April 25, 2010
So Long As You Had Fun
Of course I’d seen the advertisements, everyone has. Usually they don’t come on until after midnight when all the family programs have ended. Shaky and poorly lit documentary-style footage of girls—real girls, not actresses—jumping up and down with their shirts pulled up to their chins, breasts blocked out by long black bars or twirling starbursts. Above their heads in big splashy letters it says they’ve gone wild, like they’ve suddenly contracted rabies or just come from sacking Rome. They have that lusty vandal look—bleeding make-up, dilated eyes, tousled hair. On the bottom of the screen there’s a number you can call to place an order over the phone in case you’re interested in seeing what’s underneath the censors, if you hadn’t guessed by now. What’s the big mystery? To me, the most interesting thing is to see how their faces transform into grotesque, snarling masks—the uglier, the better, in my opinion Those are the ones that are truly free, and maybe a little dangerous because they don’t care if you find them attractive. They don’t care about anything—jobs, lovers, disapproving families. If you’re lucky enough to catch it, it’s a breathtaking sight to behold—a girl gone suddenly, inexplicably wild.
But then, you’d have to be looking at their faces to really see it.
I wondered if that’s how I looked too. As we sat around the airport waiting for our flight out of Vegas, it was all Sherrilyn and Gertie could talk about. The gate was packed with travelers, pacing restively back and forth in front of the monitors marked DEPARTURES or killing time at the nearby slot machines, which blinked and burbled with hypnotic frequency. Nearly every seat in the waiting area was occupied. The three of us were camped out on the floor by the windows, where you could feel the vibration of overhead planes in your bones even before you saw the lights. Gertie had her laptop plugged into a wall outlet, and she was hunched in front of the screen, a surgical mask over her mouth. She always wears them when she travels because she’s paranoid about germs. She used to wear them at her work—Gertie’s a kindergarten teacher—but she had to stop when some parents complained that it was frightening the children.
Finally Gertie stopped typing and pulled down her mask. “There’s no release date,” she said gravely, and I had to bite the inside of my cheeks to keep from laughing because right then she looked just like a soap opera doctor announcing, “There’s no cure!” She can be a little on the dramatic side, and now that her breasts had been cinematized for all of posterity, you’d think that Armageddon was upon us.
“Of course there’s no release date, stupid,” Sherrilyn said. “They’re probably not even done filming.” She was stretched out on her side as she flipped through a magazine, her posture languid and queenlike. We had all gotten T-shirts for flashing the cameras, although Sherrilyn was the only one who was still wearing hers. It was bright pink, with the company logo emblazoned across the front, and everywhere we went she attracted stares. Gertie had dropped hers in the hotel wastebasket that morning, but I think she would have preferred to purge the memory with some cleansing, ritualistic gesture, like a burning. My shirt was in my duffel bag. I still hadn’t decided what to do with it. Gertie kept shooting Sherrilyn withering looks, but didn’t say anything. It was Sherrilyn’s bachelorette weekend after all, which granted her a certain degree of immunity from Gertie’s nagging.
“And anyway, they’re just boobs,” I said. “It’s not like anyone hasn’t seen them.” Not that I didn’t have regrets of my own. I could just picture my eighty-five-year-old grandfather flipping through the channels to catch a late-night episode of “I Love Lucy” and falling backward in his Barcalounger when the commercial came onscreen. Or the office manager at my work, a bossy Christian lady who’s always trying to set me up with men from her church, she’d probably try to have me fired. But what’s done is done, as I saw it, and anyway, who’s to say anyone we knew would ever see it? There must be a million of those videos. I once saw a commercial for one set in a zero gravity chamber, like the kind NASA uses to train astronauts for space, with all these naked girls floating around like jellyfish. I mean, if you’re going in for that kind of thing, why not pick something with an interesting concept? What’s so great about a bunch of girls jumping up and down without their tops on anyway?
“I don’t like being objectified,” Gertie said, turning back to her computer screen. She had logged onto the “FAQ/Help” page of the company’s website, but all of the questions had to do with ordering DVDs.
“No one can objectify you without your consent,” Sherrilyn replied. “Somebody famous said that.”
“Eleanor Roosevelt. And besides,” I said, “you signed a consent form.” I meant it as a joke, but no one laughed.
“The only reason I signed that consent form was the same reason I took my top off in the first place,” Gertie said. “Bottom line, I was drunk and those camera guys took advantage. And by the way, Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t say that. The quote goes ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’”
“Why would you give your consent to feel inferior?” I said, because it is a pretty dumb idea when you think about it, as if anyone has control over their feelings in the first place, and besides, who’s going to make you feel inferior when you’re married to the President? Nobody. And anyway, Gertie hadn’t been drunk, not really. I should know, since I was the one paying for drinks last night. Gertie and I had agreed to take turns paying, even though Sherrilyn drank twice as much when it was my turn to pay. Expensive drinks too, like those yard-long margaritas they serve in what looks like a vase and cost eighteen dollars a pop, twenty if you’re a good tipper, which I am.
I wanted to say something more, something about how I thought the whole drift of this conversation was wrong. Why is it whenever a woman takes off her clothes, the subject turns to exploitation? Who’s to say she’s not the one in control? It’s tiresome, if you ask me, but no one ever does. And anyway by that time Gertie had slipped her surgical mask back over her mouth and turned away, as if to say she wasn’t even going to dignify my remark about giving consent. Once, she called me a pettifog in front of a group of people, and I couldn’t defend myself without admitting I didn’t know what that was. She can be cunning, that girl. Later when I got home I looked up “pettifog” in the dictionary and discovered it just meant “a person who quibbles over trifles.”
