Essays

Life After Virginity

CONNIE KUHNS

A flower child looks back, to the time between Motown and acid rock.

I am a girl who couldn’t speak. My words were so hidden I remember the first time I heard my own voice. Dave had asked for his class ring back. We were standing at my front door under the porch light. The words came from so deep inside me that it shocked us both. I managed to hold on to his ring for another day. No, I said. No.

There was supposed to be an order to things. First you got his class ring. You wore it on your left hand wrapped in mohair or with little pearl beads glued underneath. It would be heavy and you would feel the weight of it every day (but in a good way). For Christmas you would give him a Speidel ID bracelet, engraved with his name, which he would give back to you to wear. It would knock against your desk during exams and slide up and down your arm as you teased your hair in the girls’ bathroom at school. You would spend the day making sure it didn’t fall off. Next would come the pearl. It could be a double or a single, black or white or both. If you were in college, a pearl could be followed by a pin. Pearled and pinned and then the white picket fence. It all made sense. It was a path that every girl, no matter how she looked, no matter what part of town she came from, would take. And eventually it would be required that she take it with somebody.

Billy was the boy I picked in the aftermath of failure. He was simply there and I was completely without a here and now. He was part of a gang of hoods that lived in the shadow of the college. I was damaged goods, as they used to say. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a choice on my part, more a matter of just letting him. I was a drinking, crying college girl, previously unattainable. Yet I still had sex with him at the end of my period so he would think I was a virgin. Some nights after curfew, he and the boys would cruise past Conrad Hall and yell up at my window. I suspect it made my dormitory sisters uncomfortable (unlike generations of famous frat boy panty raids, which were finally banned). Most evenings I could be found in the common room painting a huge psychedelic poster. Our Land is Hood Land it said in bright swirling letters, as I tried to claim an identity. I walked the tree-lined streets surrounding the campus imagining myself married to him and living the ever after. I was wearing Avon’s Regence when I lost my virginity. I was wearing Hawaiian White Ginger when I dreamed the ridiculous. It would be over soon enough.

On a recent trip down the west coast, I noticed how the highways have become dotted with crosses marking the spot where someone’s life has come to a tragic end. On Highway 3 in Oregon there were three small crosses on a piece of muddy incline, barely holding on, I thought. A cross on Highway 11 in California was large and decorated with military medals. How long had “Josh” stayed alive after surviving the war? Not far away was a simple cross, bright white, framed in a perfect rectangle of daffodils. Some go by so fast they are easy to miss. One day I saw a cross with bowling pins at its base. I cried a bit after seeing that one, as my son used to be a bowler.

It was the end of term. There was a live band from Oklahoma playing out in the country. We started drinking early, getting ready to go. Sam was driving. It was a big dance that I had been waiting for all week. I was in the back seat as we started to pull away from the curb. For reasons not understood even to this day, I asked Sam to stop. Suddenly I didn’t want to go. Later I told friends it was as if I was being pulled out of the car. I can still see Leslie running across the front yard to take my place. “I’ll go!” she said, as she climbed in. Within the hour they had collided with a moving train. Sam’s back was broken. Leslie was killed. She was a kid. She had had a fight with her mom and was crashing at my place. I had just moved off campus with some girls from my dorm, and her boyfriend had asked if she could stay.

I walked around the block several times in the dark that night before I had the nerve to knock on the screen door and speak to her family. I was among the last to see her alive. As I sat at the kitchen table stammering out some kind of incoherent whatever, Leslie’s mother stood at the kitchen sink in such distress, staring at me with such feeling, like a Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange photograph only with a thousand times more misery. Meanwhile, Leslie’s sister held her tone steady as she kept thanking me for dropping by, wanting me to get the hell out of their home.

Leslie’s boyfriend sat in my living room for hours playing “Crystal Blue Persuasion” (their song) on the record player. I was frozen and silent in my room. He didn’t think I understood. I’m sorry I didn’t make Leslie go home and work things out with her mom. I’m sorry that I got out of the car.

