From Something Wrong with Her: A Hybrid Memoir
Yes, I was one, all through college. A virgin in too many ways. A virgin whose first kiss had been milestone enough that subsequent occasions for kisses still triggered uneasiness, but not nearly as much trepidation as caused by the virginity itself. Not — as some have assumed — anxiety fostered by relentless itchy lust. If that were the case, then prospective situations would not have resulted in the resistant rigidity with which advances were met.
If I were to enumerate my angst, the bullet points would be:
- How was it done? And how would I know how to do it (when the moment came)?
- What if I didn’t know what to do and was really bad at it?
- What if it hurt/what if I don’t like it?
- I’m supposed to like it, I’m supposed to crave it, but all I do is resist and avoid it, what’s wrong with me?
In terms of importance, they shuffled. Sometimes #1 was the most vital, sometimes one of the others. But most often it was #4.
& Not Losing It
I began keeping journals during my last two years of college when I took fiction-writing workshop. (Semesters I didn’t take the workshop, no journal exists.) I also have a handful of earlier “story” manuscripts — compulsively scribbled out during classes I routinely attended but did not have the wherewithal to pay attention. At one point these MSS got damp, dried out with permanent ripples, and now are brittle as 19th century proclamations. Immature narratives, mostly in first person, spelling the grief of my isolation after leaving some friends behind in high school — namely boys I’d allowed to squeeze my breasts or kiss me in preparation for their first dates. Not long after their dates had developed into girlfriends, the girls had requested that the boys not be friends with me anymore. Their docile compliance was difficult to condemn, but easy to let myself be wounded by.
Yet in my journals and story drafts, it seems nowhere did I record my unenthusiastic response to three young men who, between 1976 and 1978, shared my company on a single date.
The first was fall of 1976: A fellow trombone player, a chemistry major, a boy a year younger than me who’d been assigned to the marching band squad of which I was the leader, asked me to accompany him to an academic fraternity dinner/dance. This would naturally negate the conclusion that my playing the trombone made the male trombone-players view me as not enough of a girl to have dating interest in me. I was, however, not enough of a girl to appreciate a dress-up, corsage-wearing occasion where couples actually had their pictures taken. I felt repulsed by the way this boy became a solicitous, polite, car-door-opening drone, leaving the joking, irreverent shirtless college-freshman-in-cutoffs I’d known out on the football field, replacing himself with a suit-wearing Ken doll. Unfair, and not at all his fault. This was a role he had been conditioned to play, on dates, especially formal dates, and possibly had been further trained by the mission of this new fraternity — purely academic without its own house, striving to establish itself as a serious brotherhood of educated men at a known party-school. When, later that semester, he asked me to accompany him to the band banquet, I told him I wouldn’t be attending the banquet. How much intelligence does this take: I did go to the banquet, alone, and can still clearly remember the boy’s round face, his blank also-round eyes, his small expressionless mouth, when he saw me there.
And why was this young man not “good enough” for me? While some may boil it down to me turning up my nose for shallow, frivolous, conceited reasons, in retrospect I can claim a mixture of social immaturity, societal conditioning, and gender-role defiance. I played a “masculine” instrument; I was his squad leader; I was a year older. How could I then appear on his arm as “his girl,” how could he be the Prince Charming I contradictorily, without using that term, was seeking?
Just before fall semester the following year, he died in his apartment, slumped over a chemistry experiment on his kitchen table — flagrantly messing around, as boys will do, with chemicals and gas and flame. Not making a stink bomb to pay retribution to a girl who’d discarded him in a cowardly way. Just creating, exploring, feeling invulnerable, and, unlike the girl who’d rebuffed him, plunging into hands-on involvement with the world outside a stewing adolescent brain. I was called to the band office and told about his demise, because I’d been his squad leader. They assumed I would be distraught. I don’t remember my outward reaction. I’d lied to him, evaded him, rejected him. I presume these things were not major issues for him, months later, at the time of his death. To assume he’d been mortally hurt by me is self-absorbed. As is the response, to his death, of guilt, remorse, shame… which is the only reaction I had. Guilt I did not share with anyone, not because I recognized how selfish it was to feel that way, but because I assumed other people would view me in the same appalling light: the girl who jilted him before he died — or nine to ten months before he died. What others might have viewed as encasing my emotions to protect a fragile psyche was actually guarding my fragile ego. I don’t even remember his last name. Alan Wilson. It just came to me as I typed the previous sentence.
