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Strip

Runner-up in Boston Review's Fifth Annual Short Story Contest.

Marianne Taylor

We smoked Virginia Slims right down to the filter, knew our fake IDs by heart: "Elizabeth Shewley, 5/6/60. That's May. Taurus, you know, the bull. S-H-E-W-L-E-Y, 6 Eisenhower Court. My eyes are hazel-see." We drank Alabama Slammers in tube dresses and equated Cosmopolitan magazine with the feminist movement. Those other women, the ones burning bras at beauty pageants, they were just ugly. They needed a good makeover; they needed to get laid. We used a four-color click-top pen to do the tests: "DO YOU TURN HIM ON?" Theresa would score the highest; she stuffed erotic Polaroids into her boyfriend's work socks and put fresh rose petals in her underwear. G-spots? Who cared. It really came down to how many free drinks we could rack up at the bar. This was how we measured ourselves: upside down shot glasses, each one improving our posture. We shoplifted in tight designer jeans and wore the back heels right off our Candies till each step we took became an upward climb. We worked in fast food restaurants and, if we were lucky, made out with our managers in the walk-in freezers. If we were lucky we didn't have to clean the shake machine or close on Saturday night.

We were seventeen, exit 153b off the Garden State Parkway. It was 1979, six years after the largest mall in the country had landed two service roads and a traffic circle away from Our Lady of the Assumption. Patty, Theresa, Eddelfuck and I were thorns in the side of Catholic Education. We were the byproducts of a lost decade-- a generation floundering in the shadows of peace signs and flowers.

Vatican II hit Our Lady in 1967; I was just a kid. The package of revisions had been the Pope's trump card, his response to the social unrest of the sixties. It was his best offer. How bad could brotherly love be, after all? It spurned such fiascos as coeducation, sex education (a nun with a movie) and the overwhelmingly popular folk mass. For eight years, 1967 to 1975, our parish sang religiously-adapted folk music under the choral direction of men who looked like Jesus with fat psychedelic guitar straps. Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" became "Livin' with All Men." This was the answer-Our Lady's answer. Our mothers bit their lips and rocked their cat-eye glasses; our fathers sang too loud and played air tambourine. The Parish held hands and sang, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." We changed "Coke" to "God," not really knowing which came first. "God is . . ." and we felt like "the real thing," too, practically the now generation.

Inevitably, though, the bottom fell out of our real thing, and on the Sunday the choir sang "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar, it was over for good. When the soloist belted out, "I've had so many other men before / He's really just one more," it hardly mattered that he was a man himself. The choral director had an agenda ahead of his time. A clergy who had put up with too much already walked out in protest. Two-thirds of the congregation followed Father Frank outside, my family included. The real people stayed inside while the rest of us hung our heads and stared at Father Frank's new leather sandals. My mother wasn't risking purgatory, the fate of the undecided. The choir continued to sing, their voices fading in and out with the swinging of the big oak doors. This was the day the music died at Our Lady-the Sunday after Easter, 1975. The folk choir never sang again. Most of them, like Theresa's sister, took their guitars to California in VW buses. Father Frank locked up the choir balcony and, just in case anyone wanted to listen, the mass went back to Latin. So much for living with all men. That was the year that Theresa, Patty, Eddelfuck and I graduated from St. Stanislaus Elementary and began High School at Our Lady of the Assumption.

The Catholic church had failed us, failed our parents. Our Lady was churning out angry, vengeful teenage vermin-girls whose confessions they didn't want to hear. Lie, we figured, just lie.

Final exams at Our Lady were almost over. It was hot-the back of my legs stuck to the white vinyl seat of Eddelfuck's Thunderbird. Mary Eddelman was her real name, and the car was really her mother's, but "Eddelfuck" had a certain punch to it, something like the Thunderbird, which we sometimes called the Thunderfuck. Clouds of bong smoke bellowed from the open sunroof. The car in front of us had a bumper sticker that read LIFE IS NOT A HOLOGRAM.

"Mine sure as shit is," said Patty-a glorious pot revelation. Eddelfuck beeped the horn and Theresa screamed it out the sunroof. But Patty, she just sat there with her mouth hanging open all the way to the liquor store.

"You know, life really is like a hologram," she said, blowing herself away by the mere thought of it.

"SHUT UP!" snapped Eddelfuck, slamming the gear column into park. "AND GET THE GODDAMN GIN," and Patty did, because we pretty much did anything Eddelfuck told us.

After the gin, things started to feel like a driver's ed movie-like the doomed teens of the quasi-Hitchcock film distributed by the Department of Education. (The driver's ed nun had given us special permission to run to the bathroom during that film, without a hall pass, and throw up if we had to. We didn't have to.) Eddelfuck had this trick. She would drive on cruise control with her feet on the steering wheel. The rest of her body would be popping up through the sunroof; bus stops would cheer as she blew them kisses.

