By Sara Bir
Come on, girls. (I know you know this.) Do you believe in love? (I know you do.) I have something to say about it. (Of course).
It goes like…this.
The video for “Express Yourself” came out when I was in eighth grade. I watched it a million times, splayed out in the recliner with a Diet Coke in one hand and a remote glued to the other. Madonna was on a video gold streak with her “Like a Prayer” album. I watched, captive to MTV, as she pranced in front of burning crosses, frolicked on the beach with mermen, and sat atop a high-rise art deco building, her cropped blonde hair stirring in the breeze.
I didn’t buy her albums or read glossy magazines to follow her antics. There was no need. To a young person then, the Madonna juggernaut mingled with the particulate matter in the air we all breathed.
So it was unremarkable when I, at fifteen, channeled Madonna just by sitting on a stoop on a gray January afternoon during crew practice. Being on the crew team was the one thing that got me off the recliner and away from the TV. At school I half-assed it; there was no half-assing in crew. Ponch, our coach, made sure of that.
Our team had its winter conditioning at a dilapidated former Catholic school. The room that housed our medieval weight machines had a pressed tin ceiling, and when we did bench presses, I’d stare up at random patterns that water stains had made on the peeling white paint. Ponch—who did, in fact, have a paunch—had instructed the girls in my boat to run sprints up the fiercely pitched sidewalk outside while he oversaw the varsity girls’ weight training.
We all felt sluggish that day. After a few halfhearted sprints, I flopped across one of the large stone posts flanking the school’s entrance. And then the Spirit of Madonna entered me, as abrupt and ecstatic as the fiery tip of a spear. Unlike St. Teresa, I did not swoon. I rallied. “Come on girls!” Pause. “Do you believe in love?”
My teammates laughed. I kept going with a catlike crawl on the sidewalk, mimicking what Madonna does later in the “Express Yourself” video. The video has a plot, I think: Madonna, a pampered concubine sequestered in a factory, liberates herself by seducing a strapping, cosmetically dirt-smudged factory worker/male model.
Energized with my impromptu performance, we all attacked our sprinting with newfound vigor. When Ponch sent us out to do sprints again the following day, I sensed my teammates looking at me expectantly. That’s how the Madonna act became a regular feature of crew practice.
At our public high school in rural Southeast Ohio, crew was a sport not for preppies, but for savvy misfits. All of the athletic hippies and punkers and unclassifiables—my tribe!—rowed. Crew girls trained hard and goofed off harder. Practice was one of the few places where I could be myself, and apparently this meant imitating Madonna daily. Once spring came and we took our shells on the water, I modified the act for the narrow confines of our eight-woman shell and did Madonna bits when Ponch’s launch was well downriver. A shell sits only inches above the water, and its slenderness limited dance possibilities, so I’d mainly flail my arms and caress my sports bra before grabbing my crotch as a grand finale. “He’s coming!” our coxswain, Cecelia, would warn me. “Three, put your shirt back on!”
I rowed in the women’s varsity lightweight eight. We were ferociously devoted to each other in the sweet but maddeningly intense way of teenage girls. We spent hours together every week, training our bodies and minds to meld into a collective organism. In the confines of our rickety wooden shell, emotions ran high, and we bonded as snow or sun pummeled us, and we channeled our rampaging energy to tear our boat through the polluted froth of the Ohio River. Often delirious with hunger from the starvation jags we went on in order to get our weights under the dreadful 120-pound limit to compete in the Lightweight division, we elevated incidental bits of nothing—the plastic head of a bunny figurine, the yellow shorts our bow’s crush always wore, most of the words that came from Ponch’s mouth—into elaborate inside jokes. Blisters mottled our palms; black smears of slide grease stained our claves and the backs of our cutoff sweatpants. We practiced six days a week. The only single place I spent more time than the boat was in bed, sleeping.
Madonna quickly joined our complex network of good luck charms, superstitions, and pre-race rituals: the wearing of lucky underwear, the application of temporary tattoos, the stringing of matching beaded necklaces. It worked; we won, and won. Being Madonna was my duty to my team.
