Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sex and the Singular Girl

She had the exotic glamor of a foreign film star.
      Stan was the sexiest girl I had ever seen in person. She seemed to belong on a European movie set -- the leading lady in a passionate, complicated, black-and-white work of directorial genius -- not in our high-school Creative Writing class, circa 1965. Another student told me he had once asked her if "Stan" were her real, given name. She just laughed and replied, "Apparently."
    She was a senior, and I was a sophomore. From my assigned seat, I could stare at her as much as I wanted, which was pretty much all the time. She sat side-saddle, just one desk up and to my right. She mesmerized me.  I had never seen such radically arched eyebrows, even in a magazine. They made her appear to be perpetually alert and fascinated.  Her posture was positively regal -- that of a full-blown woman, not a teenager. She had the warmest, most open and gently amused face I had ever seen. Even so, she had no friends.

Canadian magazine Fashion celebrates the '60s
 "white-lipstick" heyday in its September 2012 issue.
    Stan's blonde hair was pulled straight up into a large bun on top of her head. She lined her eyes heavily in black, and she darkened a beauty mark near her upper lip with the same pencil. We all wore white lipstick during that brief era in cosmetics history, but on her, with her flawless pale skin (no zits, ever), it looked natural.  
Her going-to-the-ball hair was
 not your typical high-school style.
    Cheekbones were a quite an obsession among adolescent girls at that time, and we used various teen-magazine "makeup tips" to create the illusion that we had them. Stan's were authentic: sculpturally high and well-defined, uplifted by her ever-present near-smile.  

    I never heard her speak, except when Mrs. Stringham directed a question at her about one of the short stories we had just read, and her answers were always limited to the fewest possible words: "Contrived plot." "Challenging symbolism." "Admirably humane."
    She was smart, and she knew it, but she had no desire to flaunt it. I envied her self-assurance. I was a flaunter, big-time.

Stan had Ava Gardner-style glamor.
     She had an almost unnaturally tiny waist, and large (okay, huge) breastsHer hips and rump were full, and her legs were what is known as "shapely": substantial thighs and calves, small knees and ankles. I had never seen shapely legs before, and have rarely seen them since.

    Stan wore dresses that looked like the tasteful, well-tailored attire I'd seen on my mother in photos from the 1930s: They had elbow-length sleeves, narrow lapels, fabric-covered buttons, and wide, tightly cinched belts. They were designed to reflect an understated modesty: attractive but prim. On Stan's body, though, that concept got lost in translation. She poured forth with a lavishness and lusciousness that couldn't be ignored. Her body emanated the playful sexuality of a pinup girl.
She exuded a naughty-but-nice vibe.
    At lunchtime, she sat by herself on the perimeter of the vast, circular school cafeteria, looking joyously observant, as if enchanted by the sight of all those young people trying so gamely to "fit in." She always brought her food from home in a dreamy, miniature pink-wicker picnic basket.  
    Delicately, she took teensy bites of tiny, decorated sandwiches. Each one was a work of art that she examined appreciatively before relishing every morsel. 
Even her food was adorable.
    By comparison, the stuff on our trays looked like some kind of cowboy goulash: gross, greasy, with hacked-up varmints for protein.  

    Stan poured her amber ginger ale into a clear plastic champagne glass. She crossed her legs at the ankles, like Jackie Kennedy. She was magnificent!
    After daintily blotting the corners of her mouth with a napkin, and sweeping her tongue across her teeth for hygiene, she retrieved her Tangee compact from her purse and "touched up" a face that couldn't have been more perfect. She smiled at her reflection the same way she smiled at everything else: with detached amusement and radiant acceptance.

     Then -- guess what, you guys? -- she showed up one day with glistening pinkish-coral lips. So yummy! So sweetly subtle and kissable! We all agreed: It was a fabulous coup on her part. The white-lips era pretty much ended that day at our school, thanks entirely to her. 


