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Authors: Jane Juska

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BOOK: A Round-Heeled Woman
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“My daughter understands me,” he said. “Nobody else does.” I believed him at once. “And Ireland,” he remembered. “They know how to handle me in Ireland.”

Not a rooster, I thought, a leprechaun. That's what he looks like. I had never been partial to leprechauns or to anything Irish, with the exceptions of G. B. Shaw, James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, and, lately, Roddy Doyle. I was certainly not warming to this man. I would try harder. I leaned forward and said, “Tell me what it's like when people don't understand you. Tell me what it's like to be sued. Did you really win?” I was genuinely curious and relieved: I was certainly not going to sleep with this man, not even see him again. I relaxed. If he could just hold his coffee.

His eyes brightened, dimmed when he spilled his third cup of coffee, and regained a bit o' glimmer as he launched into the telling of a tale in which he was the hero, the victim, the loser, the winner, the cleverest little guy in the entire college. “Actually,” he said, “I think they just used the sexual harassment thing to try and get rid of me.” I shuddered as he lifted a glass of water to his mouth with both hands. I imagined him holding his glass full of whiskey, Irish no doubt, in just that way, spilling a good bit but belting enough to calm his nerves, steady his hands for the next one.

“You know,” he continued, “ever since this women's movement, some damn female has been out to get people like me. I'm just a guy who's friendly, a guy who'll pat you on the back or the fanny, maybe put an arm around your waist . . .” He reached across the table to grab my hand, which, ever so quickly, I tucked beneath the table, where I dug my nails into my palm. “Anyway, they paid me a huge amount of money to resign.” He blushed unbecomingly. “It's what's taking me to Ireland.”

I had had enough. But I didn't get up and leave. I could have. It wasn't that I cared what the other diners in the room thought of me; I certainly didn't care what Danny here thought of me. But I stayed. Days later, as I related this experience to my friend, she asked, “Why didn't you leave?” I answered, “I wanted to find out how it would turn out.” I had no idea what I was in for.

“I've got a great sense of humor,” Danny said. “Watch this.”

He spun in his chair, began to jerk his head back and forth, looked at the waiter, who came forward, our hamburgers balanced on his arm, and said, in a loud voice shaking with desperation, “Who took my medication? I can't function without my medication!”

The hamburgers on the waiter's arm almost tumbled; the waiter said, “Oh, sir, I don't know . . .”

Danny rose from his chair, whirled around, and, arms and legs moving spasmodically about, addressed the entire room: “Who's got it? My medication! I had it when I came in! I gotta have it! I do crazy things without it!” He looked wildly about him and bounced across the floor to the window. The waiter, white-faced, put the hamburgers down and moved to stop Danny from leaping to his death. The diners at the other tables watched open-mouthed, wide-eyed, frozen in disbelief.

I moved quickly from embarrassment to anger and, just as Danny lifted his leg and placed it on the windowsill, I bellowed in my best and loudest teacher voice, “Sit down!” And he did. He turned from the window, came back to the table, and sat down. “See?” he said, a triumphant grin on his face. “I told you I've got a great sense of humor.” The gray fuzz on the top of his head stood out in all directions, as if it had been electrified by its owner's performance. He turned and addressed the people at the table across the room. “This is our first date,” he said. “How'm I doing?”

“Eat your hamburger,” I ordered. “You're going to leave that waiter a very large tip.”

“Boy, some people these days just don't know how to take a joke, know what I mean?” The men at the table across the room smiled their understanding. What was wrong with these people? The women looked at me in dismay and sympathy. Those men and those women didn't belong together. But, then, neither did we, this Danny so pleased with his cleverness and I so grimly angry.

I gulped the last of my hamburger—never let a good hamburger go to waste, and these were the days before
E. coli
—and signaled the waiter, still pale, for the check. I placed half the amount in front of Danny. “You're paying for your own lunch?” Danny asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“That's classy,” he said. “You're a classy woman.”

“You are leaving the tip,” I ordered.

Danny got out his wallet and pulled a few bills from the roll of money won from some exhausted junior college and intended now for Ireland. He placed three dollars on the table. “That's not enough,” I said. Obediently, he placed dollar bills on the table, one on top of the other, until they made a sizable pile. “Keep going,” I said and finally nodded. “That's enough.” I added my tip to the pile and rose to leave.