In 1977, the football team ranked in the national top 20, so they earned a televised game the last game of the season, in San Jose. Because it would be broadcast, the athletic department paid to send the entire marching band to that game, twenty band members on the team plane and the rest in six buses. Somehow the PR director got herself a seat on the plane. The PR director had never in her life been on a plane.
The team jet seated three across with a single aisle. The twenty band members — including band officers and those who had classes they had to attend on Friday morning, plus the directors — boarded after the team was already settled. Thus I ended up seated between two stalwart, Black athletes, each of whom had over a foot-and-a-half of height on me, and double my weight.
In the 70s there was an impulse among white liberals to not describe people by their race. So my inclination here was to not mention that the athletes seated on either side of me were African American. However, to deny that their race didn’t make the situation more exciting is to claim a lie.
For some reason, momentarily without reserve, I turned into a journalist for a half hour to engage the two athletes in a conversation of some minor controversy: on the game broadcast the announcer had been complaining that the band was interfering with the quarterback’s communication in the huddle. I asked them if the band disturbed them in any way. They said they never heard any of it, except when the 5 glockenspiel players [an upright xylophone made of metal] played one of their prepared ditties. The athletes did not use the word ditty. But they did like the songs played by the glock section, evidenced as much by the fact that they remembered hearing it as they said so. Perhaps that’s what allowed the athletes to also be college boys, like the ones I knew, only more important boys, and — dare I say — these were taboo. So before I became perilously dizzy with airsickness, I managed to get one of the player’s names and his phone number when he suggested I call him if I ever wanted to “get together.”
Thankfully I didn’t vomit until after the plane landed, in fact not until I was sitting (for some reason) on a concrete curb in the motel’s parking lot. I was probably using sunlight to battle the nausea, something I commonly do, often without even thinking about it, seeking sun through windows of airplanes or airports, at highway rest stops, even through my bedroom blinds. I remember sitting on that curb, watching a trickle of foamy vomit trail away from me on the asphalt. I may have been thinking about how I’d just met a football player, a Black one, a star. From that moment, the next detail I remember is when, after I’d shifted my return-home arrangements to the bus, I called my parents to tell them to pick me up at campus instead of the airport, and that it would be 12 hours later than originally scheduled. At that time my father informed me that my grandfather — his father — had died.
I never fully shook the tremulous aftermath of the airsick nausea. My grandfather’s death compounded it. I’ve retained this image from the hours after the phone call: Shuffling tentatively (to keep my buzzing head as still as possible) onto the football field for an afternoon rehearsal in the San Jose stadium, I spotted Windrem — having heard about my airsickness, not my grandfather — coming toward me with a faux sympathetic smile and his arms held wide to envelop me in a hug. I don’t remember if the hug was consummated, or if it was, how long it lasted and how I disentangled from it.
From that image, it moves at fast forward: We practiced on the field, we marched the show, we played music in the stands, I recognized the name of the young man who’d given me his phone number when it was announced, many times, over the loudspeaker, because he was a wide receiver and it was a pass-oriented team.
The queasiness lasted far too long. I was woozy through the bus ride home, the car trip with my family to Orange County, through the funeral and buffet lunch at my aunt’s house, red-eyed and stunned, my still-adolescent brain protecting itself from grief by maintaining a focus on the photography-class photo story-board I’d completed (topic, as usual: the marching band) and would, upon returning to school on Wednesday, present it to Harlan as an end-of-a-successful-season card. And maybe I would have occasion to tell him that I’d been invited by a football player to call him for a date.