    We found out somehow that she was wearing a Tangee product that we thought was new, but had actually been introduced in 1922. A 1934 advertisement for it (thank you, Google) was provocative: "Put it on. Watch it change colour instantly to the one blushing shade that's perfect for  your skin tone and personality!" 
    That wasn't true, of course -- we all wound up with the same apricot-rose-hued lips.  It became one of our first lessons in the cavalier deceptions of the advertising world: Consumer goods are not "magical"! But it did make all of us look prettier, and it sure smelled good. 
The legendary lipstick can still be purchased for $15.00 at the Vermont Country Store.

    One sunny spring afternoon, my French teacher gave me his car keys and asked me to fetch a folder from his front seat. I ran out to the parking lot, inhaling the scent of flowering trees, and there I experienced one of those peak moments of beauty that one never forgets: Stan was leaning against the hood of her turquoise convertible Mustang. She had removed all the pins from her hair, so it could fly freely in the breeze, and she was smoking, with her head thrust back as if surrendering to the flow of  Nature.
Stan looked like a Fellini goddess, who came with her own waterfall.
    I don't know why I picked that instant, after all these months, to speak to her, but I called out her name and waved. She nodded at me in a neutral way, and returned her gaze to the horizon, tossing her tressses -- like a golden Palomino -- as she did so
    Nodding struck me as an incredibly cool, adult thing to do, and I vowed on the spot to incorporate it into my repertoire. I have renewed my vow over and over again, but never once have I nodded at anyone. It just never occurs to me until it's too late.

    One night while I was doing my homework, my mother called upstairs and said the phone was for me.
    When I picked up, a female voice said, "Syl, it's me: Stan. What's hangin'?"
    I hesitated, out of confusion. Stan was calling me? And calling me "Syl"? What's up with that?
    "You know, from Creative Writing?" she pressed.
    "I know. Hi," I said.
    She told me she needed "a shoulder to cry on," and asked if I would go for a drive with her.

    I was thrilled. Why me? She was a queen, grand and mysterious. I was a little runt by comparison. I was amazed that she even knew my name. Maybe everyone else she called had turned her down? I didn't care -- I was dying to know what made her tick. I put on a bunch of makeup and my new "bleeding Madras" bermuda shorts for the occasion. I even spritzed a bit of L'Origan cologne on my throat. Why? I don't know!
Madras was one of those inexplicable but intense fashion fads.
     Stan wore a white chiffon scarf around her upswept hair as we sped, with the top down, into the nearby canyons. We didn't talk at all -- we just listened to the radio. The Mamas & the Papas were on, and the Beatles ("We Can Work it Out"). I was surprised at how uncomfortable I became when "Lightning Strikes" by Lou Christie was played. It had never occurred to me how creepy it was, but now that I was hearing it in the presence of another person, the "again and again and again and again" part made me squirm.
We had to enter another world for Stan to share her anguished secret.
    Stan was exulting in the breeze -- as she had that day in the school parking lot -- while we roared along forest-flanked roadways up the mountain.  Wildflowers were everywhere amid the boulders, as if it had all been professionally landscaped.

    "Don't you love my car?" she grinned. "It's my prized possession."
    "It's the best," I said sincerely. "Even better than Mark's Porsche."
It was better than Fred's Volvo, Tom's VW and Jeff's MGB V8, too.
     Before long, we turned off onto a side road and parked among the spruces and aspen trees, next to a rushing stream.
    When I say "park," I am using a word that had an extremely negative connotation back then, just as drive-in movies did. If people were parked, they were up to no good. Certain outcroppings around the valley were notorious parking venues, where all sorts of "making out" was going on. Everyone was horrified at this new trend among young people.

    I had a moment of unease about the intimacy that was already inherent in the situation: two young ladies, parked in a secluded area, just as the sun was going down.
    She deftly distracted me from that preoccupation:
    "Do you like cigarettes?" Stan inquired.
    "I love them," I said earnestly.
    She reached under her seat and fetched an elegant pack of imported Dunhills -- in a handsome box, with gold paper inside! How chic of her to drive all the way downtown to a "smoke shop," instead of running into a gas station. I just knew they'd taste great, and they did.
"Unparalleled flavour," indeed.
     As we lit up, she said, "Do you like beer?"
    "I couldn't love it more," I replied. This was heaven.
    She reached around her seat to the floor in back and produced two cold, dewy bottles of Coors. Never had any fluid seemed so irresistible.
Bubbly! Delightful!
    At last, it seemed like the right time for some sort of drama to unfold. All we needed were some corn nuts, and she had a bag of those, too, in the glove compartment. 