As I passed the table of onlookers, I shook my head in sympathy at the young women who knew now, if they hadn't known before, that they were stuck with bozos. I never knew what happened to Danny, whether he sat there in the restaurant stuffing his harassment money back into his wallet, whether he chatted up the people at the surrounding tables, whether he trailed forlornly after me out of the restaurant. I suspect he left quite jauntily, having no audience to impress with his sense of humor, no fans, that is, until he returned to the land of his ancestors, where they understood him. I suspect he brushed our date away as just another failure of the Wrong Side of the Atlantic to appreciate him. Ah, the indomitability of the human spirit.

On the way home, I puzzled over this man. I think he lost his heart somewhere along the way of his life and never got it back. Maybe he thinks it's in Ireland. Oh, Ireland, here he comes, and just when you thought your troubles were over.

FIVE

The Fabulous Fifties

I left the safety of my little town for the mysteries of Ann Arbor confident that my bartending skills would see me through college. My first semester at the University of Michigan I spent kissing, and learning to talk dirty. Kissing came surprisingly easily, surprising in one whose high school friends called her (behind her back) the Ice Queen. Talking dirty took a little longer. My freshman roommate came from a Chicago suburb, a nice one. My swear word up to that time had been
fudge.
Hers was
fuck.
And she said it all the time.
Shit
was another word I had never uttered—I had hardly even heard it! Peggy used it frequently and as naturally as she used
fuck,
which was very natural. She taught me this ditty she and her high school friends had composed. It is sung to the tune of the radio jingle advertising Ajax, the foaming cleanser. Join me, won't you.

Boom boom boom penis
(
boom boom
)
The milky seminal
(
ba ba b-b-b bum bum
)
Floats the sperm right down the cunt (k-k-k-k-k-k-cunt)

Aaaaand urine
That yellow piss
It's what you get
In a German kiss
(
k-k-k-k-k-k-kiss
).

From that jingle I learned more about sex than I had in all my years up to that time. I sang it up and down the halls of the dormitory, delighted with my newfound crudeness and what I perceived as the introduction to wild sexual abandon. Peggy smoked Pall Malls, so I did that, too. The desk we shared— Peggy on one side, me on the other—was covered with cigarette ash; cigarette butts spilled onto it from the huge, rarely emptied, and always filthy ashtray. The curtains over the one window in our room, heavy with smoke, were always closed. Smoke trailed above our heads and settled into a permanent haze over our single converted to double by way of bunk beds. Our fingers turned yellow; our mouths and breaths reeked of stale, burned tobacco. Peggy loved that room, and so I did, too. About the only thing I didn't do that Peggy did was get elected to Phi Beta Kappa. I had to settle for smoking and swearing. It was enough. And, oh yes, I almost forgot. Peggy taught me to study. “Spark me, kid,” she'd say in the early morning, and I would hold a match to her first cigarette. She did the same for me. We just lit up and hit the books. Some years later, Peggy told me, “You ask more of life than anyone I know.” It was not a compliment, it was a warning. Phi Beta Kappa knew how to pick them.

SMOKING AND SWEARING lasted long past kissing. In college, one had dates. One went to mixers, one got fixed up by girlfriends with boys. And I was passing good-looking. Thanks once more to my mother, who daily cooked lean beef and supplied me with amphetamines, I had spent the previous six months dieting; except for my still-mammoth breasts, I looked okay. She had even had some of her classy clothes cut down to fit me, clothes she no longer wore. So, in my mother's suits and skirts, I went to beer parties and football games with boys. At the end of the second date—never on the first—I stood on the porch of my dorm and kissed Lance or Dave or Pete good night. I even did it open-mouthed like Dave taught me. “Not quite so wide,” he said. I liked open-mouth kissing—French kissing, I learned it was. The boys seemed to enjoy it, too, once they got over worrying I might swallow their face. Then always the porch light would flicker, the sign from the housemother that the time to stop such goings-on had arrived. And then the porch light would come on and stay on, no environment for any kind of hankypanky.

I would hurry up to my room and to Peggy, also returned from her date, and we would compare notes. The most important conversation we had, the most intimate I had ever had with anyone, was with Peggy. For we suffered from a similar handicap: large breasts, neither set perky. In the dark of our room, me on the top bunk, Peggy on the bottom, the bright tips of our cigarettes lighting up the night, we would wonder out loud about marriage. “What will we tell our husbands?” “Are you going to tell him before the wedding?” “What if he runs away?” Then we would laugh and pull the covers over our heads like the children we still were. “Do you ever let your date touch you there?” we asked each other. “Absolutely not,” we answered.

