“I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.”
Some interstate in the south. I’m around seven. We’ve been in the car for hours—en route to Irmo, a suburb outside Columbia, SC so Dad can take classes at USC to become an officer in the Marines. We’re in his sporty black Nissan; my mom and younger sisters, Jenna and Katie, are in the brown and yellow station wagon behind us. Bart is barely a kidney bean in Mom’s belly. I press my forehead to the cool window and watch my reflection superimposed over the trees rushing by. It gets dark and dad asks me if I want to talk to the truckers on the CB radio. He picks up the mouthpiece and rotates the channel dial. Voices crackle over the speaker. They sound like aliens speaking a garbled foreign language. “Watch this,” he winks at me, then presses the receiver and starts to lisp in falsetto, I feel pretty, oh so pretty, oh so pretty, and witty, and gaaaaaaaayyyyy… This usually gets a response from one or two truckers. “What’s your twenty?” a voice wavers across the radio. They want to know where we are, what highway, what car. Sometimes we talk to them until their signal gets too fuzzy. Sometimes they yell at my dad and he laughs so hard tears roll down his cheeks and he has to turn the channel before I hear too many profanities. “You do it,” he nudges me with the speaker. I don’t know what to say, and whisper a timid, questioning, “Hi?” into the crackling space. Sometimes the truckers will talk to me, tell me about their kids back home. Other times they tell my dad to get me the hell off the radio. In those moments I’m aware, as young as I am, that we’re intruders in their world. Then one calls me “honey” and “pretty thing,” and says he likes the softness in my voice. My insides rustle and it’s like I’ve dipped my toes into warm water. My dad snaps off the CB. “That’s enough of that.”
We listen in silence to the radio, stare forward as the yellow lines of the road roll like a conveyor belt beneath our car. When Hall & Oates comes across Dad turns up the radio, drums his fingers on the steering wheel, sings along wistfully:
She’ll only come out at night,
The lean and hungry type,
Nothing is new,
I’ve seen her here before…
I watch his face flashing in the darkness, lit up by the headlights of passing cars like someone’s opening and closing shutters. He’s not laughing anymore. He’s serious about this song, I can tell.
Oh-oh here she comes.
Watch out boy she’ll chew you up.
Oh-oh here she comes.
She’s a man-eater.
“What’s a man-eater?” I ask him. It sounds dangerous. My eyes try to penetrate the woods outside the window—so much darkness pressing in. I imagine some she-monster with yellow eyes stalking our car from the bushes. Dad replies solemnly, eyes straight ahead, “A woman every man wants.” I am still riding the high of the power I felt with that last trucker—his desire to know more about me, a need so dangerous my dad had to silence him. I wonder if somehow that trucker has left his route, tracked us down, is following behind us, waiting for us to pull over. The thought gives me another warm thrill—but scares me, too. I scoot across the seat to Dad, lean my head on his shoulder, and he takes one hand off the steering wheel and squeezes my knee. Man-eater. Whomever or whatever she is, she has inspired a man to write a song about her, to long for her, to make other men like my father ache for her. I know right then and there what I want to be when I grow up. A man-eater.
Every time I looked in the mirror, though, I knew I was decidedly not a man-eater—not yet, anyway. Man-eaters, the kind I came to see on the big screen and on magazine covers, did not have stringy red hair or freckles or glasses. And the teeth they used to chew up and spit out men were straight and blindingly white. My teeth looked more like those belonging to a Venus fly trap. The bottom row turned every which way but straight, and my left and right incisors had grown in at an angle, overlapping the front two teeth like fangs. Sometimes the kids at school pretended I was a vampire, raced away from me as if I might suck blood from their necks.
I know right then and there what I want to be when I grow up. A man-eater.
It only added injury to insult that my mother was a real life beauty queen. At eighteen, she had had been crowned Miss Ligonier, the trophy of which was displayed prominently on the bookshelf of every living room in every house into which we moved. It was a gold figurine about the same size as a Barbie, on its head a crown and in its hands a scepter. The scepter was about the size of a sewing needle and slid into a hole in the trophy’s fist. It wasn’t supposed to be removable. Jenna and I used to take the trophy down from its bookcase and stroke its hard, gold dress. Eventually, we loosened the scepter and found we could take it from her hands. We gave it to our Barbies until Mom found out and yelled at us. Tears brimmed in her eyes as she cradled the trophy, trying to fix it. After that, she kept the trophy out of our reach.
My father was convinced that every man wanted her so he watched over her jealously. His fears were not unfounded. Once at a Kmart, when she was pushing my baby brother in the cart and we sisters were trailing behind her like ducks on a string, a young marine, probably no older than eighteen or nineteen, touched her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just had to tell you that I think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” I was probably around nine and this was the most impressive thing I had seen. “Look at your mother, girls,” Dad would say to us, gazing up at her with hungry eyes while she’d fill our plates at dinner. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
And she was. But she didn’t wake up that way. We knew her secret: the orange tackle box. For the better part of the day that she spent vacuuming floors, dusting cabinets, and folding laundry, she was downright plain—thick, red hair gathered into a tight bun like a knob on the top of her head, small eyes fading into a pale and freckled face. But an hour before Dad came home, Mom would stop whatever household chore she was attending to and head up to her bathroom where, under the cabinet, she stored a fisherman’s tackle box. The contents of that tacklebox were magic, invoking into being the beauty queen hiding inside my mother. Where men might separate lures, lines, and hooks into each compartment, Mom had neatly arranged row after row of eye shadows, mascaras, and lipsticks. I’d lean against the doorframe of her bathroom and watch as she’d “put on her face.” First there was the pale, almost white concealer she’d dab under her eyes, then the liquid foundation she’d swirl across her cheeks, forehead, and chin. Next, powder and a sweep of pink blush. She’d lean into the mirror, carefully swipe blue eye shadow across each eyelid, step back, examine her work, lean in again to fill in creases. Next the eyelash curler, a stroke of eyeliner, a flourish of mascara. She’d brush out her eyebrows and pencil them in so her dark, almond-shaped eyes slowly emerged as if coaxed.