    "Syl," she said, looking out over the valley. "Kid -- do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
    I loved personal questions.
    "Have you ever gone 'all the way'?"   
    "I've only even been kissed twice, and I hated it," I told her.
    "Was it the Frenching -- the tongue part?" she said sympathetically.
Need we say more?
    "At first, I thought he was trying to put some sort of jellied candy into my mouth, but it had no flavor," I told her.   
    She burst out laughing. "Jellied candy -- I'm going to have to use that some time," she said.  
    "It's not sanitary," I grimaced. I had been reared in a home in which Clorox and Lysol were the defining fragrances. No germs were permitted! Wash those hands!  You were supposed to keep your tongue to yourself -- not to poison innocent bystanders with it.
    "Don't be mad, but I go 'all the way' a lot," Stan said. She was  looking directly into my eyes for the first time.
    Of course I wasn't mad. She seemed designed expressly for the purpose of going all the way. 
    "Who with?" I asked casually.
    "A bunch of boys at West," she confided.
Stan was part of a long and noble tradition.

     Naturally: West High. The school on the "wrong side" of town.  Everyone on our goodie-goodie East side knew that all sorts of unsavory -- even unspeakable -- things went on over there. People were on welfare. They lived in trailers. They dropped out of high school. Some were even juvenile delinquents. Morals were loose, of course, and the girls undoubtedly used padded bras (with dirty straps) to keep things throbbing. 
    The guys were greasers (yuck, Brylcream). The baddest boys wore bandanas around their heads and stained, sleeveless undershirts. They drove souped-up, old, loud cars. And a lot of them had foreign names. Some of their fathers were, like, truck drivers and construction workers. It was terrible to know that people could live that way. "Something should be done," our mothers (and local officials) agreed. Those loose, lazy, no-goo people were a blight, possibly contagious, on our pristine valley.

     So our city did, in fact, have its own "West Side Story," probably with real switchblades and everything.
When you're a slut, you're a slut all the way (to your last dying day).
    Naturally, none of my friends and I had never come close to venturing into that menacing territory. Just think of what might happen -- it made one shiver
    (Two years later, I visited West High as a cast member in our school's "traveling assembly." The building was splendid, built in 1899, and had much more style and substance than our "modern" one did. More importantly: The kids there were great. They were the warmest, most responsive audience we had on our entire statewide tour. After our performance, they graciously served us refreshments in the gym. We didn't see even one evil-looking person. We were smiling the whole time. It was a powerful lesson in the stupidity and brutality of prejudice. It wouldn't be my last.)
West was the first high school built in the state.
     "But the bad part is: I'm pregnant," Stan revealed, her eyes filling with tears. She didn't even know who the father was, she said, but one of her lovers -- Manny -- told her about an apartment on West Second South where some guy could "take care of it" for her.

    At that time, being pregnant was the second worst thing in the world, right after nuclear war. But abortion was illegal and dangerous. People were bleeding to death all over the place. That's what you get, young lady, for being a tramp.

These devices were used to pierce the amniotic sac, inducing abortion.
    "West Second South is where all the prostitutes are, Stan!" I exclaimed. 
    "I know, but what else can I do?" she sobbed. "I never really wanted to get laid -- I just wanted someone to hold me. And most of them didn't even do that."
    She had disclosed when she called me that she needed a shoulder to cry on. She was crying. This was a role I had never played before, and it didn't come naturally. It wasn't a lack of empathy, but rather a fear of physical intimacy with anyone of either gender. For me, embracing and comforting another girl constituted intimacy, and seemed to flirt a bit with the dreaded "lesbo" specter.
    To make matters even scarier: The bucket seats prevented me from getting close enough to provide the requested service. The next move became clear.
You stupid seats! Look what you made me do!
      "Let's get in back," I said. "I can't be your 'shoulder' from way over here."
    "Back seat" had an even more highly charged connotation than "parking." 