The struggle to maintain my purity ended, with purity the victor, around December of that first semester. I had gained twenty pounds and looked not so good. My mother's clothes no longer fit, my breasts were even bigger, and I was ashamed of what I had done and of how I looked. The phone stopped ringing, and for the next three years, with a few exceptions, I remained dateless. One of the exceptions was Simon. He seemed to like me fat or not. He was Jewish, which appealed to me given my father's warnings that “There will be loud people in your classes who talk all the time and are pushy.” My father's anti-Semitism appalled me; his feet turned to clay before my very eyes, and so it was with pride and a certain self-satisfaction that I sent home the photograph of Simon and me at the spring formal. He looked Jewish. He looked good. He was irreverent, and I liked that about him; he drove me all the way from Ann Arbor to Detroit to the burlesque. We drank beer, ate popcorn, and watched Tall, Tantalizing Tamara do things with a pole. She was beautiful. I wanted to be her. We went again, on Family Night. Popcorn was free and I think there was a donkey.

Simon wanted to kiss me and even more, and I didn't want him to. There must have been something wrong with him, I figured, if he liked me. By my junior year, I was a fashion embarrassment. I had taken to wearing the same pleated skirt, the same very big cardigan sweater, day after day. In the privacy of the sorority house, I wore khaki pants and—you guessed it—a sweatshirt. What was wrong with this tall, good-looking, Jewish, funny, nice boy that he liked me? I hated me, and gradually Simon grew discouraged and we became friends.

I had a lot of friends once word got around that I could hold my liquor. Peggy and I had pledged the same sorority—her grades got her in, my mother got me in—where she had pretty much given up dating in favor of studying. I had figured out how to get B's with very little work. In my free time, I saw every movie shown in Ann Arbor between 1951 and the year of my graduation, 1955. Now recall: my hometown had one movie theater and not even that until I was in eighth grade. Ann Arbor had three, plus the tiny one in the basement of Angell Hall where some cineast showed weird movies like Kafka's
The Meta
morphosis, one of the most powerful pieces of my education. So I didn't go to Angell Hall often. I stayed commercial and fell passionately in love with Marlon Brando in that motorcycle movie,
The Wild One.
I was the small-town girl in that movie, the one Marlon Brando saves from the bad motorcycle guys who are closing in on her to do unspeakable acts. He saved me eight times, the number of times I saw the movie. I also never missed a hockey game in four years—the team gave me an autographed stick, I caught a puck—and in between, I squeezed in a few baseball and basketball games. My fall was devoted, of course, to football games. Swim meets were always fun. If I couldn't sleep with boys, even kiss them, I could look at them. And catch their pucks. Ah, youth, ah, wilderness.

Weekend nights Peggy and I and others unaccompanied by boys to boring parties went to the movies with each other and wondered what Ginny and Judy did on the nights they climbed through the window after curfew. I, a beacon of rectitude, was elected to Standards Board. Standards Board determined the fates of wrongdoers. I must have been at my ugliest and not only physically when I voted to put Judy on probation for Staying Out All Night at a fraternity party. I watched, no doubt with a smug smile on my face, when Judy did as ordered and unpinned herself. No Delta Gamma for girls who flaunted their sexuality. Judy's breasts might be perky, but they didn't wear the DG anchor. Mine did.

My mother was a help here, too. We had never had a sex talk, really, like how one did it and why, if procreation wasn't on one's agenda. What advice she passed on to me had come while she and I changed the sheets on the beds once she determined I had learned to miter the corners properly. I was a senior in high school and the scandal in town was that Sally was pregnant. Sally was a senior, too, definitely a girl and a pretty one; she had a boyfriend named Alvin. They necked all over town. My mother decided to use Sally's unfortunate behavior to direct me in my life at the big university, where the freshman class was five times bigger than the entire town in which I grew up.

Pulling the bottom sheet tight, my mother said, “I hear Sally got herself in trouble.”

I nodded. Sally was my friend.

“Whenever a girl gets pregnant outside of marriage, it's her fault.” She straightened up to her full height of five feet nine inches and looked across the bed at me.

“It is?”