How do you dream about something that you have never seen, that you can’t even imagine, that may not even exist, that has no words? What is out there on the horizon, on the cliff at the edge of the world?

The next time I spoke was the night I knew I had flunked out of college. I had slept through my English final that morning, my last chance. A bunch of us were hanging out at the turnaround in the Safeway parking lot down on Main Street watching the cars drive by. I was leaning against Gilbert Molina’s maroon Impala when I said it. I’m going to California on Monday. Does anybody want to come?

I met Danny in a downtown park, the kind of place where anybody drifting west found themselves upon arrival. I’ve written East Lansing, Michigan next to his name. That’s all. The Apollo 11 astronauts were barrelling to the moon, a dairy farmer’s field was being converted to host Woodstock and Charles Manson was preparing to kill. Meanwhile, I had just driven thousands of miles to the west coast in a ’59 Chevy that I bought for sixty-five dollars the night before I ran away. Danny was also on the road but he wasn’t running. He was casual and confident, a professor’s son. I was in shock at what I’d done.

That very first day he took me to “a happening” near the university where Canned Heat was playing. All around me, beautiful girls danced alone. They spun in their flowery dresses swinging their long, straight hair and waving their slender arms. Couples were getting together among the trees and in the open. Men walked past me, long-haired, tanned and bare-chested, their drawstring pants hanging so low I had to turn away. It was a child’s garden of grass.

As I stood in that park in my red-striped knit tank top and matching shorts outfit from Bobbie Brooks, which I had worked so hard at the bakery to buy, with my hair actually pulled back into pigtails and wearing my little black glasses, I had but one thought. It’s all true. Everything they ever said about California is true.

Danny gave me acid. He had orange dots on pieces of paper and tiny orange barrels wrapped up in cloth, which he unrolled with much ceremony. He guided me on a trip the way it used to be done when you turned someone on for the first time. “Look. The walls are breathing.” I had never even smoked a joint. We wandered up and down the beach all night, falling and laughing, as the ground heaved beneath us, looking (to me) like a stuffed turkey at Thanksgiving. Strange men sat on top of the Riviera Hotel where chimneys used to be, waving at us with their heads in their laps. The lights from the distant amusement park were so bright I had to go hide in the weeds. David Lynch could do no better. By dawn I was alone on the sidewalk, watching a tall circular apartment building wake up while staring at the roots of palm trees, which looked like little wiggling arms and legs. I found safety in a head shop that had just opened its doors. It was starting to get hot. I bought a “sparkling” peace symbol necklace, which I still have, and the guy at the counter gave me some reds to help me come down. There were no more rules.

Danny was red and freckled and soft and pink. We had sex a couple of times in my car, where I was sleeping until it got a flat tire and was towed away by the city. I remember certain things about being with him, not because it was significant, but because it wasn’t. The word unpleasant comes to mind. He tried to tell me how to give him a blow job, without much success on my part. It just didn’t make sense to me at the time. (My friend Barbara told me that the first time a guy asked her to give him a blow job, she actually blew on it.) He didn’t stick around for very long. In August he had to go back to Michigan to get ready for school.

I found out at the free clinic that I was pregnant. The doctor left me exposed on the table and told me to come back in six weeks. A nurse covered me up and tried to be kind. I still remember walking down Magnolia Street through pools of night-blooming jasmine, stricken with disbelief. This was a death sentence. Although I wouldn’t know her for another twenty years, my friend Gina was also pregnant that summer. She was driven to Tijuana and dropped off alone on a corner to be picked up by a courier and taken to a secret location away from her friends. No one knew where she was. She was returned hours late and bleeding. She would never be pregnant again.

During that time—as I was reminded recently at a reunion of old friends—four girls were arrested coming back into California from Mexico after having gotten “illegal” abortions. By comparison, I got off easy. I drank a bottle of castor oil and pounded on my stomach. I miscarried in the bathroom of an apartment over a laundromat. It floated for a moment and then it was gone. I saw it. It was about the size of my thumb. My friend Linda, who heard me cry out, asked if I was all right. I told her I had just started my period. I continued to want to believe that for many years.