During finals, I took the scrap of paper with his name and phone number from my wallet. I’d mulled over calling for several days — what would I suggest we do, should I invent an occasion? Where I finally called from was the band office, from the phone behind the bookcases that housed the marching band music library and created a hidden aisle, where I could pretend to be further secluded within a place that was increasingly becoming my burrow. 1977 was prior to widespread use of phone answering machines. Very easily, he could have never been home any time I attempted to call. But I believe I recall him answering the first time I gathered enough gumption to dial. Few details about how the phone call went remain in my memory: A date was arranged, and I would meet him at his apartment, which turned out to be startlingly close to my parents’ house, where I still lived.
Our date began with him wanting to dance, right there in his apartment. No need to panic about my inability to dance to upbeat music (although I could march to it). His intent was to slow dance. I have no memory about the music he put on. Did he choose instrumental? R&B? Jazz? Rock? Some sort of crooner? One would imagine that, whatever it was, any time I heard anything like it I’d remember him. I do remember that he wore a popular brand of musk cologne, and I do think of him every time I sense it, usually in department stores near the fragrance counter, but often in other situations, even, occasionally, literary conferences.
But I have to acknowledge, his being African American was part of the occasion. I remember, afterwards around the holidays, my father reported to my uncle that I’d dated a football player, and when my uncle asked if I was going to see him again, my father’s jovial exclamation was, “He’s the wrong color!” Then, before I could think of it, my uncle corrected him, “Not the wrong color, a different color.” They needn’t know the real reason I wasn’t going to see him again. The one date would be allowed to remain a demonstration of my grand rebellion. My progressiveness. My moral superiority. Because it, the date, had little to do with him. If the status of either of the date’s participants had been different, the occasion might not have been played out as my public moment of social revolution which sustained no consideration for the young man’s feelings, plans or wishes. More predominantly, if I hadn’t been a virgin, an intrepid virgin, and if he hadn’t intended for our rendezvous to begin, or at least end with sexual contact, then perhaps some coming-together of physical attraction and companionable sensibilities — whatever makes a “relationship” begin — would have occurred. Perhaps we could have accomplished something together, found a best friend and partner, supported each other through two widely diverse careers with wildly divergent pitfalls and tribulations. Or not. Such is the case of what if. Basically he was a young athlete on the eve of becoming a professional, who was accustomed to having sex with the girls who showed interest in him and was not looking for a new best friend, especially not a short white girl who played trombone and dreamed of being a novelist. And I was an apprehensive virgin who knew in her fearful bones as soon as he suggested we slow dance in his living room that my continued bodily resistance was not going to allow me to be seduced that evening, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with race.
The rest of the evening did have to do with race, was a show, was a selfish ego adventure. We went out to eat at a casual ribs and chicken-in-a-basket place, where the curious or startled looks we got from other customers was pleasantly exciting. We went to a dance club where the same looks were, again, pleasurably exhilarating. When he came to understand that there would be no sex this evening (I’m sure I admitted my virginity to him, not wanting him to suppose I was rejecting him for the reasons my father would later believe), he benignly told me, as though he was ten years my senior instead of exactly my generation, that when I was ready, I could call him. We did kiss. The imprint of his scent is strong enough for me to be sure of that.
As it turned out, I was not “ready” soon enough to take him up on his offer. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams the following April. In 1980 or 81, he was traded to the hometown San Diego Chargers and caught a definitive pass from Dan Fouts in a playoff game that I watched with my then new-husband. I doubt he remembers one humdrum evening in 1977 with a skittery girl from the marching band who he met on her first plane ride during which she became overwhelmed with nausea. But, no, that dizziness was not love. His name was Ron Smith.
Early summer, 1978, I had graduated with my journalism degree, having long known I wouldn’t ever be a journalist. I would be starting the secondary education program in the fall, and had just recently been hired to my one-quarter time clerical job. I’d spent a little graduation money on the current coed summer style: double-knit track shorts, pink with satin piping, and a triangular-shaped halter top, tied around my neck and around my ribs, exposing my entire back and midriff (No, I didn’t dress as though I was anxious about sex). I rode a ten-speed to campus every morning during California June-gloom, and browned most of my skin on the sweaty ride home in sunshine. In the air-conditioned band office, I often had to wear a long-sleeved shirt.