    I was so determined to be respected and well-liked at school that it amazes me to this day that I climbed back there with this mascara-streaked sex bomb and did the best I could to give her what she needed. 
   It wasn't strength of character on my part. My character wasn't all that strong then, and it still isn't. But I do feel compassion for people who are suffering. Sometimes that moves in and overshadows everything else. 
    Once we got past the clumsy maneuvering of getting back there, it became, for me, another peak experience. I had never given or received physical affection from another girl, or from a boy. 
                                   "Loving Embrace" by Brittany Smith
We joined in heartfelt kinship as the sun went down.
   With my arms around her shoulders, and her face buried in my chest as she cried, I felt an extraordinary sense of grace. It was kind of like being a mother, and kind of like being a man, but those flashes of age and gender labeling didn't distract me from the more profound communion that was occurring. Her full body comforted me, even as I tried to comfort her.
    When the sobbing stopped, and the requisite nose-blowing had been completed, we remained in the back seat for a few moments more, smoking and finishing the beer.

    I mustered the courage to ask her why her parents had named her Stan.
    She teared up again, but suppressed it.
    "My mother got preggers 'out of wedlock,' so she gave me away," Stan said. "The couple that adopted me had just lost their little boy, Stanley, so they named me for him. I hated it for the longest time, but now I think it's kind of hip. It's different."
                 by Victorian painter James John Hill
Stan had yearned for her real mother. Would she give her baby away?
      "I love it," I told her. "You're the most darling girl I ever met, Stan -- honest. You shouldn't even be living in this stupid town. You should be living in Paris, or somewhere like that."
    She took my wrist and kissed it. 
    "Now, here I am in the same situation as my real mom," she continued. "I have to either make the baby disappear, or disappear myself until it's over, and give the poor little thing away." 
    I wasn't wise enough, at the age of fifteen-going-on-sixteen, to know how to advise her, but I was wise enough to realize that. I begged her to seeadult counsel.
    We didn't have seatbelts back then. We didn't have drunken driving either, that we'd ever heard of, but in retrospect I think we were lucky to get down that winding canyon roadway alive.  
    All of us were lucky to get out of youth alive, we did so many crazy things back then. 

    When we all returned to our classes after Easter recess, Stan was absent. She never came back, and neither our teacher nor the vice principal had been notified of any move or transfer.  
    I was uncomfortable calling her house, but I did. No one ever answered. The school year ended, and we all moved on.
The venerable Louvre Museum in Paris.
    The following winter, during junior year, I got a postcard from Stan with a picture of the Louvre on the front. I was surprised that the penmanship of someone so urbane and discerning was flamboyantly girlish, adorned with little hearts.
    "Oh, Syl, you were right: I do belong in Paris!" she wrote. "I never knew how beautiful a simple day can be. Guess how I got here -- I made all those horny guys pay up! I was going to name the baby after you, but a boy named Sylvia would get even more crap thrown at him than a girl named Stan. So his name Lloyd-Wright, after our favorite architect. Thanks for the shoulder -- it was the best one ever. Hugs and Kisses, Stan."
Frank Lloyd Wright was brilliant, but rather brutish.
    (The Frank Lloyd Wright reference amazed me. My first short story for our Creative Writing class had been about a young female architecture student who spends one summer as an intern at Taliesin, Wright's vast summer retreat. I would never have dreamed that Stan remembered it, or that she would share my appreciation for his style.) 
    There was no return address., except that she mentioned living in the bohemian Montmartre section of the city
                                             by Roy Rainford
 Montmartre is famous as a magnet for artists and derelicts.
     I think she intuited that neither of us really wanted to get embroiled in a correspondence, but she had the kindness to let me know she was doing well, and that she had kept the baby. It was a gesture I very much appreciated.
     And that, as the saying goes, was all she wrote.
Right back at you, Stan.

    This is a fictionalized story, inspired by a very real and remarkable person, who is still as vivid in my mind as she was almost 50 years ago. I have recently learned that she maintained her connection to Paris after returning to the States -- she and her partner are art dealers, who spend much of their time in "The City of Light."
   Je t'aime, mon amie!