“It is.” She continued, “Men have animal passions. It is the woman's duty to subdue them. If she fails, she may very well become pregnant. And she has only herself to blame.”

I believed her. I believed everything my mother told me. She would never lie. She would never be mistaken. She would never be wrong. She was my mother.

On the other hand, I read books all the time. Not in English class, of course. In high school English class we had an anthology, so we read part of
Hamlet
and short stories by Saki and O. Henry. At the University of Michigan the faculty apparently assumed students had read all the famous works, so we were assigned the second and the third famous. I was, I figured, at least two years behind; it would take me most of my life to catch up on my reading, a most felicitous way to spend one's life.

The books I read while I was in high school came from the town library, where Sarah Levi steered me away from the adult shelves as long as she could. Eventually, at the library and in my grandmother's house, I came upon, I fell upon, what we now call bodice rippers. Frank G. Slaughter was my favorite,
Battle
Surgeon
his best. The hero was a surgeon in battle in World War II. My dad was a surgeon, and during World War II he traveled to the county seat once a month to see if the draft board would call him up for duty. Every month he returned downhearted: the father of four and the only surgeon in three counties, he was essential to the homefront, which in fact wasn't all that beleaguered, most of its residents being Mennonites and so conscientious objectors. In
Battle Surgeon
the main character is terribly handsome, as was my father, and he wants this particular nurse. She is a good girl and resists; she is noble in wartime and gifted in her nursing, but one night, fresh from battlefield surgery, where the doctor and the nurse looked meaningfully at each other over their operating masks, the battle surgeon seizes her 'round the waist right when all the bombs are bursting and she feels the roughness of him pressing against her. He feels the mounds of her breasts (!) beneath her scrubs. Their hearts beat wildly and they kiss. Holy Toledo!

Then there was Frank Yerby.
Foxes of Harrow,
another winner (think Rex Harrison as the lead, which he was). The hero of this one is so enormously masculine, yet underneath his cavalier behavior so gentle, that no woman (Maureen O'Hara) could resist him. And she doesn't. She, like the battle nurse, is swept up, overpowered, overwhelmed by Manhood, and can't be held responsible for her passionate behavior.

One Christmas my grandmother, who lived across the street and belonged to the Literary Guild and read all of Taylor Caldwell's novels as fast as Ms. Caldwell could write them, gave my mother her very own copy of
Gone with the Wind
(so she would quit borrowing hers). At the tender age of sixteen, I read it. Sakes alive! Ashley, oh Ashley! Rhett, how could you? Scarlett, despite your first sentence, you were beautiful! You drove men wild with desire! And then, when he carried you up those stairs, and you did it, you did it against your will and only after you were married and you loved it. That's how sex ought to be!

There was no stopping me now.

Janice Meredith
was a Revolutionary War romance, not nearly as torrid as
Gone with the Wind,
whose background of the Civil War far outshone
Janice
's Revolutionary setting. Janice, too, saved an injured soldier, so she had to marry him, and she was happy except that he was British, but what else could she do after she let him kiss her under the bridge? The very best of all, though, was
The Sheik.
Ahhhh,
The Sheik
! I read
The Sheik
almost as many times as my mother, though she never knew it. She would send me to the library to get it and
Janice,
and I would sneak it when she was paying attention to the younger kids in my family or to my dad, who didn't read anything but medical books in which my brother discovered photographs and drawings of naked parts and showed them to me.
The Sheik,
a major motion picture in 1921 starring Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres, beat
Gone with the Wind
all to heck when it came to sex. Agnes played a smart-alecky, independent, rich English beauty named Lady Diana Mayo, who travels to the desert to relieve the boredom of her wealth-ridden life in rural England. She gets kidnapped. She gets swooped up—by the sheik—carried to his horse, put on the saddle right in front of the sheik, and transported far into the desert. All the way she can hear the pounding of his heart and feel his burnoose pressing into her neck and shoulders. And when they get there—to the sheik's silken tent—he carries her not to his tent, but to her very own tent, from which there is no escape being that it is the desert and all. Then, one night he comes into the tent, her tent. “Why have you brought me here?” Lady Diana demands. And the sheik replies, “Are you not woman enough to know?” He kneels down and covers her mouth with kisses. She resists, her little fists flailing futilely against his brawny chest about to become nude. Finally, there is nothing for it but to succumb to his superior strength and good looks, so succumb she does. They do it, she likes it, and we're not even halfway through the book!

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