Thousands and thousands of young people blend into one body. This malleable landscape of flesh raises thousands of hands, each index and middle finger held high in a V--no longer the symbol of victory but of peace. From the stage, Country Joe speaks the language of the middle finger minus its neighboring forefinger--not to condemn or dismiss but to celebrate, eliciting from the crowd a selective alphabet far more ecstatic than the call-and-response one might hear during the Prayers of the People at Sunday mass, well before the kiss of peace. That same weekend, in fact, Margaret Kinsella, Janie Salerno, Dawn Krotowski, Vicki Corrigan, Virginia and Angela Postodellafuoco, and the vast majority of the girls who attend St. Rose recite the Nicene Creed, the Our Father, the Eucharistic Prayer, as well as the responsorial psalms. Whether in their respective parishes or a church they see only in August, they will dutifully pray for the Pope, the President, the bishop, the clergy, the army, and every civilian, including the poor and the sick and the lonely, each congregation soliciting God’s ear: Lord Hear our Prayer, Lord Hear our Prayer, Lord hear our Prayer. The drone begins Saturday evening at five and resumes Sunday at eight-thirty, ten, eleven-thirty, twelve forty-five, and again at five. Just as banks and grocery stores have extended their hours, so has the ever-more-flexible Vatican II Catholic Church.
But two and a half hours north in the Catskills, the three-day-long festival has become, as if a temporal version of the bodies crammed into it, a single contiguous entity, and its jubilant, mimicking din drowns out all the distant, sotto voce incantations, matching them syllable for syllable, transforming entreaty into command. Gimme an f!—shouts Country Joe into the crowd, and hundreds of thousands of people reciprocate “F.” “Gimme a u! Gimme a c! Gimme a k! What’s that spell?,” Country Joe McDonaldasks his electrified audience, and through their collaborative fervor, those four infamous letters inscribe themselve into the mellow ambience of folk music, pot smoke and anti-establishment good will.
For whom, meanwhile, do the girls of St. Rose most fervently pray, huddled in pews, safe under rooves, assembled not in a single, vast open-air congregation but in scattered locations across the island and beyond? For the poor, the sick, and those who are alone. (They know they should not put themselves in this category; they’re too young to have boyfriends and besides, that is not how the Church defines alone.) Being a member of the Catholic Church, Mrs. Postodellafuoco believes--and has repeatedly told her daughters--means never having to be alone, even if poor, even when sick. She would not likely acknowledge that one hundred twenty miles away, at Yasgur’s Farm, an alternate church has evolved overnight, in the form of a thousand-armed Siva-like body. Nor would she likely perceive this unwieldy but functional body as the picture of health. And yet this appears to be the case. Excepting a lack of some basic supplies—sanitary napkins and aspirin and soap--and of course the anomalous bad trip, there are no complaints; there is certainly no loneliness. Money is irrelevant, as somewhere along the line, due to its ever-expanding corpus (a benign version of the Postodellafuoco girls’ favorite horror movie, The Blob), the festival has become free of charge. Thus no one need pay for this delectable taste of the zeitgeist’s forbidden fruit, and no one need pray for the soon-to-be-legendary, self-sufficient squatters of Yasgur’s Farm.
Like a gameboard’s spinner, the spun bottle’s spout directs the placement of tentative, perfunctory kisses. Who knows who you’ll get to kiss?-- so you’ve got to be brave, you can’t be picky. Submit to the beauty of randomness. With so many fewer boys than girls, of course, the bottle sometimes has to spin more than once in a single turn, if for instance, a girl landed on a girl. When the children are finally dizzy from spinning, the class is promoted to training-wheels strip-poker (Not to worry, each token removal is barely perceptable to the naked eye, as if the subtle rotation of some distant planet.) Take off your glasses, unlace a shoe. You’ve got another few moves before having to tug off a sock. Unfasten a button, the top one, just one. Then pull that leather snake from its fabric loops; unbuckle it first, silly. There is so much peripheral forfeit before getting down to the nitty-gritty. Sorry there, Dunlop, taking your handkerchief out of your pocket is not a legitimate move.
“Let’s play a game,” says a voice on the phone, without introducing itself. Ginny assumes it’s a prank call, the kind she’s been taught to hang up on immediately.
Clearly no one expects, or for that matter wants, any grand sweeping gesture; they’re not even thirteen, after all, and for this crowd it doesn’t take much ammunition to be provocative. One detail should not be left out, however: the context of this forbidden game—much like its mechanism—is chance.