But the most magical part of the tackle box was the assortment of lipstick tubes piled in two or three of the compartments and organized by shade. All shades of red, they touted names like “Cherry Lush,” “Ruby Dream,” “Scarlett Empress,” “Femme Fatale.” I loved running my fingers over the smooth tubes, removing their caps, rolling up colors so deep and rich my mouth watered. First she’d line her lips, drawing in a fuller pout on bottom, a cupid’s bow on top. Then she’d choose a lipstick and drag it slowly across, back and forth, press her lips together, and repeat. Again, she’d step back from the mirror, survey her reflection, dissatisfied, rummage through the tackle box for something to right it. Lean in again, fix the mistakes. With each sweep, stroke, and blot, ho-hum servant girl slowly transformed into Cinderella. What I wanted more than anything was to look like her when I grew up.
Indeed, it was this beauty regimen alone that kept me from climbing onto a chair and tying a rope around my neck. That she could transform herself so completely gave me hope every time I looked in the mirror at my own plain-Jane face and straight-as-a-board body (“You’re a pirate’s dream,” my dad joked. “A buried chest”). Still, I assured my friends that the story of the Ugly Duckling was my own. My mother was proof; of course I’d inherited her genes. Plus all five of my dad’s sisters were beautiful and his own mom was so gorgeous she’d been married six times. How could it turn out otherwise for me? Friends of my parents concurred when they’d come over for dinner and I’d skip downstairs on break from playing dress-up, my adolescent face inexpertly plastered with lipstick and eye shadow. “You’re in trouble,” the men would elbow my dad and wink, “Get your gun ready.” I’d blush, pleased.
And, eventually, it happened, with the assistance of puberty and its helpful side-kick, Cover Girl. Each morning, I woke up early to put on my own face, jostling with my sister, Jenna, for real estate in front of the bathroom mirror. By then, I didn’t need a tackle box as some marketing genius had created Caboodles, essentially a tackle box but in appropriately girly pink and purple. Because it was too big to carry to school, I dumped its essentials into a plastic pencil pouch that I stuffed into my backpack. As soon as I got to school, I dashed to the bathroom to check that my makeup had remained in place during the harrowing thirty-minute bus ride. I repeated this process in each of the ten-minute breaks between class, joining the line of teenage girls who were also reapplying their lipstick and eyeliner, brushing their hair, and otherwise checking for any break in the surface that might betray us to the boys.
The boys were the thing. The thrill of knowing we were desired was like static electricity coursing through our veins. Every moment of our teenage years became a pageant. Friday nights my dad would drop a group of neighborhood girls at the mall and we’d treat it like a catwalk until it closed at nine: strut around the top floor, then take the escalator and sashay around the bottom, then ride the escalator back up and start over. We never actually talked to these boys. It seemed to us they spoke an entirely different language, one composed of guttural grunts and groans. It was enough to glide past them in their huddled masses and feel the hush our presence caused. Sometimes one would break the silence, whistle or moan, or another would lick his lips, a lascivious “niiiice” unrolling from his tongue like a carpet at our feet. Without speaking a word to them, we possessed the power to interrupt their compact and gated world, to make their heads swivel in our directions, to command their bodies to straighten and stiffen, to invoke the gazes that caressed the length of our emerging curves. Sometimes as we swept by they’d collapse into each other like sailors thrown about by the force of a wave; we imagined them set adrift, desperate, clinging to the hope that we might turn and save them. We thought the most romantic thing in the world was to be desired from afar, a belief confirmed and encouraged by any number of love songs our boom boxes crooned—“Lady in Red,” “Jesse’s Girl,” “Private Eyes,” “Every Step You Take.”
It wasn’t just teenage boys wanting us, though. On nights we couldn’t pester a parent to drive us to the mall, we made do with the gravel catwalk alongside the main road beyond our houses. We were allowed to walk only as far as a stop sign at the corner. Still, we’d saunter down and back, down and back, practicing our swagger. The point was simply the thrill of the horns beeping as cars slowed down, adult men hanging their heads out the window like dogs, calling to us “baby” or “honey” or “sugar lips.” Sometimes they’d slow down too much, as if intending to pull over. We didn’t know what to do, had no plan for desire that materialized itself into an actual encounter, especially not with a mustached man, so we’d giggle and run into the grass, feeling safe behind the wood fence posts that separated our backyards from the street. And we mostly were.
The truth is, we didn’t really understand this “power” we had inherited with our bodies, with being born female. We, too, felt set adrift—without anchor or direction, our bodies like rafts floating on some vast sea in which we were told lurked all species of danger. Somewhere on this sea there was safety, an island paradise called marriage. All we knew was we had to get there, and in one piece. Not broken. Not damaged. But we were provided no oars, no compass. Sure, we were given “direction,” of a sort, but it was like being handed a map to use on an ocean with no landmarks. Our school counselors and health teachers talked to us all the time about how to “just say no,” and our fathers guarded our virtue like border police. Then, too, there were the sermons. Church elders constantly lectured us about what to do with male desire should it ever present itself in a tangible way: run. