Girls Gone Old

ON A BUSY Friday morning, a patron at the library where I work came up to the counter at the circulation desk, to tell me, with a degree of excitement, that she thought I looked a lot like her favorite fiction writer, Luanne Rice. I thanked her, but really had no idea what she was saying with the comparison, as I’d never seen a picture of Luanne before.  I was curious though, so when it quieted down, I went out to the stacks and pulled out one of Luanne’s books to look at the author photo.

I could kind of see the resemblance: the color and style of our hair; the glasses. Luanne looks a bit like the stereotyped library lady, minus the bun:

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The comparison got me thinking though, what female writer would I like to think that I look like? The first writer that came into my head was Elizabeth Wurtzel, the way she looked on the cover of her book, Bitch:

zzz2It might seem like a dated choice, but I’m a child of the 90s, what can I say.

Recently, I was accused of being a bit “dated” myself.

~

A few weeks ago I was talking to a male acquaintance named Bill. Bill is in his mid-20s, and in a band. Tall and gangly, he resembles a sort of young, big-haired Robert Zimmerman. He lives about an hour away from me, in a city that I had some connection to a few years back. As Bill and I were talking, I mentioned Ted, a musician who I had met at a show there a few years before. I was outside smoking a cigarette, and Ted approached me, and asked for my phone number. It was a bold move, considering he wasn’t drunk. I thought Ted was cute; he looked Parisian in his grey scarf, so I gave it to him. He called, and we went out. I liked Ted, but learned there was an almost fifteen year age difference between us— I was almost fifteen years older. I had other things going on at the time, namely, a former skinhead in Brooklyn, and decided not to pursue anything further. Ted would still text me from time to time, saying he was thinking about me, and wondering how I was. He didn’t seem to hold any resentment. Later, he got married, and though we don’t really keep in touch, I would have considered us friends.

Bill said he knew Ted.

Coincidentally, he thought he would probably see him that weekend.

~

Yesterday I was talking to a male friend who is also a writer. He’s a big fan of David Foster Wallace, as a lot of smarty-pants men in my age group seem to be. Our conversation drifted over to our thoughts about getting older, then, for some reason, he told me what he thought the aging process might mean for me.

“You take care of yourself,” he said. “Exercise. Eat well. I don’t think you have much to worry about. In the pictures you’ve been posting on Facebook lately, I think you’re starting to look a bit like Mary Karr.”

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I liked being compared to Mary much more than Luanne. Luanne writes books about beaches and sandcastles, while Mary writes books about drinking, and essays comparing poetry to prayer. Mary also describes herself as a Cafeteria Catholic, and I consider myself a Cafeteria Catholic. I try to take the plate of alms for the poor, but pass on the servings of misogyny and homophobia.

~

After the weekend, I saw Bill again. “I saw Ted,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me you guys were related?”

“Related?” I said. “Ted and I aren’t related. Why would you think that?”

“I mentioned to Ted that I knew you, and he said you were his aunt.”

~

I recently had a book come out, which meant I had to decide on a cover image —a visual to introduce me to you, free of us meeting. A small author photo on the back of the book would not suffice. I put myself on the cover of the book I put out a few years ago, but I hate that book. I decided to just use my legs in the picture this time:

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~

I don’t trust people when it comes to what they read. I work with books, and know that most people don’t take many risks. When it comes to books, most people either

  1. Read what their friends read
  2. Heed the advice of disembodied strangers who sometimes have vested interest in what they are hyping so glowingly online and in newspapers/magazines
  3. Equate the quality of the writing with the amount of money it’s made for the author/publisher.

The way I’ve sometimes dealt with this distrust in the past is by using my body—the thought being  that if you as a potential reader found me physically attractive, you would be more likely to read my writing. It feels worse to admit to having done this than it ever felt to do it. Sometimes, it felt good to do it. Once, I considered making the book cover equivalent of this album cover:

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I was a bit of an exhibitionist, but with an agenda. But the thing about this kind of exhibitionism, especially if you are a woman, is that it has a timestamp. You’re trying to bait assholes. Eventually they won’t want to look.

~

What Ted had intimated to Bill with the word “aunt” was that I, the person he had boldly approached and pursued, was old.

~

When asked, famous women will often say that their motivation for doing Playboy and other fleshy pictorials is to mark that place, in body, and in time, when they felt they looked their best, so that in the future, when they no longer feel that way (or perhaps, more accurately, when they have thoroughly internalized that they should no longer feel that way), they can look back. They are making mementos of something they feel is worthy of documentation: that time when I was hot. I’ve done this. Since I got my first digital camera, I’ve taken thousands of photos, naked and clothed, alone, and with a timer, with the help of boyfriends, and friends. I’ve made my own mementos, in preparation of something being lost.

What I never took into consideration was how this change in perception might make me feel.

For me, often, there is the “in principle,” and the “in practice.” There is what I believe, and how I have sometimes chosen to navigate my place in the world, a place where I felt both men and other women wouldn’t always give me a fair shake. Sometimes my belief, and my practice didn’t merge.

Sometimes they seemed to be diametrically opposed.

~

It was like a contagion.

A female friend who is a college sophomore would see Bill and I talking. This female friend completely of her own volition, with zero push, nor approval, nor clearance from me, got the idea that Bill and I should get together. You are both artistic, both well-read, both politically-minded, she would later say. (Though, truth be told, Bill was much more politically-minded than I: He had once popped a tire on his bicycle in a rainstorm, and instead of going to the Wal-Mart across the street to get a patch, wheeled his bike the two miles home. Bill did not support corporate America. To illustrate the point, he liked to share this story.) Completely of her own volition, with zero push, nor approval, nor clearance from me, she approached Bill with her idea about him and me.