While serving ice cream and cake, Lorraine’s mother begins to act strangely, her head moving back and forth like a stuck wind-up toy. Lorraine, apparently having encountered this situation before, immediately takes charge, saying, “Let’s get you upstairs, mom, let’s get you some rest,” and now the mysteriously out-of-commission Mrs.Del Vecchio has been given equally mysterious medication and been taken to her bed. A disorder, Lorraine calls it, and Virginia Postodellafuoco tries to envision the messy state of her room transported into a head or body. She has never before been in a situation where a mother is incapacitated, and without question won’t be coming down to provide or to spy. No one refers to it but everyone is aware of it, and since it isn’t exactly an emergency, just a “situation,” this unseating of authority does not merit phone calls to two dozen parents, all of whom promised to pick up their children at five o’clock, whereas now it is only three. A motherless party is a party officially over. Unofficially, however, it’s just begun. That is why on this particular Saturday, at this particular party, there is a window of freedom, which even in the physically windowless basement of the Del Vecchio house, opens just wide enough to see a peripheral glimpse of the so-near-and-yet-far Yasgur’s Farm.
This window of opportunity, from the soon-to-be eighth-graders’ vantage, is a bit like the Red Sea parting to let the Israelites across, because God preferred to work with the tools at hand: with nature, that is--rather than crafting a miracle from scratch. Although Sister Cordelay and Father Manley would dispute this interpretation, deem it self-serving and possibly sinful. Do you know what the word sophistry means? Surely you see, boys and girls, that this circumstance is just the opposite of the miracle of the Red Sea, because the devil would be delighted to endorse any causal arrangement whereby sickness and suffering make room for sin, even if only venial sin.
And the chastened pupils would hang their heads, ashamed of their unintended wickedness, though during the latter five of the ten Hail Mary’s of their assigned penance, they would find themselves trying to gauge the relative wrongness of one opened button or unbuckled belt. For it seems to them that even cumulatively, their token disrobing or smooching gestures would register less on a scale of indescretion than Len Whiting’s indecent exposure as Romeo.
Less than the Coppertone Girl’s, for that matter—her pale buttock exposed by a mischievous dog who cleverly tugged at her bathing suit bottom, thereby displaying the depth of her product-assisted tan.
As they progress through the years to come, some of the girls of St. Rose will decide that this is precisely the problem with adults--with parents and nuns and parish priests. So stuck on decency, they tended to miss the essence of things. Len Whiting offered his flesh to the camera acting as Romeo, whose mortal sin wasn’t making love (since he made it in wedlock) but playing dead for real—for love, for love’s sake. In exchange, he gained the right to share eternity (and eternal damnation, presumably) with his beloved. To any romantic girl, that was a dynamic, not static--even if tragic--afterlife. Whereas the Coppertone Girl, emblem of innocence, sporting youthful blonde pigtails and clueless expression, was doomed to be pestered into eternity, never permitted to graduate from frisky dog to frisky man, meaning frisky fiancée of course—exposed on a million billboards as a classic case of arrested development—thus frozen into the very definition of a young lady.
When, during these years, Sister Catherine John introduces them to Sisyphus and his myth, some of the girls will remember this: a girl trapped in cuteness via the jaws of a dog, locked in position, unable ever to move forward.
On top of Spa-Ghe- ti! All covered with sauce! I lost my poor meat-ball…
“Hush now, says mom, we’re about to say grace. Bless us O Lord for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty…”
“Strana, questa pasta,” says Nonna, who prefers both the taste and conceptual wit of a strangled priest’s neck, i.e. strozzapreti, to this vulgar circle of macaroni, its interior detailed with a series of radiating spokes, that might have fallen off a nineteenth century covered wagon. Everyone knows macaroni should mimic a shell or an ear or a feather or strand of hair, maybe a butterfly--something directly from nature.
“But Nonna, why don’t you approve of the wagon wheels? Don’t they make this kind of spaghetti in Italy?” One sister looks to the other for moral support.
“Dad says it’s the best kind of noodle to make a spaghetti western! And Daddy likes the wild west; you can come if we take a vacation there. He says we’ll rent a big trailer and drive through the whole U.S.”
That fantasy does not materialize, however, because when push comes to shove, Sal’s enthusiasm for a family roadtrip is not corroborated by daughters or wife, let alone his own mother, who feels the east coast is already too much of America. But that doesn’t mean there will be no excursions—modified versions of Salvatore’s dream. For instance, if the family happened to be headed upstate in their wood-paneled, red Plymouth wagon, driving at modest speed along the road that led--just by chance--to the road that itself led to Yasgur’s Farm, it would probably be for the purpose of visiting a Catholic camp, to see if the girls might want to spend a summer there, like their dad did when he was a kid--year after year, in fact. St. Boniface was a good Catholic camp, where you learned to explore the outdoors, after going to mass every morning, of course, and maybe in time become a counselor yourself, the way he did.
