The Grooming

By AfroDad/ Flickr
By AfroDad/ Flickr

By Carolyn Edgar

When I was fourteen, I was what guys now call “thick.” In 1979 terms, though, I was just “fat.” I developed early and had boobs and butt galore, but I also had linebacker arms and thighs to go along with them.

In my family, my sisters were the beauties. My oldest sister Cheryl was fair-skinned with deep green eyes. My second oldest sister Caroletta had naturally wavy hair that required no heat straightening to cascade over her shoulders and down her back. I had neither. My eyes were hazel, more brown than green, and my hair, according to my mother, was “nappy” and had to be pressed. Both my sisters were slimmer than me: my oldest sister was short and curvy, and my second oldest sister was thin and muscular, with a tiny waist and large breasts. With my brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes and thick thighs, I most closely resembled a piece of well-done fried chicken.

Since I wasn’t considered a beauty in my family, I tried to content myself with being the smart girl, the good girl, the girl who never got into trouble, and I told on my siblings who did. When I reached my teens, I didn’t just want to be smart anymore—I wanted to be cute, too. But my weight kept getting in the way.

At Precious Blood, the small Catholic school I attended for eighth grade, the fine boys in my class either ignored me or teased me. It was always good sport to make fun of the fat girl. The only other male attention that I regularly received was the street harassment that I endured nearly every day as I walked home after school. Men would drive slowly alongside me, shouting, “Hey baby, can I talk to you?” I would ignore them and continue walking, acting if I didn’t hear the comments they made about my ass and what they’d like to do with it. Eventually, they would scream, “Fuck you then, you fat bitch!” when I kept my eyes focused ahead and refused to acknowledge them.

All throughout eighth grade, I had watched couples sneak across the parking lot at recess and go behind the nursing home adjacent to Precious Blood to make out. High school, I hoped, would mean a wider variety of boys, some of whom might appreciate my ass like the men who followed me in cars, but hopefully without the “fuck you, fat bitch” part. Unlike all the schools I’d gone to before, my high school—Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s largest and most prestigious high school—was huge. With over five thousand students, the school was filled with good-looking boys everywhere I turned. My second oldest sister, a senior, was friends with all the hot senior guys, but to them, I was just her little freshman sis.

Along with the multitude of hot guys, there were girls at my school who were bona fide glamour queens. Every day, these daughters of doctors, lawyers, and judges came to school with their slim bodies dressed in the latest fashions. I envied their tight Calvin Klein jeans, their fresh-from-the-salon hairstyles, their Fashion Fair and Clinique makeup, and their Coach purses. With so many beautiful girls around, no matter how many boys I had crushes on—and the crushes felt like legion at that point—the guys I wanted to notice me were paying no attention to the shy nerdy fat girl.

A few other boys took notice. There was the senior boy at my school who, one day during swim class, took me down to the deep end of the pool—I couldn’t swim—and stuck his tongue in my mouth and his fingers in my vagina. I hadn’t much cared for either intrusion, but I held onto him for dear life so that I wouldn’t drown. He was a senior, and he was light-skinned with curly hair, so I was even momentarily excited that I’d been singled out to be assaulted by him. One day, I asked Caroletta, as casually as I could, if she knew him.

“Ugh,” she responded. “He’s a creep. How do you know him?”

“He’s on the swim team, and they practice in the deep end during my swim class.”

She frowned in disgust. “Stay away from him. He’s a weirdo.”

Caroletta didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask what that statement meant. But her words forced me to stop thinking of what that guy had done to me in the terms of the romance novels I loved—as a seduction. I began to see what he had done to me as something that was wrong and that shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t tell my sister or anybody else what he had done to me, but I avoided him after that.

There was the boy I met at a football game—a boy from one of our rival schools, King High School. He wasn’t even remotely cute, but he approached me like I was, and convinced me to go over to his house one day after school. As we lay on his sofa that day—him on top of me, his enormous lips completely encircling mine, covering the lower half of my face with spit—I could only think about washing my face and getting home. Fortunately, he was as afraid of his mother as I was of mine, so he hustled me out before his mama got home from work, and I managed to get home early enough to avoid getting in trouble with my own mother. I had no desire to repeat the experience, so although I made the mistake of giving him my phone number, I luckily answered the phone every time he called, and each time, I would hang up like it was a wrong number. Soon afterwards, he took the hint and stopped calling.