Bowie's "Young Americans" was blaring through the 8-track as we drove past St. Stanislaus. Eighth grade graduation practice was the work in progress out on the football field. On one side of the field was a Burger King drive-thru, a McDonald's drive-thru on the other. Sometimes during gym class obscene messages were amplified thru Ronald's fiberglass lips as if from Satan himself: "Fuck me . . . suck me." We had endured this graduation practice ourselves four years earlier-the aluminum grandstands hot as a waffle iron, our asses cooking through their polyester jumpers.

Track 1 was warped. Bowie sounded as if he were singing from the bottom of a pool. Patty was singing into the bottle of gin, grabbing it around the neck like a microphone.

"Do you remember your present in Nixie . . ." Bowie lyrics were often a matter of great debate between us, his deep English accent creating a myriad of possible interpretations for any given line. Patty thought "Nixie" was probably David's model girlfriend, after Angie.

"My sister told me it was Nixon-do you remember your president Nixon." Theresa was speaking through one side of her mouth, lighting the wrong end of her Virginia Slim.

"It's Dixie, you fuckin' moron!" Eddelfuck was often disgusted with us. "Places in Dixie. Get it? The bills you have to pay for even yesterday. It's a reference to the Civil War." She was the Bowie expert. She had a life-sized Ziggie Stardust poster taped to the inside of her locker-her locker that stood facing the senior lobby, facing the life-sized porcelain Jesus. Eddelfuck called it a standoff. David was our prophet, whatever the lyrics were. Bowie, our androgynous glitter-rocker: he had an 8-inch bulge in his green lamé pants and looked better in his makeup than we did.

Father Tim was out there on the grandstands, his ropes and tassels flopping in the wind. Theresa unbuttoned her shirt-- a moral crime was in order. We drove by slowly as Theresa posed topless through the sun roof. Her chest was arching forward; her hands clasped behind her back like the hull maiden of a battleship.

Eddelfuck laid into the horn, "Hey Father-God bless America!" The bleachers stood up, mesmerized by this offering, this maiden from hell.

Father Tim covered his eyes-- Father Tim who had once told us that if we didn't have anything to confess in confession we should make a little something up as not to appear self-righteous before the Lord. A spiritual dilemma for some, but not for us.

"Whoppers anyone?" Eddelfuck pulled a sharp left and headed towards the Burger King. Then she closed the power sunroof on Theresa's naked torso and took her through the drive-thru. Theresa's screaming only drew more attention to herself until most of the restaurant was just pressed up against the glass. Eddelfuck was hyperventilating from laughing so hard; she momentarily lost control of the wheel and plowed straight into the overflowing dumpster. Patty finally reached over and released the sunroof. Theresa sank into the passenger seat like a deflated balloon. Garbage was everywhere.

Theresa was trying not to laugh. "Just pass me the FUCKIN' GIN." She took a big swig until it was rolling off her chin, then she smacked the dashboard. "How 'bout Father Tim's face?" she said, wiping the gin off her neck with the back of her hand.

The Thunderfuck's front end was warped and the hood was buckled shut, but it ran just fine. Theresa had a fat red welt across her pelvis, but it all seemed worth it. As for the dumpster, Patty had connections with the night manager. Eddelfuck cranked the volume up to 8; "Young Americans" blared on: "We live for just these twenty years 'til we have to die for the fickey door-or and . . ." Eddelfuck claimed that a "fickey door" was some "weird fuckin' English thing."

"Whatever," Theresa said, rolling her eyes. We burned rubber out onto the highway, garbage spinning in our wake. It could have been our last day on earth.

It was then that we saw him, the Q-tip, hitchhiking on the other side of the highway. Eddelfuck pulled an illegal U-turn, sending two traffic cones flying into the median. She was hunched over the wheel, her eyes popping out. "MOTHER OF GOD!" she screamed into the wheel. Seeing the Q-tip was almost more than we could handle; it didn't seem real.

"Maybe he's a hologram," I said.

"THANK YOU JESUS!" Theresa screamed in her southern preacher voice. But as Q-tip's huge white afro came into view, the Cosmo barometer began to drop: a sexual storm was brewing. He didn't realize who we were until he had gotten in the car.