But the girls decide that, for now anyhow, it’s a little too rustic up there: a bunch of bunk beds in a little cabin and so many bugs—not a whole lot better than summer in southern Italy—especially if there were alternatives. Their father assures them there are, and disguises his own disappointment on the way home.
Collectively seeking out certain state’s license plates to win an all-too-familiar game, then singing the equally familiar tune, Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall, one might have hoped—that is, Sal might have hoped—that his daughters would not distract him further from driving by asking him to identify a series of bungalows that formed scattered compounds on either side of the two-lane highway. The lettering on the sign beside these structures seemed even more foreign to them than the mind-boggling tutti le direzioni that they had often seen on windy rural Italian roads during their past summer visits to Nonna and Nonno. But all the girls could pry from their father was one disaffected sentence: “Those are for Jewish customers. Not for us.”
“Wrist calling razor. Wrist calling razor.”
“Simon, is that you? What are you talking about?”
“I thought you liked to play Simon Says,” says the voice Ginny now recognizes as Simon Brown’s. “Take two cuts forward, one cut back.”
“Simon, don’t do this. I’m worried about you.” Ginny is starting to cry and her mother is calling from downstairs, “We’re late, hurry up,” but she can’t get herself to respond.
Then the inevitable reckoning: her mother in front of her face, incensed. “What is the matter with you, Virginia? Who is making you cry on the phone? What could possibly be so traumatic in the life of a well-off twelve year old?”
“Andiamo,” shouts Dad from downstairs, completely oblivious.
“Ginny! Mom! We’ll be late for the movie,” calls Angie from the stairwell, no more informed than her father.
“It’s that effeminate boy, isn’t it?” Mrs. P. prods Ginny. “No wonder they’re thinking to send him away. He’s a bad influence, that Simon.”
“Mom, quiet. He’ll hear you. That’s rude.”
“Don’t you be lecturing me on manners, Virginia.”
And then even louder from downstairs: “I said Andiamo!”
“Simon says, take the knife. Mother, may I?”
“No, you may not! Simon pleeaaaase!.”
“We’re going to curtail this soap opera right now.” Mrs. Postodellafuoco pries the receiver from her daughter’s hand and hangs up the phone—the special princess phone that was bought for her room for her birthday and will now be restricted, if not confiscated. “Wash your face and come downstairs; we’ll be in the car, and I’m counting.”
Ginny prays Simon’s histrionics will not yield action, and considers quickly redialing or making a two-second emergency call to Maggie or Vicki, one of whom Simon is perhaps dialing this very moment. Oh, she hopes so. Please, God, let him be lifting the receiver instead of the razor. But the time for intervention and prayer is officially exhausted because her mother is making a final, non-negotiable appearance, her forehead deeply creased, her mouth set in stone.
“Five. Six. Seven…Do you want me to have to tell Daddy?”
Rose Postodellafuoco finds Grace Slick suspicious. It’s not just the bangs falling over those smoky eyes and the wild, psychedelic clothes. It’s that she supplants convenient, reliable platitudes with enigmas. Just when a growing girl is starting to remember whether the saying goes ‘feed a cold, starve a fever,’ or ‘starve a cold, feed a fever,’ this Slick woman bursts down the door and absurdly insists, feed your head. Who knows what other absurd or illicit instructions are being disseminated down there in the basement where the lyrics are muffled by sheetrock and a closed door. It’s a whole floor away, its own universe. Sal had insisted on a finished basement, to keep up with the Joneses, he’d said, “for the girls’ sake.” Then he’d winked, “And for our sakes too.” By now they had no doubt progressed to the strident rasp of Janis Joplin, goading some random companion to shatter her heart, piece by piece.
It was so much easier when pop songs were wholesome and mindless--when they sat in the car, all three Postodellafuoco females, and parroted the radio’s wholesome, cheerful sentiments, such as She loves you yea yea yea, or I wanna hold your hand or even more blandly, the morning’s gonna shine like red rubber ball.
Angie and Ginny, on the other hand, prefer the hypothetical to the nostalgic. They and their friends take up a collective thought experiment, one that, were it to be formulated via Sister Catherine John’s metaphoric lexicon, might read as follows: What if Adam and Eve, having been expelled into loneliness, manual labor and shame, somehow passed through the looking glass, and landed in a strange, new world, on the order of Yasgur’s Farm? Would this mutation transform a seductive snake from a vessel of knowledge into a vessel of pleasure? Would our reimagined Bibilical parents have thus overreached in the name of lust per se versus lust for knowledge? In this revised reading from Genesis, the first man and his mate would crave sensation rather than information, invest more in the body of Christ than the all-knowing mind of God.The former’s sacred name and flesh, though so often coupled with passion, was never, except illicitly, bonded to pleasure.
