of jeans until I was nine years old. I never fully understood until recently why that might be. Apparently they thought we needed conditioning to turn out correctly female. Did they think I wanted to be like a boy because I wanted to play with cars and Lego and be James West instead of Jane West, and because I didn’t really know what to do with baby dolls? The silly truth is that, while I didn’t know or understand it just yet, I wanted to be with James West.
Look, the signs were all there from the beginning, and although I have few true regrets in life, one of them is that I never availed myself of the relatively youthful opportunity I had in early adulthood to fully explore my love of the vigors of masculinity. I was taught as an older child and teenager to have a prudish fear of something that comes as naturally to me as breathing. Took awhile to work past that confusing dichotomy, and by then I was, well, a mother, and a wife, and still pretty much a quiet person, metaphorically sitting at a table in the corner, watching everyone else play at the game I never allowed myself to sign up for.
That’s not to say I didn’t have any experiences at all. I just never completely allowed myself to take them simply for what they were, or to express full-flighted joy without a little guilt attached to its tail. I was too young to give myself permission to just be who I naturally am, who people naturally are, really. That old guy in It’s A Wonderful Life said, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people.” It was a fairly apt statement in my case. The little freedom I did allow myself as a young adult, well, I never let myself feel free about it. I don't mean to imply I wish I could go back in time and just have sex all over the place. That's not wise, and often not healthful. I just mean, I wish I hadn't been afraid of it, and that I'd learned earlier on how to appreciate it.
Of course, while I was growing up, setting aside the coke-fueled discotheque scene, young women were either Madonnas or whores or one masquerading as the other. If she was a whore masquerading as a Madonna, she was either a liar or “kinky.” If she was a Madonna masquerading as a whore, she was a pathetic tease. That’s all, you know. You either were, or were pretending to be, one or the other. No middle ground allowed.
I had a somewhat unique relationship with my parents, for the time in which I grew up. They took me to unusual places, tried to show me refinement and worldliness. I know this flies in the face of what I just said I was taught, but it’s true. I drank wine at restaurants when I was 16 and 17 (not, ironically, once I turned 18, because that was the year you suddenly had to be 21, instead, and they started asking for ID,) and tried every kind of ethnic and international food available in the city.
Mom and Dad showed me great food, art, music, and architecture, and shared their interest in other cultures with me. But neither one of them knew quite who I really was. Dad was himself naturally, Mom was herself despite self-imposed unnatural restrictions, and me? Turns out I was an enigma to them both. My desire to please other people, to enjoy what they enjoy, to take pleasure in shared experiences probably led them to believe I was just whatever they saw on the surface. I dunno. What I’m trying to say is that if they both saw this inherently strong sexual nature in me, and I think they must have, they never revealed it. She told me God would see everything I did. He told me...what did he tell me? Mostly how much he liked our time together.
So all those years earlier, all that effort to make sure I was a feminine lovely girl? Sure, it was a little misguided and mostly unnecessary. But I’m not mad at them for it anymore. It was really very sweet. Because I like that they always tried with me, in little ways if not in big ones. They just wanted me to be safe and still enjoy life.
When I went out with my mom, it was a revelation. She could not go anywhere without being hit on. I don’t know how much latent sexual drive she actually had, but while she was a huge prude on the surface, she didn’t know how to turn off her inherent sexiness. She just wore it on her skin, in her smile, in the way she walked. Men picked up on it. Also, when I was a teenager, she was at that age we all get to, in the mid-40s, when our bodies try to take over and repopulate Earth before we wither on the vine. But as far as I can tell, she’d always worn that air of barely-hidden sexuality. She was practically the last virgin in her high school class, but apparently, no one actually believed it of her. I don’t think she was a tease, at least consciously, but men picked up on her signal all of the time. I thought it was funny, but swore I’d never be the same way. I never thought I was as pretty as she was, anyway, not realizing then that mere beauty wasn’t what attracted them to her.
It annoyed me when boys would come onto me without knowing anything about me, and this led me to believe that all boys everywhere wanted nothing from a girl, all girls, but sex, which I was not going to give to them because they’d just walk away the next day, and there I’d be, alone and stained forever. I was sure this was how it worked with boys, even though I could see it didn’t always work that way with men. I never even thought about desiring sex until I was about 17, anyway. Yes, I loved men, but it was all fairly abstract until one day when it wasn’t.
I can laugh at myself now the way a mother could laugh at her daughter who just didn’t understand how things really were. (I have no idea if my actual mother would be laughing. It’s odd to contemplate who she’d have become later in life, so I don’t.) The fact is, I wear that same glow on my skin, and attract attention with the way I walk, in my Mona Lisa smile. It isn’t on purpose; it’s rarely at the forefront of my consciousness. It’s just there. Now I’m thinking it always was, just cloaked with fear and a lack of confidence. And I think this because men always reacted differently to me than boys did; their eyes spoke a different language, for one thing. It excited me and fueled my romantic dreams, but it was a kind of tiny power I never knew I had until I washed away the remaining fear I’d been taught about physical relationships.