Back at St. Stanislaus elementary, Q-tip had been the school albino, school weirdo, activator of the cootie mat, the last one to be picked, the first out. Before he even picked up the bat, someone always said it: "Here comes the first out!"-which, of course, he always was. In seventh grade, Eddelfuck had a plan to remake his image; we had nothing to lose. We loathed the status quo, the popular few, those who had come to bloom and flourish within the barren expanse of St. Stanislaus-"the Louse." Our pathetic school: the grounds surrounded, practically embraced, by the arms of fast food restaurants as if by pity, as if to say, "We're sorry." Let the jocks and cheerleaders dare to be happy but not at the expense of the rejects. "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth," as Father Tim used to say. We saw rejects as projects and, with Q-tip, the plan was sort of an "Operation Stud."

So we regularly dragged him into the girls' room. It was the kind of thing most adolescent boys only dream about, but with Q-tip we were never quite sure. We took off his glasses, ran our fingers through his frizzy white hair. We pressed him up against the stainless steel bathroom stalls and we kissed him, purposefully leaving imprints of our drug store lipstick all over his pasty white skin: Saucy Topaz, Color Me Scarlet. We unbuttoned his shirt and yanked off his clip-on tie, his eyelids closed and quivering. Things never really went further than this except for the time Eddelfuck wrote INFERNO across his chest with a stick of Holiday in Rio.

By the time he emerged from the bathroom, a crowd would have gathered from all the screaming and there he'd be, holding his tie and looking like Wile E.Coyote at the bottom of the cliff. People cheered, "Q-tip, my man-love machine!" Even the nuns stayed out of it because they saw it as an act of charity and secretly absolved us for it. Q-tip would clench his fist around his tie and punch the air-a regular hero. He may have been smiling, but all was not well in Studville. He wasn't smiling the day he went up for his eighth grade diploma-traveled the eternal stretch from the bleachers to Father Tim while everyone stamped their feet and chanted, "stud, stud, stud . . ."

Eddelfuck saw the mission as a huge success, but I had my doubts. Maybe we had only made things worse for Q-tip, committed an act of sociological malpractice, created a reputation he could never live up to. Cosmo didn't have answers to questions like this; this was out of our league. The Q-tip never made it to Our Lady. Last we heard he had dropped out of Regional Tech, the local school for the academically challenged, better known throughout our town as "Re-ject."

Now here he was-four years later, sitting in the Thunderbird-a mystery unraveling. As soon as he recognized us, we knew we were in trouble.

He was wearing an Alice Cooper concert T-shirt, the bleeding eyes obscured by a pair of rainbow suspenders. Theresa immediately grabbed them and began reciting his button collection: ELVIS IS DEAD-TELL SOMEONE WHO GIVES A SHIT -NUKE THIS-FUCK THE AYATOLLAH-DO UNTO OTHERS THEN SPLIT.

"Aren't you the little messenger?" she said, snapping the suspenders back into his chest.

He was agitated; this was obvious. Here he was trying to blossom into some sort of person, an image that made up for his lack of color: flamboyant, righteous, arrogant. And he was doing OK until we caught him-a prisoner with a nail file.

"Q-tip baby, how's my boy?" Eddelfuck turned around whenever she spoke to the backseat passengers. She kept her head turned, taking him in from head to toe. Her bottom jaw was jeering forward, draped wide open. He didn't answer; she faced the wheel again when the car ran off the pavement.

"Holy shit!" she said, shaking her head, "What the fuck happened to him?" Patty reached around to touch his hair, though all she could really do was pat it down in certain places.

"What's new at Tech, Tommy?" His real name was Tommy. Patty ran her fingers over his buttons, down the
rainbows.

It was then that the Q-tip snapped. He just reached into his camouflage fatigues, pulled out a handgun and fired it through the sunroof. No one said anything until Eddelfuck who, after a long pause, said, "A lot I guess." Then he pointed the gun right into her Peter Frampton perm and said, "DRIVE BITCH."

We couldn't believe our eyes. It was like Jack Nicholson in a Leo Sayer costume.

"Look," I said, "we're sorry about the Louse-we were really just trying to help. We-"

"Like I give a shit," he said, pointing to one of his buttons that verified this fact. "We're takin' a little trip to the quarry-GOT THAT, EDDELFUCK? THE QUARRY!" His face was red but his hand, the gun-bearing hand, was steady.

"23 NORTH, SISTER-LET'S MOVE!" Particles of spit leapt from his mouth, landing in white speckles on the back of Eddelfuck's headrest. "And turn this faggot off-Bowie's a god-damn QUEER!" Right in the middle of "Fame" ("Did you ever wonder, I'm who gets your breast . . ."), Eddelfuck took the tape and threw it out the window.

"Somebody light me a friggin' cigarette," he demanded. A deep red crevice formed a "V" between his white eyebrows.

"Virginia Slim?" I asked, reluctantly pulling the pack out of my disco bag.

"YEAH, IF YOU'RE A FRIGGIN' QUEER!" It was a long stretch of highway.