Ginny will miss Simon’s company, even if he is sometimes too intense. How will he possibly manage in military school, quarantined in some compound, distant in feel, though likely not in literal miles, from Yasgur’s Farm? He will probably study all the same subjects as she and her friends at St. Rose (and likely in greater depth—if the military school is anything like St. Regis), but studying will probably be the easiest part, compared to rising at dawn and making a bed as efficiently as any candy striper--because if it lacked crisp, perfect hospital corners there would be consequences--and doing calisthenics far more rigourous than those performed in gym class with Sr. Patrice. She can’t imagine what it would be like to do push-ups and jumping-jacks, not for an overweight nun in a modern habit with whistle and sneakers, but a muscle-bound man with a crew cut and boots, not to mention a gun. The whistle that man blows would likely sound a thousand times more shrill than the one animated by the sterterous breath of Sister Patrice, soon to be lumbering toward her equally apathetic charges. The somber dance of her red Keds will seem to the girls of St. Rose, every week of the years to come, like a parody of the dripping blood of Christ.
Into the domain of young ladies, a sissy had evidently strayed, whatever a sissy technically was. But for that matter, what was a young lady? A girl in arrested development? Miss Coppertone? And what was a bona-fide, grown-up lady? Some elusive concoction of cleavage and nurture? Why couldn’t she be a long-haired woman in a flowing dress, standing innocent yet self-possessed beside a nearly as long-haired man in jeans--a man with whom one might substitute a perfectly harmonized, customized duet for some slavish recitation of vows? A Guinevere with green eyes, a Sweet Judy Blue Eyes? Why couldn’t such visions be transported from a Woodstock stage to suburban streets? Might Ginny ever convince Sister Catherine John that her folk music heroes and heroines were modern troubador poets? Just listen please, Sister, she’d say, please just give them a chance, as she began her presentation with Crosby, Stills and Nash’s rousing chorus before their extended instrumental riff, crescendoing in harmony toward the irresistibly romantic entreaty, Be my lady. If Sister C.J. would allow it, Ginny would carefully raise the stylus needle from the groove, lift off the first record, and place another on the turntable such that John Sebastian could commence his sweet, intimate, melodic homage: She’s a lady. Then Ginny would repeat the same procedure, yielding Joni Mitchell’s melancholy declaration: I would be his lady, all my life, to her metaphoric father-child, Willy. Meanwhile Tom Paxton’s versatile lady was both wine and a wild flying dove, each of which images had deep symbolic relevance to Christianity, connoting Eucharist and Holy Spirit respectively—thus providing persuasive closure for Ginny’s hypothetical presentation.
And yet to be anything—and especially a lover--all my life was a tantalizing abstraction to Ginny, for whom eternity was a separate endeavor, of spiritual rather than carnal measure. The dutiful, suck-it-up aspect of till death do us part wasn’t present in lyrics like these, lyrics that seemed to address a more urgent love than that which defined her parents’ marriage, but that had seemed to shimmer that night, years ago, between Mr. And Mrs. McGillicuddy. How could one measure such things? For surely there was enough love in Romeo and Juliet’s brief, intense passion to equal a whole life’s worth--which is perhaps just the sort of sentiment the widowed Mrs. McGillicuddy entertained when she reached, half-asleep, for that bottle of pills--if that was in fact what she’d done. No one would ever know for sure. Certainly Ginny wouldn’t; she’d be the last to know, because her mother wouldn’t ever consider her mature enough to be told any of the available information--although years of speculation has brought Virginia to her own conclusion. How far, in fact, was the Kingdom of Heaven from the Valley of the Dolls? An unbridgeable distance? Separated by the mountain ridge of mortal sin ? And to what end? The result was not Grace Slick’s Alice-in-Wonderland magic; not an eat-me or drink-me, expand-me or shrink-me pill, nor the bland, ineffectual vitamin that mother gives, but on the contrary, the all-too-effectual pill mother takes to be soothed and to sleep, and perhaps to continue to sleep--indefinitely.
Ironically enough, it might have been easier to sneak into Woodstock had you chosen to rough it at the aforementioned Catholic camp so dear to your dad, given its proximate upstate location. But other than dreaming, you can’t go to Woodstock if you are out of state, just over the border in Pennsyvania to be precise, living it up in the that Pocono Lodge, going to camp just a few hours a day--nothing too strenuous--learning to fish while your parents played golf, learning to trot on a horse around the perimeter of a fenced-in ring, then in the afternoon swimming out to the floating raft halfway across the lake, climbing the ladder up onto it and dangling your legs over the sides without a care in the world, and then diving off and swimming back to shore where you lazed in the sun on the sand. And on Sunday, only on Sunday, you go to church, the whole family as usual, a little country church whose congregation swells with strangers every July and August, and then come into the fancy dining room where you can order griddle cakes drenched in butter and syrup with sausage on the side and be served by a waiter or waitress who deftly slides an index finger through a special opening to lift up the crown-shaped silver cover that is keeping the food all steamy and warm, the smiling waitress displaying your sumptuous breakfast for your approval as if you were a queen.