The karma of my encounter with this third young man (although he was at least ten years older than the previous two) began during a week when I had promised myself that I was going to be more open, seem more friendly, create a more inviting aura, and say yes to the next person who asked me out. I remember, quite specifically, this promise, this summertime resolution I’d vowed. What I’m not expressly remembering, but which must be the case, is if I’d had an unusual period of being asked out a few times by someone I did not want to go out with and had said a not-to-be-revisited no. I believe, as well, someone had recently told me that I seemed uninterested in dating, that my aura was unfriendly, unapproachable, even scary. Thus, my private resolution.
He worked on campus. He was driving across a quad in a groundskeeper cart, and I was striding from the music building toward the bookstore or the administration office. I remember my diagonal angle cutting across the quad. I remember the relative (but not complete) emptiness of the campus. I don’t remember being startled when his cart pulled up alongside me. He asked, almost immediately, if I wanted to go out with him, but I don’t recall his first line or greeting. Something along the lines of “Hi, I just noticed you, you look athletic, like you keep your body in shape, the kind of body I really like, want to go out sometime?” The pointed remark about mine being the kind of body he liked is the phrase I’m most certain was part of his greeting.
I could have, should have felt treated like a headless manikin (or, I discovered later, one who looked better headless). But, after all, I was 22. Compliments and male admiration had not been frequent enough for me to pitch this crude version aside. And there was my promise to myself: don’t be gloomy, don’t be inward, don’t retreat, don’t flinch. Playing the coed party girl, I tossed my new Dorothy Hamil haircut and said, “Sure.” (I thought sure sounded more like I was accustomed to being asked out.)
And so, without him getting out of his maintenance cart, a date was set. I must have realized, at least, that he was ruddy with dirty blondish hair, pale freckly/scaly skin, hands red-knuckled with chapped, chalky skin, a thin crooked nose, and eyes a little too close together. I don’t believe phone numbers were even exchanged. He didn’t have a car (only the cart) so I would meet him at his nearby apartment that Saturday night. I did not view it as a road to anything. I guess I considered it a ‘good experience,’ I was ‘dating,’ like girls my age were supposed to do. I needed a reputation of being ‘datable.’
I think it was while we were still at his apartment, he bragged of being buddies with members of the football team, and, upon learning that I’d met one of them, informed me that Ron Smith liked to collect white girls and that I would have never heard from him again, even if I’d given to Smith that which I would also be withholding from my current ‘date.’ (Except it was Smith who never heard from me again.)
My current ‘date’ brought his own bottle of salad dressing when we walked over to a Greek storefront restaurant in the shops near campus. I’ll say it was Russian dressing, because the Greek restaurant certainly wouldn’t have had that, and he was a graduate student in Russian. I don’t remember what I wore, except it would not be shorts and a halter, and it wasn’t a skirt (I wouldn’t go that far in my quest to alter my social approach). He’d worn shorts when I’d seen him in his cart then jeans for the date, since early summer evenings were cool. He wasn’t tall — was stocky, thick-bodied, barrel-chested, perhaps a little bowlegged.
The people working in the restaurant knew him. It was an order-at-the counter restaurant, and they knew not to put any Greek dressing on his salad. I have no recollection of anything else regarding the food. It might have been my first time at a Greek restaurant, even though it was so close to campus.
I wonder, and I do think I wondered then as well, if the restaurant workers saw me as another of his frequent dates — few (if any) of which they ever saw a second time. They knew his name, his preferences, probably even what he would order. Then they smiled at me. I may not have been creeped-out by it at the time, but it’s a little staggering, now, to try to imagine their thoughts: amused, curious, prurient. How could his reputation not trail him, if not preceded him? Well, I was clueless.