“You rowed good today, girls,” Ponch, sporting smudged aviator sunglasses and ever-present black stubble, would tell our boat as we came into the dock after a race with a triumphant outcome. He didn’t dole out compliments often, but we loved it when he did, bad grammar and all.
Secretly, I cooked up a Madonna performance for the hotel where we’d stay during Midwest Championships. The genesis was a very elaborate black lace bra I’d recently persuaded my mom to buy me at Victoria’s Secret—my first actual article of sexy lingerie, something I’d never have considered pre-Madonna. “Justify My Love” had recently come out. The video took place in a hotel. It was too perfect.
The week before, I’d rehearsed in my bedroom instead of studying, because a successful debut of my Madonna routine was undoubtedly top priority. For the costume, I wore the Victoria’s Secret bra and a flowing black silk chador my dad had brought back from his deployment in the United Arab Emirates. My awareness of world affairs was such that I did not recognize the absurdity of adapting Islamic dress for a Madonna impersonation.
I quietly spread word to my boat to come to room 112 after our charter buses brought us back from dinner at the mall. Jittery with nerves, I couldn’t eat a bite, though that was probably in my favor, as I was always tipping the scales at weigh-ins. My boatmates all heaped on the hotel room’s beds as I readied myself in the bathroom. Then I signaled Cecelia to cue “Justify My Love” on the boom box. That tense, confessional beat came on—a countdown—and the stupidity of the situation that I’d constructed hit me. But my boat was out there on the other side of the flimsy bathroom door, waiting. This was my duty to them.
I opened the door, terrified, and it happened again, just like it did in front of the Catholic school: the fiery point of the spear, a force outside of me triggering the intense urges inside of me. Worlds away, the Material Girl herself looked down upon me and smiled. I gyrated. My boat howled.
But my moment was cut short. After the first third of “Justify My Love,” several guys from the men’s junior varsity eight and then a grumbling chaperone crashed the party; panicking, I bolted to the closet, and the crowd scattered. The whole thing lasted all of a few minutes, but writhing in front of the crew team in my new black bra, I had found my bliss. (Where were your coaches? you ask. Where was Ponch? Why, in the hotel courtyard, doubtlessly wearing his threadbare “U.S. BEER TEAM” t-shirt, with a lawn chair and a cooler full of Miller Lite, gladly oblivious to our shrieking shenanigans.) As Sara Bir, I was brash and awkward and clumsy. Boys fled from me; I wallowed in angst and longing. But as Madonna, I was brash and desirable and powerful. It took a long time to fall asleep that night.
Madonna only grew in scope. My audience was receptive, and god knows I was willing. I straddled the sawhorses we rested out shells on; I strutted on ramp pretending to grind my oar; I vogued in the boat as the seven other girls leaned into their oars to keep it set.
For our hotel stay at Nationals the following season, I came up with something more polished and provocative, showcasing a black mini-dress with a built-in stretch satin corset I found at a trashy fashion outlet. I made breast cones out of foil-covered birthday hats and attached rhinestone-crusted spheres to dangle from the tips. It was a bondage-meets-glam masterpiece.
And that second year, when boys turned up our room along with the girls, I didn’t mind. If it took dressing like a sci-fi hooker for them to pay attention to me, fine. They were there, on my terms, and for the ten minutes that followed, I owned that hormone-packed hotel room. With the lights dimmed, I slinked out of the bathroom to a few lines of “Justify My Love” before throwing off the chador to reveal the corset. Cecelia flipped the light switch on, cued up “Like a Virgin,” and everyone sang along as I busted out my amateur choreography. My best friend videotaped the whole thing. It was a hit.
Afterwards, I was all riled up, and so a few of my boatmates and I slipped out to walk around the hotel grounds and see what happened when Madonna mingled with the public. What happened was a fleeting, micro-Mardi Gras. Two boys from another team had their pictures taken with me as they grasped my cone-breasts. It was the first time boys touched me there, and I was thrilled, even if they were groping hollow cardboard and not my actual body.