But between the luxurious breakfasts, when all of the campers march single-file on the trail to the lake for their overnight trip with their fishing rods, or when all the girls twice a week parade single-file on their horses into the ring, Ginny finds it hard to keep her eyes focused straight ahead. She keeps turning around, keenly aware of the sharp hook held by some incautious peer swaying inches behind her, ready to snag on her clothes or her hair or her skin, and later aware of the horse’s obscenely long head with its large set of teeth. She can’t wait to get back to the main lodge with its large, seductively dark recreation room, where if you were lucky while playing ping pong or pinball or pool you might even meet a boy. But if you were less lucky, you’d get sucked into some group activity involving both parents and children, in fact myriad guests of all ages standing in formation, snaking through the ballroom, obligingly shaking various parts of their anatomy in approximate synchrony, as the Pocono lounge band provided the musical fuel for inhibition. In short, everybody and his brother must join in this cheerful if awkward collaborative effort to create wholesome family fun
When the fun is concluded, and the families who could afford to go in the first place return to their respective suburbs, Simon’s older sister, back from the spontaneously historic three days at Yasgur’s Farm, narrates for her spellbound younger brother, who in turn spreads the word to all the incredulous, covetous Woodstock wannabees in his class. Simon has always preferred the company of girls; they are nicer and sweeter and easier to impress, and besides, there are only a handful of boys in their grade.What’s more, for the girls’ titillation, he can count on his sister to share even unsavory details, which cause the intended effects on his peers, yet make them yearn no less to have been there.
Ginny imagines the Mountainview Lounge Band transposed to a Woodstock stage, but the comic absurdity is small consolation. How might they alter their corny sounds and still cornier lyrics? You put your right breast in, you put your right breast out. You put your right breast in and you shake your ass about---
If only they were a few years older, they might have been part of it all. Woodstock comprises their missed date with destiny, and that is excruciating—to have it so tantalizingly close, so replete with un-Christian mysteries. The concert writ large is as monumental to Ginny and her friends as the nearly concurrent historic event of putting a man on the moon, the latter being an occasion for unanimous national celebration, though curiously controversial between Nonna and Dad. Some bizarre argument that Virginia and Angela try to stay out of--something to do with Americas putting a flag on the moon instead of a cross. Italy, Nonna insisted, would never do such an ungodly thing. Imagine promoting the fatherland rather than God the Father! “Non farebbe mai.”
“Damn straight,” says dad, “because Italy would never produce the technology! La moda, va bene, disegno, va bene, ma technologia! Forget it! Disastro! And don’t forget Mussolini,” he adds. “You got Dante, Da Vinci and all o’ those geniuses but then Mussolini. Figure that out.”
Then Mom interjects out of nowhere, “But didn’t Buzz Aldrin receive the Eucarist on the moon?” even though the discussion is pretty much finished. “That’s as much of a statement as a cross on the moon, in a way, Antonella. Christo sulla luna, capito?”
“Did he dip it in Tang?” Ginny asks, and Mom gives her a withering look.
“Senza prete, non c’e il sacremento. Il Corpo di Christo ha bisogno un prete.”
“What is she sayin’, Mom?” asks Angela.
“That it isn’t a sacrament without a priest present.”
“I think it would be kinda tough for NASA to find a priest-astronaut to ride along and serve mass, Ma,” says Sal. “Go ask Lorenzo if there are any aeronautics electives offered in seminary.”
“Maybe a priest performed mass just before the launch,” Angie says, hoping to solve the dispute, “and then put all the left-over hosts into the shuttle.”
“Good thinking, Ange.”
“Yea, that’s gotta be it,” says Dad, “case closed. The host had to have been pre-consecrated.”