I think making out has probably become a lost art. Imagine being in high school, driving around on country roads, listening to Motown on the radio while looking for a place to park and then spending hours kissing. Drive-in movies were made for boys, and balconies were couples only. Girdles were in fashion, which probably added to the suspense.

Mick Taylor was the first guy to feel me up. I wasn’t very good at making out and he had to have the neighbour boy talk to me about how I should at least move around a bit and make a little noise. Who knew? We were together the summer before I went into the ninth grade. He was way older and had just moved to town from Chicago. He was the only guy around with skinny jeans and real Beatle boots. He gave me my first Rolling Stones album and worked at the local radio station. Now that was a turn-on. I never advanced beyond letting him unfasten my bra, nonetheless I wrote a fictionalized version of our summer together, and bound it in a yellow binder, which got passed around my high school and almost ruined me. I called it “The Secret World of the Summer People.”

Jerry was known as a great kisser. He made a girl feel deeply. He came recommended by another neighbour’s older sister. But he was also spoken for. He married Faye on horseback before people did such things.

Eddie was a really good guy but his kisses were a bit sloppy and my blouse would always get wet. I did try to sleep with him once, in college, the night before he left for Vietnam. I wore a pair of see-through shorty pajamas as we made out on my couch. (He didn’t know that I was no longer a virgin.) Why I thought having sex with me would keep him from leaving is beyond me, but he was ever the gentleman. He was a better man than me as I later abandoned him to the jungles, ignoring his letters and his pleas. But I had run away from home and I didn’t know where I was. I tried to reach him one night from a pay phone in Albuquerque before he shipped out. I told the operator that he was probably playing pool somewhere on the base. She found him, but not before I had run out of change. I heard him say hello.

I ran into him years later at Dude’s Steak House Bar and Grill back in our hometown. He told me he’d like to “twist my tits.” He hated me. He died a few years ago of Agent Orange-related illnesses after drug addiction, a failed marriage, prison and years on the street. I located the woman he had been living with at the time of his death and let her know I was sorry. There were others who slipped away over the years, although with less guilt on my part.

I met Lee at the Pike, that glistening, dancing amusement park down on the beach, full of bells and whistles and screams and smells and the longest hot dogs I had ever seen. I got a job selling tickets at the Glass House. When I got off my shift, I would hang out at Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo Studio watching sailors and bikers get tattooed. (One night Lyle Tuttle stopped by, the man who had become famous for tattooing Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, who were all still alive at that point.) Lee was a sailor. When he found out I was a runaway, he let my friends and me crash at a house he shared with some other guys from his ship. When summer was over we coincidentally ended up living in the same apartment building.

Whenever his ship was in, we would make out on the fire escape. On one particularly cold night after we’d been out there for a while, he said, “You’ve got to fuck me or suck me.” I froze. You would never hear that kind of language in a Drifters song. Plus, I didn’t know exactly what he meant. I was also kind of hung up on numbers. By that time I had already slept with three guys (none of whom I had married). However, where Lee was concerned, I probably should have said yes. Even on that cold metal fire escape, on an October night chilled by the Pacific Ocean, he in his peacoat and I in my poncho, to paraphrase Bonnie Raitt I think he would have loved me like a man. Eventually Lee took my silence as rejection. He climbed back in through the window. He lost interest in me after that. Then one day, his ship sailed, for real.

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CONNIE KUHNS

Connie Kuhns has a forty-year history as an essayist, journalist, photographer and broadcaster. Her essay “Strange Women,” (Geist 95), about women in Vancouver’s early punk scene, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award;  “Last Day in Cheyenne” (Geist 84) was named a “Notable Essay of 2012” in The Best American Essay series and a finalist for a Western Magazine Award;  and other essays have been finalists in publications ranging from the LA Review to Prism International to the New York Times Modern Love column, and the Southampton Review Frank McCourt Memoir Prize.  

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