And then there was the boy I liked the most at the time, a sophomore who was friends with my best friend Melinda’s boyfriend. He kissed me once during study hall, apparently out of boredom, and then forgot I was alive. Even though my crush ignored me afterwards, I replayed that kiss over and over in my head every day, multiple times each day, each time daydreaming that the kiss led him to realize that I was The One.

Since the boys I liked showed no real interest in me, and the ones who did show interest were creeps, I turned to the worlds of sports and entertainment for fantasy boyfriends. I had crushes on both of the Brothers Johnson, Prince, Paul Newman, Billy Dee Williams, Bjorn Borg, Detroit Tigers right-fielder Ron LeFlore, and NFL quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, just to name a few. I had so many celebrity crushes, I could have founded a fantasy boyfriend league.

I also lived vicariously through the exploits of my best friend Melinda. Melinda was dating the boy of her choice, a cute guy on the football team. Melinda was in love, and her stories of skipping school to spend afternoons at her boyfriend’s house while his mom was at work sounded like true romance to my virgin ears. Since I couldn’t have a boyfriend of my own, I lived for her stories about hers. When Melinda wasn’t skipping class with her boyfriend, we would skip class and walk downtown to Hart Plaza, sit by the Detroit River, and talk about her real love and my imagined ones.

Most of what I knew about boys, men, and sex came from reading my three older brothers’ porn books and magazines, along with Harlequin, Silhouette, Harold Robbins, and Jackie Collins novels. I had been reading my brothers’ porn since I was eight, and racy romance novels since I was ten. From time to time, Planned Parenthood pamphlets would appear, randomly and without explanation, on our dining room table. This was my mother’s way of giving us sex ed information without actually having to talk about sex. I read those, too, under my mother’s watchful, approving eye. Reading about sex was fine, as long as I didn’t ask my mother any questions.

Between the porn and Planned Parenthood, I felt pretty well-informed. But I was still missing the one thing I wanted most—a boyfriend. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend, but that detail didn’t much matter. I’d never had a boy ask me to be his girlfriend. I’d never even had an in-school-only relationship, the kind of boyfriend who was only your boyfriend during school hours because you couldn’t see or talk to him any other time.

So when Melinda told me she knew a boy who liked me, I was excited to hear more.

“My cousin Rob thinks you’re cute,” she said.

Melinda’s cousin Rob was gorgeous. His neatly groomed Afro, velvet-smooth caramel skin, and faint mustache over full, lush lips reminded me of my fantasy celebrity boyfriends, like Prince. I was sure he would know how to kiss a girl without putting her whole face in his mouth.

Melinda’s cousin wasn’t a boy, though. He was twenty-eight.

“He wants me to give him your number,” Melinda told me.

“You know I’m not supposed to have boys calling me,” I told her. “What if he calls and my mother answers the phone?”

Melinda shrugged. “Have him call when you know she’s not going to answer.”

On one level, I knew to avoid older men. There was one teacher at Cass who grossed us all out. He would leer at the attractive girls in his class and tell them he would give them a higher grade if they would set him up with an older sister, cousin, or aunt. To us, he was one step away from being a pedophile, and everyone knew to stay away from him.

But at fourteen, I didn’t put Melinda’s twenty-eight-year-old cousin in that same creeper category. He was about the same age as some of the R&B and sports stars I dreamed about. I’d met him a few times at Melinda’s house and was flattered by the way he talked to us like we were people, not just kids. I had never noticed him paying particular attention to me at all, so to hear that he thought I was cute and wanted my number was both surprising and thrilling. Having a handsome, adult man I knew—not some random dude in a car—ask for my number made me feel attractive, desired and valued.

“I don’t know how I’m going to manage it, but give him my number,” I told Melinda.

We had one house phone—the heavy, indestructible black rotary dial phone that was Ma Bell’s trademark. The phone sat on the buffet that separated our living room and dining rooms, and although my mother eventually relented and allowed us to buy a longer phone cord from Radio Shack, we weren’t allowed to move the phone too far off the buffet. The phone’s location ensured that my mother heard the phone every time it rang, heard one of us answer it, and could detect from our response whether the caller was appropriate or inappropriate.

Melinda acted as the go-between for that first call. I told her exactly what time Rob had to call so that I could be right there to answer when the phone rang. I had to position myself by the phone, yet act as if I wasn’t standing by the phone because I was expecting a call. When the phone rang, I had to move quickly to answer it but not leap to answer on the first ring. My mother saw and picked up on everything, and she would have definitely noticed that. When I answered, I had to move far enough away from her so that she couldn’t hear a male voice coming through the handset, but I had to stay close enough to her that it didn’t look like I was trying to have a conversation that was so private that I couldn’t have it in front of her.

The actual call was even trickier to manage than I’d anticipated. Rob had one of those panty-dropper phone voices, sonorous and bass-filled, the kind of voice that teenage boys, no matter how cute, just don’t have. As he spoke, I imagined his lips brushing my earlobe.

“Who was that?” my mother said when I got off the phone.

“Melinda,” I lied.

“Hmmph. That didn’t sound like no Melinda.”

“She has a cold.”

I told Rob—through Melinda—that calling on school days wouldn’t work because my mother was watching too hard. We settled on Saturday mornings as a good time for us to talk without interruption. My mother slept late, my father would be out grocery shopping, and no one else would be awake, either.

During our conversations, Rob told me I was beautiful. He said I was mature beyond my age. He told me I was too smart and too good for those boys who didn’t want me. He never said, “If only you were eighteen, I’d love to date you.” He said he wanted to take me out—now.

I protested. “I told you: I can’t go out with you. I can’t go out with anybody.”

“We can pick a place to meet.”

“Nope. My mother would never go for that. The only place I can go is to school and over Melinda’s house.”

“Then I’ll come pick you up.”

“You can’t come to my house!”

“What if I shave?”

“Then you’ll look like a grown man without facial hair. You don’t understand, I can’t go out with boys until I’m sixteen. And even if I were sixteen, I couldn’t go out with you, because you would have to pick me up at my front door, and there’s no way my mother would let me leave the house with some man.”

He would laugh and offer up other schemes. He suggested picking me up from school, but I knew Caroletta would eventually get wind of that. I had gotten away once with sneaking off after school with the boy from King, but there was little chance I’d ever get away with that again. I wondered to myself—never suggesting it—why he couldn’t meet me at Melinda’s house. It never occurred to me that his aunt, Melinda’s mom, wouldn’t stand for it if her adult nephew started being too obvious in his attentions towards her teenage daughter’s best friend.

Still, I was pleased with my little secret rebellion. Rob and I had found a sliver of time on Saturday mornings where I could consistently talk to him on the phone without being bothered by anyone. We never used the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” but those phone conversations—even if they were only once weekly—felt special. In my head, he was my boyfriend for fifteen minutes every Saturday morning. Talking to him on the phone was enough for me.

But it wasn’t enough for him.

During one of those Saturday morning conversations, things changed. Rob’s voice acquired more bass than usual, and he became insistent that I find a way for us to meet. He was so determined that I was nearly ready to agree—until he said something that startled me. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was sexual, in tone if not in content; the kind of ridiculous bullshit a man says to clarify that his intentions are not platonic.

I knew something had changed, but in my inexperience, I couldn’t fully process what happened. So I asked:

“What are you doing?”

Rob chuckled. “I’m making love to your mind.”

In one of my brothers’ porn magazines—Penthouse or Hustler, I can’t be certain—there was a cartoon that fascinated and horrified me. It was a drawing of a girl with crossed eyes and a stupid grin. A guy had his penis shoved in her ear, his balls squished against the side of her face. The tip of his penis extended out her other ear and dripped with cum. The caption was equally crude and extremely offensive: “How to Fuck a Retarded Girl.”

When Rob told me he was making love to my mind, I immediately recalled that image. My still-kid brain took the words “making love to your mind” literally. And although, intellectually, I knew he didn’t mean he wanted to stick it in my ear—and that if he did, it wouldn’t penetrate my ear canal and come out the other side—emotionally, I blanched. What I fully understood in that moment was that nice Rob, who said I was smart and pretty and mature for my age, wasn’t my Saturday morning fantasy phone boyfriend. He was a grown, adult man who wanted to fuck fourteen-year-old me.