The traffic on Hillside Ave is heavy as usual, as it advances toward the major intersection of Jericho Tpke., and thus it is difficult to hear oneself. Virginia Postodellafuoco faces away from the street noise, cradling the phone’s receiver as she stands at an open kiosk—which, if one were to fashion a PSAT analogy question, is to a bona fide phone booth as a urinal is to a full toilet-stall. Not that a standardized test gets that risqué; not that Virginia is old enough to take that test yet, and not that she would know much about urinals, except from some unsolicited descriptions offered by Simon Brown, who often delights in mild forms of provocation, and who, at the moment, is missing in action. Simon’s absence makes Ginny nervous, fearful that he might have taken the knife ( that is, razor), so as to avoid having to take up a gun and do target practice, so as to avoid trading his plaid blazer for a khaki or camouflage uniform, or whatever they make boys in military school wear. Something dark blue with brass buttons maybe? Every day Simon seems more morose, waiting to be shipped out to the military academy, and his only diversion from this disconsolate state of mind is the occasional shopping excursion with Vicki and Darcy and Maggie and Dawn and Ginny, despite the communal disapproval of all the girls’ mothers: “Boys don’t go shopping. He should be out playing ball. Does his mother know?” Over these objections, and without exactly advertising the fact to their mothers, the girls had invited Simon to come with them today, but he’d stood them up, making Ginny suspicious. Her worry increases by the hour. Hence her presence now in the half-booth, this open-air phone-stand, on a congested street lined with shops and cars on the way to those shops, cars headed for vast parking lots: in short, a street not conducive to conversation. Hence her relief when she actually reaches him, hears Simon’s living, endearingly nasal voice. But his tone indicates that the challenge has only begun.
“Cheer up, Simon,” she says earnestly, desperately, into the receiver, her hand now cupped over her other ear to block out the considerable ambient noise of the Hillside Avenue intersection, “I promise we’ll all keep in touch through the summer… and next year, and forever. Did you hear me, Simon, forever! I promise.” This shouting over traffic takes even more energy than the fraught conversation they’d had last night. The blue princess phone in her bedroom had felt much more intimate—that is, until her mother intruded. (But her mother is nowhere near now; she will not arrive to fetch Ginny from the shopping expedition for another hour.) As she listens to Simon’s now rather annoying voice, Virginia Posto closes her eyes to facilitate concentration.
“It’s gonna be living hell. I’ll get beat up, I know it.”
Before Ginny realizes it, something has happened. Someone has touched her. A random hand has been placed on her buttock, then removed just as quickly. It’s the kind of joke Simon himself, were he physically present and not just a plaintive voice in her ear, might play on her.
“Hold on a second,” she says, and whips her head around to see the benevolent face of a tall black man, bearing an expression not the least sheepish or furtive. On the contrary, he is smiling a mile wide, as if he had just exchanged how-do-you-do, it’s-a-lovely-day, isn’t-it? Then he winks, as if letting her in on the joke, waiting for her to get it, the sequence of smile and wink seeming to say, ‘see how womanly you are, and see how much I appreciate how womanly you are, and isn’t it time to enjoy life, young lady?’
Neither mother, nun, nor priest have prepared her for a gesture this blunt: a stranger touching her in a private place, not with a threatening look but a beatific smile on his face--a contact intended perhaps as a compliment more than a provocation. (Not entirely unlike the Italian boys who had swarmed as she and her sister walked down the city streets of Rome, their hands glancing ardently if over-zealously as they chanted, Ciao bella! Those boys had been pests, yet behaved as if every girl were a gift from God—not just glamourous, fashionable girls—as if not only Angie but Ginny too were beautiful and desirable.)
“Simon, the strangest thing just happened.”
“This guy just touched me while we were talking.”
“Here. In the phone booth.”
“No, dummy, what part of you?”
“You mean he goosed you?”
“No… I mean, I don’t think he did…what exactly does goose mean again?”
Simon laughs raucously and offers no information. When that episode is finished, he asks a yet more straightforward question. “Is he still there?”
Ginny turns back to the street. The about-face chesire smile is no longer visible. “No, he walked past.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry then. But you better tell your mother.”
“You think I should?”
“Aren’t these the kind of things girls tell their mothers?”
“I guess so. But you know how my mother is. I mean, you heard her last night. She isn’t someone to, uh…share everything with.”
“Now, if a man had touched me, I couldn’t tell my father. If you get my meaning.”
“I’m not sure I ever… entirely get your meaning, Si.”
“You girls have it made. I’m so jealous of you.”
“Simon, don’t be ridiculous. It isn’t so easy. My folks really wanted a boy, for example.”
She gropes in her purse for another nickel or dime as the automated operator’s voice says, Please deposit five cents for the next five minutes. “Simon, Simon, are you still there?” She inserts two nickels, perhaps not in time.
Please deposit five cents.
“I desposited it already, damn it.” She is surprised by the volume of her own voice. “Simon—Jesus!—are you still there? Can you hear me?”
“I’m not the messiah, but thanks anyway. And of course I can hear you, you’re yelling.”
“Not at you, at the operator.”
“I know, Ginny. I know. But don’t make stuff up just to make feel better. It won’t work.”
“I’m not making it up, Simon. They did want a boy, they still do. You should come live with us.”
“Sure. Then they’d still want a boy and they’d say so. I’d feel even worse.”
“That isn’t funny.”
“I’m being serious.”
“Well, I don’t want you to feel any worse, Si, but you know I feel pretty crummy about it now. You’re not the only one with feelings, you know…Simon? Did you hear me?”