“Well, in my opinion, Americans are far too prudish about their bodies,” Sherrilyn said loftily. Her dad is Canadian and she lived in Quebec for a year, until her parents split up and her mom brought her back to the States as a baby. By the way she talks you’d think she was still suffering from the culture shock. At twenty-five she is three years older than me and two years older than Gertie, which should technically make her more American than both of us since she’s been here the longest.
“Funny you should say that, Sherrilyn,” I said. “If anyone was holding back last night it was you.” Which was true. While Gertie actually removed her entire top, Sherrilyn just did a quick peek-a-boo sort of thing—now you see them, now you don’t. I thought that she was secretly pissed because Gertie was the one getting the loudest cheers. All this took place outside on a rooftop nightclub overlooking Las Vegas Boulevard, and you could see people pointing up at us from the sidewalk down below. I kept waiting for someone to call the cops and have us arrested for indecent exposure, but maybe they don’t have those laws in this city.
“It was freezing outside,” Sherrilyn said shortly. “They should have turned on the heating lamps.”
“Prudishness has nothing to do with it,” Gertie said. “I’m probably the only one here that stands to lose anything over this.” She meant because of her job. The way she talks sometimes, you’d think she was working for the CIA, instead of teaching five-year-olds the names of planets.
“I have Karl,” Sherrilyn put in. “And he’s really jealous. Just the thought of all those men watching the tape and fantasizing about me . . .”she trailed off. Maybe it was the way the overhead lights shadowed her face—under that kind of fluorescnence, everyone looked guilty of something—but I do believe she was trying not to smile, like maybe she was just a little bit pleased at the idea.
“Look,” I said. “I’m sure everyone here has something to lose, but it’s not like anyone was holding a gun to our heads. You both spend far too much time worrying about what people are going to think. If it made you feel good and you had fun doing it, that’s all that matters. Not your work, not your fiancé, not the perverts watching at home.”
“Did you have fun, Tess?” Gertie asked.
“Sure,” I said, although that was only halfway true. In that first, electrifying moment when the woman in charge of the filming crew—yes, it was a woman— yelled action, I opened my mouth and screamed. It was magical, that scream, much louder than anyone else’s. I felt it start way down in my toes and work its way up my bloodstream like carbonated bubbles before it rose through the air, this terrible, primordial sound that took possession of my body as I stamped my feet and tore and my hair, baring my teeth. I really cut loose. Of course my breasts were exposed, but who would have dared to notice such a thing? Who could have seen that fearsome spectacle and not be awestruck, maybe even threatened?
“Okay, stop,” the camera guy had said. “My battery just died. Could you try that again in five?”
When I tried to replicate the scream, it just wasn’t in me. It’s not something you can fake. Suddenly, I became conscious of the blinding lights, the bored expression on the woman’s face, the way Gertie’s nipples looked, swollen and oddly staring, the left one pointed slightly outward like a walleye. For some reason, that walleyed nipple defeated me. The next time I lifted my shirt, I was utterly tame.
“Thank you ladies,” the woman had then said. “That was great.”
I thought about telling my friends what had happened, but by now Sherrilyn and Gertie were no longer paying attention to the conversation. All around us people in the airport were craning their necks to watch a plane taxi in from the runway and finally come to a stop at our gate, where one of those mobile corridors was stretching toward it like an accordion.
And anyway, what would I say? That I’d tapped into some primal wellspring of passion and fury that took over my body? That for a moment I became somebody else? Not Tess the clerical worker, who went on blind dates and told jokes that no one laughed at, but the kind of woman who could show herself to the world free from shame, the kind of woman you wouldn’t want to fuck with. Like they would believe that. I didn’t even know if I believed that. Who’s to say it really happened that way? Maybe I just induced myself into a frenzy in order to go through with it. Surely I wouldn’t have been the first.
Over the intercom one of the airline workers said that if everyone would just sit tight, we would be ready board as soon as the plane was cleared. We watched the travelers emerge from the corridor, slowly at first, just one at a time, and then more in groups of threes and fours, until it seemed like they were all rushing out at once. A few of them were dressed up in odd clothes—necklaces with blinking dollar signs, pink cowboy hats, feather boas. Most of them were smiling—not at us, the weary homebound travelers, but at the tinkling slot machines and the zigzagging pattern of the carpet, which urged you forward to the baggage claim, and then through the glass doors that slid open like a yawn into the warm dry night.
As we waited to board the plane, I found myself thinking about all the people who would see the videos—friends, relatives, past and future lovers. I thought of them sitting at home in the middle of the night. Perhaps they would just be returning from work, muscles tight and head throbbing with exhaustion as they poured themselves a bowl of cereal before heading off to bed. Or else maybe they had to use the bathroom and then couldn’t get back to sleep. Or they were awakened by a strange noise, but when they got up to investigate, nothing was there. There would be a million opportunities to turn on the television. If they saw me on the screen would they even know it was me? I’d like to think so, but I don’t know. Maybe the ones looking at my face, but even that would take a special effort of concentration, a faith in one’s ability to recognize someone they think they know.
Jennifer Holland currently writes and lives in Tucson, Arizona.