Tall, slouchy and slight, I didn’t resemble Madonna at all. Fortunately, her attributes were so iconic that it took only a pronounced dot of eyebrow pencil above the lip and a brassy attitude to evoke her. The breast cones didn’t hurt, either. I was a drag queen trapped in the body of a teenage girl. In my mind, I wasn’t imitating her. She and I acted in tandem; we were peers, fellow entertainers. Even back then, in my self-absorbed fog, I was onto her ruse: using this persona is cathartic, a tool.
Perhaps because she feared my Madonna habit was compromising my academic well-being, Mom eventually hid the costume from me. I easily found it crammed in the back of her dresser, upgraded the cones with red velvet, and wore it to school on Rock-n-Roll Day for Spirit Week. I donned the costume at the crew team camping trip, then my freshman college dorm, and then at the run-down lodge in Colorado where I cleaned rooms one dreary summer. (My mother, whose position had softened a bit, kindly sent it at my request).
In my twenties, I kept the costume, which became my backup for Halloween parties, but it elicited disappointingly mild responses, even from the man who is now my husband. Maybe I wasn’t feeling it anymore. Maybe I needed my boat, the best audience ever. So I kept it in my closet, where once a guy who was over for our first date caught a glimmer of cone and corset in the corner of his eye. He got the impression I was into scenes I was not into; it was also our last date.
The Madonna costume itself held up impressively after many moves from apartments and rental houses. The cones would get smooshed a little each time, but with a little cajoling, they’d pop right back into their pointy glory with a resilience worthy of Madge herself. More amazingly, I could still fit into the thing, even after having a kid. But its potency had faded somehow; I had no inclination to wear it. Even for kicks or kinks. In a fit of closet-crap purging, I took it to the Goodwill last year for some lucky vixen wannabe to snatch up. I assumed it couldn’t serve me any longer.
My husband and I have been married for almost ten years. Theoretically, that means I have access to unlimited sex. It means I could make out with the same person every single night. How incredible those prospects would have been to me at sixteen! And how incredible the prospect of making out seems to me now, or to anyone who’s been married for longer than three seconds. Who the hell has time for frivolities like that?
Now I get it. I need that Madonna costume because I have invoices to send, recipes to revise, emails to cull through. There’s a ring of crud around the toilet bowl, a car tire with a slow leak, and a menacing, colorful heap of mismatched little girl socks. There’s a credit card balance that makes mismatched little girl socks positively alluring by comparison. Sometimes I wake up and put together stylish outfits with giant baubles of jewelry and pearly lipstick shades, and it helps, but I consider those piles of neglected tasks and I might as well be shuffling around in fraying pajama bottoms. The prettied-up version of me is still me.
Even Madonna has her own Madonna version of these problems. Even Madonna needs a Madonna costume! Because Madonna Time is not what you do for other people, even if you are dancing right in front of them. It’s not about a spouse or partner, or even your boat. Madonna Time is for you. I want my Madonna Time back. There are no toilet bowl rings in Madonna Time. There are no tire leaks or accounting departments who “never received that invoice.” In Madonna Time, things happen because you make them happen. You are sexy. You are powerful. You have a physical need to be outrageous in public, and you have no issue with that whatsoever.
After I did my youthful Madonna routines, friends would tell me how brave I was. “I could never do that!” they’d confess. But I could never not do that. I grew up and found out that, as adults, our most daring performances are not about what we reveal, but what we successfully cover up.
My best friend still has that videotaped hotel room performance squirreled away somewhere, and thank god I know she’s trustworthy enough not to post it on You Tube, or I’d see a loudmouth teenager with bad makeup and a beaky nose wriggling around half-naked in a desperate plea for attention from her peers. And I’d be massively embarrassed, and also a little proud, because when I was insecure and vulnerable, I was not repressed. I was irrepressible.
They sell birthday hats at the dollar store. I probably have some red velvet fabric somewhere, some tacky glue. Maybe I should ask my best friend to send me that videocassette. It’s time to feel shiny and new again. It can’t be that hard to find a black corset.
SARA BIR, a writer and chef, lives in southeast Ohio. You can read more of her writing at www.sausagetarian.com. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.