Please deposit ten cents. And now she feels even more worried to lose him while scolding instead of consoling and she can’t believe it, she’s completely out of change. Ransacking her pockets and purse, Ginny finds only lint and pennies and a couple of paper clips and the stupid button she couldn’t be bothered to sew on her school blouse, and then suddenly something lands on the sidewalk beside her, like manna from heaven: a dime. She looks up to see the same man, the same smile, sauntering past her now in the opposite direction, and when they make eye contact, he tosses another dime toward her. Clutz that she is, she doesn’t quite catch it. But that doesn’t seem to to perturb the hand-man, whose smile is even more radiant as he watches her bend to pick up her prize, the receiver dangling from the stall and Simon, she hopes, holding on, blind to the handman’s final congratulatory wink.
One might think Woodstock had never occurred, even by proxy, even by fantasy—as far as these girls are concerned, they who at the cusp of adolescence have been forbidden to explore it first-hand. Just as violence, according to Sr Catherine John, always occurred off-stage in Greek tragedy; its inverse: frolic--or for the sake of hyperbole, Dionysian revel--was intrinsically off-stage for Virginia, her sister, and the rest of the girls in their respective grades at St Rose. For even three years after the infamous pagan festival of upstate New York, the closest version of revel for these girls is taking place here in the gym, where freshmen and sophomores and juniors and seniors are gathered in clusters, arms at their sides, their faces tramsmitting a spectrum of eagerness, panic, ambivalence, while their bodies stand awkwardly or sway tentatively to the music. On no other occasion can one find each girl dressed differently than her neighbor: in dresses, nice blouses, dress pants, shoes with heels--not a loafer or plaid skirt in sight. This creates a far more diverse composition than one would customarily see in this vast, barren room generally used for assembly or mass or a basketball game—rather than pleasure. But this night is not designated for to obedience or worship or team sport. Tonight one cannot divide the females into their customary fractions: one third shooting baskets, one third waving pom-poms for the former third, and one third languishing in the bleechers. (This last set would generally include Ginny and Darcy and Janie, as usual out of commission and complaining as they loitered. “What’s the point of cheering for other girls? Know what I mean? It’s a little…peculiar.”)
Only last week this same auditorium was filled with row upon row of metal folding chairs from which jutted a phalanx of bare female knees, each a knobby oasis of flesh between cuff of knee-sock and hem of plaid skirt. The knees, never crossed, perfectly parallel, like the eyes above them, formed a clean line of sight to the male who solemnly held up a gold ciborium behind a makeshift altar. By Thursday, the gym was commandeered for a special assembly instead of a mass, the hand-made banners decorating the altar replaced by a large screen mounted on the front wall. Sister Mary Moynihan sought to prepare the girls for their future with a documentary film about birth, the sequel to which was a film documenting the obstruction of birth, which their futures, of course, precluded. Ginny was made no less squeamish by one than the other, though she understood as well as any girl sitting in her midst that the first documented miracle; the second, mortal sin. The image concluding the film was a dumpster outside the depicted illicit facility. Janie, on the other hand, had to leave in the middle of the film, so as to vomit in the relative privacy of the first-floor bathroom stall.
But neither birth nor obstruction of birth could occur without certain conditions--rather elusive conditions--and while references were often made to the highly mythologized opposite sex, seldom were they visible ---let alone as a critical mass. Now a whole new population has invaded the gym, a whole new gender of temporary squatters, who if sighted not Saturday evening but Monday morning would virtually set off a fire alarm. Only one row of chairs lines the wall. Most students are standing; the others attempting some form of dancing. Virginia Postodellafuoco is one of the former and about to become the latter, because someone is coming toward her.
So this is the body whose soul matches mine, thinks the mortified, thoroughly disappointed girl. Last night she’d felt hopeful and fearless in their own basement, an intimate space much more congenial than the gym, with its postered walls and familiar adolescent clutter. Sprawled across orange vinyl, the girls, singing loudly, submitted eagerly to the Jefferson Airplane’s hypnotic sequence of rhetorical questions. Ginny responded in her heart with an unequivocal yes (she does want, does need, she would love). But where and by what means was a girl to go to carry out Miss--or Ms.--Slick’s interdiction, when she commanded as if with finger pointed straight at Ginny’s conspicuous Roman nose, You better fnd somebody to love, with an authority more persuasive, certainly more seductive, than any nun’s. Then a light bulb went off inside Ginny’s head just as bright as the sight of an angel from heaven. The school dance, the school dance! Through scientific precision, via the latest technology, she was bound to find someone to love. And Angie became her ally, as they prepared themselves, ransacking the closet, sneaking makeup. “Let’s try to do something with that hair.” But what could one do really, except strategically insert a pretty barette or two. And then the inevitable, excruciating delay--when Dad told mom Ginny wasn’t permitted to leave the house with a blouse that sheer, even with both a brassiere and a camisole underneath. So then it got even later, and Angie and Ginny and Mom went into emergency-wardrobe-mode, trying to find anything that would go nearly as well with the powder blue velvet bellbottoms, whose pretty butterfly appliqués Angela and mom had helped her sew onto the hip pockets. No top would look as sophisticated with them as that slightly sheer, puckered material had. Why couldn’t anything go forward uncensored? What a coup it was that a girl named Grace had grown up to initiate thousands of teen-age listeners into the mysteries of pharmacology and the ultimate falseness of alleged truth.
