By Cathy Alter
When I was 10 years old, I fell in love with the bodice rippers my mother read in the kitchen every night. Fat paperbacks with titles like Tender Fury or Captive Passions, their covers often had traces of Revlon’s “Love that Red” nail polish, evidence that they also doubled as a platform for her manicures. The stories were all the same. The heroine, a changeling/gypsy/orphan who really comes from royalty, does battle with the ghosts/offspring/stepmother of her dark past, suffers/fights/enjoys a deflowering, and emerges with name/ wealth/heart restored by a stable boy-slash-Count with a similar history. The best stories spanned Tolstoy-esque generations, each one trying to avenge the last, and, come to think of it, are probably to blame for of my own psychological struggles with repetition compulsion. I plowed through these books as quickly as my mother discarded them. I can still see the cover of Phyllis A. Whitney’s 1975 masterpiece Spindrift. A Bardot-haired woman runs through crashing waves toward the reader, a Breakers-like mansion in the background. She wears opera-length white gloves, a robin’s egg-colored dress, and a look of ladylike distress. “A headlong novel of romance, mystery, and suspense set in the fabled world of Newport where the very rich played at their very private games,” reads the teaser. While my contemporaries were trading in Judy Blume, my understanding of sex was limited to the pages of these gothic romance novels. Here, the heroine, all flowing hair and heaving chest, pressed against a slab of throbbing manhood until she gushed forth like a raging mountain stream. When streams weren’t gushing, ocean waves were crashing, flower petals were unfurling, and honey was dripping. As a girl who once asked if making love felt like a back scratch, these nature-based euphemisms for orgasm were lost on me. In lending me those purple pages, my mother was providing more than an unintentional lesson in the birds and bees. Through her guilty pleasures, she was imparting a true passion for reading. She eventually moved on to William Kennedy, Philip Roth, and Richard Ford—and I followed suit, devouring whatever she left scattered around the house like breadcrumbs. The other day I treated myself to a professional manicure, a rare occurrence since becoming a mother ten months ago. It was that unmistakable smell of nail polish that made me think of my mother, who is now in the throes of a rare form of dementia that robs the afflicted of language. My mind instantly returned to that image of her in our kitchen, deep into a ripper, never realizing she’d one day have to fight her own savage battles. — Cathy Alter is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose articles and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Washingtonian, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and McSweeney’s. She is the author of Virgin Territory: Stories From the Road to Womanhood and the memoir Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over.
30 august 2012 www.urbanitebaltimore.com
Sadie’s tits are big, fat tits because Sadie is a big, fat girl. Because she’s 12, her mom doesn’t believe in making her wear bras. She should at least wear a trainer bra, my mom says in disgust. More like an underwire, my mom says another time. Sadie has bought a Walkman, Disney singa-long tapes, a beret, a New Kids On the Block lunchbox, Lisa Frank kitten stickers that she stuck all over her Walkman, and three Nancy Drew books. This is all with her tit money, she says proudly showing us neighborhood girls. Someday, she says, you might have tits and be able to buy this stuff, too. I ask my mom when my chest will grow in and she says, Hopefully never. I ask her again, and she says, When you’re grown. I can’t imagine that I’ll want Disney tapes when I’m grown, but it’s exciting to think that some day I can have a beret and a lunchbox and a Walkman, all bought with my very own tit money. Other than her tits, Sadie isn’t much different than the rest of us neighborhood girls. Sure, the boys try to kiss her, while they try to hurt us by throwing baseballs at our faces or tripping us on the bus. It is hard to tell which feet, sticking out in the aisle, are dangerous and will tilt up to catch our feet, and which ones belong to other neighborhood girls who are too busy worrying about their own exit. Sadie is pretty much like us neighborhood girls except that she wears tank tops so you can see her sweating, fat tits. She wants you to see. And except for the fact that the older boys, us neighborhood girls’ brothers, want to kiss Sadie’s big, fat lips because of her big, fat tits. Because of that, Sadie sometimes gets to ride in cars that us neighborhood girls are forbidden to touch. My mother shakes her head when I tell her that Sadie told a group of us neighborhood girls that she had been kissing Sammy’s brother in the back of his car. My mother says she will kill me and bury me if she ever finds out that I am kissing anybody’s brother anywhere. Sammy’s brother is a real joke, though. A Class-A Loser is what Sammy’s father calls him. I agree. A 16-year-old boy should be bored to tears by a 12-year-old girl, tits or no tits.