I asked her afterward, Why would you tell me you did this, something I never wanted you to do, in light of what he said? Why tell me that you’d even done it at all?

Bill’s response to my friend’s idea about him and me was: “She’s weird and old.”

~

I’m in my late 30s. I’m closer to 50 now than I am to 20. Though I believe that aging doesn’t negate my value in any way, adjusting to the changing currents in how I am perceived is hard. Adjusting to the changing currents in how I am perceived—a way of valuing women that I think is vile, and repugnant, but have also used to suit my purposes—  is hard. I chose to incorporate my physicality and sexuality into my identity as a writer. I liked the attention, but I also hoped in some ways that it would work as a leveler.

It was my choice. I was always very aware of what I was doing.

~

Since I chose to do this, I can say, upon reflection—the gains were pretty meager. I ended up having to deal with more fuckboys than fans, and in the communications I had with a lot of the male readers of my writing, that undercurrent was always there, and never really seemed to morph into anything more substantial. Yes, they wanted to fuck me (false success), but it never really evolved, as far as I could tell, into some deeper appreciation of my work (real success). I’ve learned that women can use their physicality, but they will never be able to control what happens once they do.

Once I’d turned them on, it was hard to turn them off.

It was hard to get them to focus.

It was hard to get them to read.

~

When I was 25, I worked at a coffee shop with a 16 year old girl named Rory. One afternoon, she was leafing through an old issue of Rolling Stone that we kept out for the customers and found an interview with Joe Francis, owner of Girls Gone Wild.

“Uh-oh, Fiona!” she said. “Joe Francis says the cut off age to be a Girls Gone Wild Girl is 25! That means no Girls Gone Wild for you!”

“Eww. Like I care what that slimy scumbag thinks,” I said. Though this was 99% true, I did give a tiny little turd, because it was strange to think of myself as cut off from anything, regardless of the skeeve factor of the person making the decree.

Over the years, I used my body, and I have to say, though it was sometimes fun, it was mostly a trap. Maybe those times that I defaulted to it, I could have harnessed some other skill, a superior con, a better persuasion, to lead you to my mind. Maybe as a woman there is nothing you can do. Your physicality will always be part of the equation, and it’s better to be the one in the driver’s seat of the machinery. But I’m starting to wonder if I was always just the passenger. Maybe if I hadn’t defaulted to it as often as I did, “old” wouldn’t carry any sting. Maybe if I hadn’t defaulted to it, “old” wouldn’t make me feel like someone was trying to take something from me.

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~

There’s another side to this, and it deserves to be mentioned.

When you use your physicality, you’re playing with desire, and being desired is addictive. On the other side of physicality, of sexuality, as a potentially harnessable skill, there is physicality and sexuality as thrill. It’s thrilling to be wanted. It can feel like power, and sometimes it is. Of course, there is good desire, and bad desire, unwelcome vs. welcome (you have to qualify everything today). But even harmless unwelcome desire can come with a kick. There is a look a man or a woman will give you when they meet you, it happens fast: it almost looks like an intimation of understanding, but you haven’t said anything yet. It’s based completely on the physical; it’s nothing deeper than that. Maybe it’s some kind of mating/reproductionary response, but when you’ve seen it enough times in dimly lit bars and sweaty clubs, or on the street, you can identify it. It is a superficial kind of want, but inherent to that want is an opportunity, and an option, and the recognition of that opportunity comes with a thrill.

Ted had given me this look the night he asked for my phone number.

Having known that look, I think I would miss it were it to disappear from my life.

But these are just my feelings now, two “olds” in.

I also think of my grandmother, in the last year of her life. She was 95 and lived with a home health aide named Cleo who called her “Miss Rita.” One morning while I was visiting, Cleo tried to cajole my grandmother from her chair in the living room into the bathroom to change out of her bed clothes. When my grandmother finally got up, she started taking her clothes off in front of a big picture window.

“Miss Rita!” Cleo said. “The whole neighborhood will see you naked!”

“Cleo,” my grandmother said, standing there defiantly in her underwear, “They stopped wanting to look years ago. Please allow me to enjoy my freedom.”

~

Even though I was never interested in Bill, even though I hadn’t wanted my friend to approach him and was embarrassed and angry that she did—what he’d said pissed me off, so I confronted him.

“’Weird’ I will accept with bells on,” I said. “For me, ‘weird’ is a point of pride. But I’m really surprised that you—you who claim to be so passionate about righting the wrongs of the world, you who went and lived in New York for two weeks during the Occupy demonstrations, you who wouldn’t use a fucking bike patch from Wal-Mart—would default to the language of The Man and call me ‘old.’”

What could he say?

Nothing.

So he denied it.

Said he’d never said it.

Flailed his arms. Jumped up and down. Asked me who told me that he said that, but he knew, because he said it. So did he really think I was “old”? Had Ted put the idea into his head and it stayed there, or had it grown there, organically, like the kale he so liked to eat?

Or was it something totally different, but just as insidious?

Had Bill called me “old” in the company of my younger female friend, as some kind of posture?

Later that week he asked me to come to one of his shows, on a Friday night.

“No, bro, I can’t.” I said. “Friday nights are bad for me. I play bridge and chug Metamucil with my best girls Dorothy and Sophia.”

I wondered if he got the Golden Girls reference.

I stayed in that night. I reread Bitch. Then the next week at work I took out a book I’d been meaning to read for a while.

The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr.

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Fiona Helmsley

About Fiona Helmsley

Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative nonfiction and poetry. Her writing can be found in various anthologies like Ladyland and the forthcoming Best Sex Writing 2015 and online at websites like Jezebel, Junk Lit, The Hairpin, The Fanzine, and The Rumpus. Her book of essays, stories, and poems, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers, will be released later this year.
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