He wasted no time telling me, again, that I had the kind of body he really liked, athletic and strong. Compact was his word. Muscled and hardy. I might have lapped it up, except this time, face to face over a Greek salad with Russian dressing, he informed me that my face was not, in fact, “the kind he liked.” Especially my nose, much too big.
Which should have been my cue to say goodbye and return to my car without looking back. But he’d inadvertently located and tapped a vein of one of my sorest insecurities. Why would that make me stay? Probably the other vein he tapped, I’m not sure how quickly, but soon, very soon, he was holding court on “what was wrong with me, sexually,” and how I “had to get over my aversions.”
My aversion, that night, was to him. But because he so quickly turned my revulsion into a “something’s fundamentally wrong with you” lecture, I remained in his company longer, much longer, far longer than I should have.
Memory did not preserve how the conversation started, nor the blow-by-blow progression of how one statement produced what rejoinder. I apparently didn’t go home and write it in my journal. I did, about two years later, use the experience for a scene in what would be my master’s thesis, a novel titled Chased. Some of the dialogue that I reinvented then goes like this:
So how did he diagnose me so frighteningly accurately, and so easily? Did he try something after dinner, as we took a walk and ended up seated together on a secluded piece of lawn? He knew the campus intimately; he must have directed our walk there. He had made his moves, even after telling me my face, my nose, was a turn-off. Even after I’d countered by telling him that he, really, was physically not my ideal man either. Even after he therefore pronounced my physical preferences to be shallow. And even then I didn’t get up and stomp away as I should’ve because he was telling me something was wrong with me, and that’s exactly what I’d been telling myself. How could I leave and allow him to be right, allow it to be true? At the same time, there was no possibility I was going to “open myself up to him,” which I assumed he meant as literally as one could conjure it to mean, considering he also told me that his favorite sexual activity was “eating box.” Said it to me on a “first date,” no more than two hours after meeting me, possibly in that grassy thicket, or possibly a little later, when I finally was back in my car, attempting to leave (not very vehemently, still afraid to just say “asshole” and run, although I don’t know why) and he was crouching in the open doorway of my car, leaning in, one hand up my shirt, my bra shoved up, his crusty fingers on my bare flesh, his thumb wiggling on one nipple and pinkie finger on the other. With utmost repulsion I’ve typed the end of that last sentence, knowing I had to get there, even though the extent of our “sexual contact” was no more than that. But just the idea of his white-and-red face, his too-thin crooked nose, his close-together eyes, his thick body, his bossy voice telling me my face was sadly lacking appeal and that my unwillingness to allow him his way with my body surely showed deep psychological problems I would have to overcome, while his scaly hand attempted to seduce my breasts… and I do feel ill.
But there’s also the astonishment, now, that this was ‘dating’ to this man, in 1978. I later learned, he had a reputation — with just about every “athletic and compact” woman in that area of campus (the music building being very close to the women’s gym). A year later I recall coming across a girl crying in the restroom who described an encounter with “this weird guy,” who turned out to be the same stocky campus maintenance worker. He had rushed away from the scene when the girl escaped, alarmed, into the restroom. I don’t remember if the crying girl revealed what he had done or said, but then again, I didn’t need to be told. I knew. On a first date he would tell a girl she had the kind of body that attracted him; graphically tell her exactly what he wanted to do with her, then shortly after he would certainly try to do it. He would declare that what she was attracted to (or not) should make no difference even though he could point out, numerous times, that she needed a new face to go along with that body — the body that would be the portal for him to get to know her (and for her to “know herself, and to truly communicate with the world”) through the many forms of sexual activity he had planned for them. If she resisted he would begin a psychological ramble about what was wrong with her and how she had to get over it. And wasn’t she lucky she’d found someone who understood her problem, who would help her.
His name was, I kid you not, Richard Mann. Dick man.
Cris Mazza’s first novel, How to Leave a country, won the PEN / Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Some of her other notable earlier titles include Your Name Here: ___, Dog People and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? Mazza’s fiction has been reviewed numerous times in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, MS Magazine, Chicago Tribune Books, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Voice Literary Supplement, The San Francisco Review of Books, and many other book review publications.