And just as my sister’s calling the guy on the swim team a creep had stopped me from romanticizing his sexual assault, Rob’s claim that he was “making love to my mind” didn’t feel sexy and romantic, but icky and wrong.

I didn’t know what to say, so I laughed.

“What’s funny?” he said.

“Oh, is that what that was?” I replied, buying myself time.

“Yes. How do you feel?”

I guess this was the point where I was supposed to tell him he was making me wet and I wanted to kiss him and, yes, I would find a way to sneak out of my mother’s house and see him. But I could only think about getting off the phone before anyone caught me, and telling him I couldn’t ever talk to him again.

“I have to go,” I said. “My mom is going to get up soon.” And I hung up.

I don’t remember if I told Melinda to tell Rob he couldn’t call me anymore or if I told him myself. However the message was conveyed, he obliged. And when I saw him at Melinda’s house, he stayed away from me.

Although Melinda and I remained friends throughout high school, Rob showed no further interest in me once I reached the age of consent. He came by Melinda’s house less and less often when I was there. Melinda would casually mention, “Oh, my cousin Rob asked about you,” but with no indication that he wanted any further contact. That was a relief, because I didn’t want any further contact with him, either.

Over the years, I told my story about Rob, to different audiences and for various purposes. In my late teens and early twenties, it was almost a point of honor to show that, like other girls, I’d had grown men chasing after when I was very young, despite my weight. Sometimes, I told the story as part of a longer narrative about the benefits of having strict parents who kept me from doing stupid things I wasn’t smart enough to keep myself from doing.

But it wasn’t until I told the Rob story to one of my law school friends that I understood its true significance.

As I described the compliments Rob bestowed upon me—that I was beautiful, smart, and mature beyond my years—my law school friend shook her head.

“He was grooming you,” she said.

Grooming? Until then, I’d never heard that term. I hadn’t realized that what happened to me was a thing that adults who prey on children do as part of their twisted seduction game. I’d been groomed by a pedophile—and I had no idea. Technically, the term for a man like Rob who desires to have sex with teens is ephebophile, not pedophile—but to me, that’s a distinction without a difference. No matter what term you choose, it means a grown man who wants to have sex with a child—and at fourteen, I was definitely still a child.

Rob had other issues and later wound up in prison for murder. He asked Melinda to ask me to write to him in prison. I told her I would think about it, but I never did write to him, because I had nothing to say to him.

I am thankful for my mother and her strict rules, because they helped prevent me from putting myself into an untenable situation with Rob. But now that I’m a mom, I wish I could have gone to my mother and talked to her about what was happening. I wish I’d had not just rules to keep me safe, but guidance on how to deal with sex and my burgeoning sexuality. If I’d gone to my mother, she would have forbidden me from going to Melinda’s house ever again, and that would have been devastating. I needed an adult to talk to about Rob—and I didn’t have one. My own daughter is now seventeen, which is the age of consent in New York State—but even now, I hope she would come talk to me if she found herself being pressured into a sexual relationship that she wasn’t ready for, something I was unable to do with my own mother.

As I learned from being groomed by Rob, an adult need not be in a position of authority over a child to wield unequal power. Rob preyed on my teenage insecurities, and were it not for that gross porn magazine cartoon, I might have allowed him to “make love” to more than just my mind. I wasn’t mature enough to handle a telephone relationship with a twenty-eight-year-old man that turned overtly sexual only once. I certainly wasn’t mature enough to handle an actual physical relationship with him. While I’m sure exceptional cases do exist, my experience with Rob taught me that the idea of a teenager under the age of seventeen truly consenting to sex with an adult is nothing more than a dangerous illusion. When I think about Rob, those weeks I spent as his Saturday morning telephone girlfriend feels less like a sweet young romance, and more like a near miss. I was lucky to escape unharmed.

A couple of names have been changed. —ed.

•••

CAROLYN EDGAR is an attorney and writer who lives in New York City. She is a regular contributor to Salon and on her own blog, Carolyn Edgar – Notes of a Writer, Lawyer and Single Mom (www.carolynedgar.com).

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When I Was Madonna

madonna
By João Carlos Maganin/ Flickr

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.

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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.