Eddelfuck pulled into the quarry. It was a place we knew well-it was where we had spent our Zeppelin years. Here in the backs of cars, under the interior lights, we had guzzled beers. We drank until our lips turned purple, until the buttons popped right off our designer jeans. The poor bastard who sat next to the sub-woofers would be deaf for two weeks. It was the place our fake IDs had saved us from, until today.

He made us get out of the car with our hands above our heads directing our every move with the tip of the gun. We did what he told us. It was like Sister Bernadette, the evil crossing guard back at the Louse, who would just haul off and whack us with her little stop sign if we misinterpreted her nod for a wave. We were jolted, pale, and unsteady on our feet. It wasn't the humiliation of the whole thing or even the fear of what might happen. It was the sheer shock of being shrunk-shrunk so harshly and immediately from the dangerous size we had created for ourselves to nothing at all. I felt like a cat, thrown in water, my scrawny little legs shaking on the shore. It was all this and the gin too. I threw up.

He walked us past the sea of beer cans along the shore of the quarry and on into the woods. We marched silently with our heads down. Cans were crunching beneath us, wrapping around the edges of our shoes. Our hands were automatically clasped in front of our chests. I could see Theresa and Patty twitching their bottom lips, not actually mouthing prayers but secretly, desperately exhaling them: "HailMaryfull-a-gracetheLord'swiththee . . . BlessedartthouamongwomenandblessedisthefruitofthywombJesus . . . HolyMarymotherofGodprayforoursinnersnowandatthehourofourdeathamen . . ." There wasn't a virgin in sight. The big Virgin, the assumed virgin our school was named after, would never show up for a scene like this. This wasn't Fatima. I knew it was a far shot but I kept looking for her all the same, behind a tree maybe, descending over the horizon. I was imagining Father Frank giving the eulogy at my funeral, my mother sobbing into her rosary beads as she often did. "They dug their own graves," he would say, which was something he always said-a variation of my mother's "You made your bed now you lie in it."

We were all sluts I thought-- dead sluts.

"Look, Tommy, if it's sex you want--"

"SHUT UP EDDELFUCK!" and he shot the gun down toward her feet, blowing pine needles up her herringbone skirt.

When we got to a clearing in the woods he yanked my disco bag from my waist. The macrame strap snapped in two.

"Strip," he said, dumping the contents of my bag out onto the ground: cigarettes, tampons, fake ID, some crumpled singles, make-up, night club matches, a bottle opener.

Q-tip leaned against a tree smoking one of my Virginia Slims. He blew smoke rings as he watched us take off our clothes.

"Hey Eddelfuck, is that your ass or is that a friggin' pin cushion?" and it went on like this. "Hello Theresa, you call those thighs? They look like cottage cheese-er-somethin'," on and on. He told me to grow some tits: "Grow some tits you sorry-assed muff-burger." He was laughing, cackling up into the trees. He told us we were whores, "rod warmers, cheap poontang."

Eddelfuck finally said, matter-of-factly, "Just rape me already."

"You wish," he said, "You WISH!"

He didn't rape us, although he almost made us wish he had. Since the day we realized we had it, probably somewhere in the sixth grade, our sexuality had become the focal point of our lives; we wore our breasts around like Olympic medals. Now, my hands scrambled all over my body, not sure what to cover up first.

"Waste products . . ." was the last thing he said, glaring at us in utter disgust. He shot the gun off into the air one more time and walked away. Then we heard the Thunderfuck burn out on the gravel and he was gone. He left us without anything; even the cigarettes were gone.

The sun was setting through the tall pines. It was really quite beautiful. We stood there, naked in this serene landscape. I don't think any of us had ever seen the quarry in the daylight.

"Do you think he's wearing our clothes?" Patty asked, gazing into the water.

"Theresa," I said, "your thighs are great." And so began an emergency exchange of superficial compliments--emotional triage. "Eddelfuck, your ass is perfect."

It got dark. We were left with only each other, hitchhiking in shock out on the highway. Eddelfuck volunteered to stand out on the shoulder, concealing what she could of her naked body with the only cover we could find: an orange traffic cone. The rest of us were hiding behind a nearby billboard. "Turn Around!" it said, "You've passed Chi-Chi's bar and grill." Such a surreal image for the oncoming traffic: a naked cone, a billboard with legs. For a moment, public nudity was once again the benign crime that had become our art form. As the cars passed, Eddelfuck made a face-a face that would have been funny even without the cone, and for a brief moment we all laughed halfheartedly. But the oncoming headlights were blinding and the horns wailed by us like missiles. The cone was fluorescent, the color of safety, and Eddelfuck held on tight.

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review



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