Once dropped off at the gym, things begin to go further awry. Yes!, she has solemnly sworn to the sensuous voice of Grace Slick, she does indeed need somebody to love, but not this badly, this desperately. Love cannot possibly be meant to take the form of this unctuous, slightly obese young man walking toward her, computer print-out in his hand. There must be some mistake, Virginia Postodellafuoco is about to say; she is certain there must be. And yet the numbers match precisely. On his card: forty-three. On her card forty-three. How can it be? The short-cut precision of technology--called in secular parlance miraculous--is not boosting Virginia Fiorenza’s self-image any.
He extends his arm to shake her hand but the clumsy boy drops his card, and for a moment he stands there nonplussed, too embarrassed to pick it up. Suddenly he squats to the floor, leaving Ginny to gaze down at the top of his crew-cut head. Then his pimply face is before her again, his glasses slightly askew from the abrupt movement. With the card in his pocket now, he offers again his hand, which is sweaty, and wouldn’t you know, the band has just started a slow dance. How can she refuse, having thrown her hat into the ring by participating in this pathetic process in the first place? Nobody forced her to fill out the questionnaire; she had wielded her number two pencil with at least as much alacrity as the next girl, probably far more. At least initially.
Felicia and Dawn, official facilitators of St. Rose’s first-ever computer dating dance, had helped Ginny interpret the ostensibly straightforward questions, such as, “Are you an introvert or extrovert?” Depending on whether Ginny was home with her parents or out with her friends, it was two different answers, but there was no blank space in which to write “both,” or “I alternate,” let alone a long phrase like “depends on the situation.” In fact, the deeper she got, the more daunting Ginny found this compatiability questionnaire, skipping over questions much more frequently than she would for the PSAT. At the end, she went back to all the skipped ones, but only resolved a few. Could it be some kind of trick question, Dawn? she had asked, absurdly perplexed. Finally Felicia said, “This is a dumb questionnaire, Gin, not a Regents literature essay; and if you keep questioning questions, we’ll have to mark you down as an honorary extrovert!”
And if only they had! Why, why, wny hadn’t she marked the oval next to extrovert instead? Her pencil had hovered there, wavering back and forth.
The unctuous boy, who had obviously blackened the introvert oval, holds her tighter and tighter as the song progresses and Ginny is too self-conscious to make a scene or burst free of his body’s grip; there is something unsavory about his pressing against her like that, suffocating, as if he were trying to strangle her, but much lower down than her neck. She is too humiliated and stunned to know how to break free without calling attention to this abortion of a fairy tale, this conceptual prince turned actual toad that some objective technology cruelly matched her to, as if to say, this is what you deserve, Ginny-Juliet. Say hello to your customized Romeo--and by the way, might as well reach for that happy dagger right now!
Locked in this unsavory vise, she does not have what Sr. Mary Constance called her thinking-cap on, though obviously Dawn and Felicia had theirs snugly fitted when they volunteered to do all of the distributing and then all of the collating of all of the other girls’ questionnaires. Weren’t those two savvy to exclude themselves from this dubious sweepstakes? This special treat the nuns provided via Student Council, this treat that was supposed to be her ticket to romance.
“Who says Catholic education is old-fashioned?” Sister Constance will ask at next week’s assembly, smiling triumphantly, her modified, merely knee-length habit providing a convenient prop for her rhetorical question. “We offer our girls innovation whenever feasible--and appropriate, of course.” Then her expression would change every so subtly as she folded her hands and stepped toward her audience, pausing before continuing. “More importantly, who says charity is no longer prevalent in our society? May I present, girls,”—and she would gesture proudly toward the row in which the members of Student Council sat—“the shining example of Dawn and Felicia, excellent students and excellent citizens willing to sacrifice their own enjoyment for the sake of their peers?”
Ginny will come to realize that making the honor roll every semester is probably the least of what distinguishes this pair as resourceful. One could easily enough infer from their twinned Mona Lisa smiles that charity and common sense were, in fact, never more closely affiliated.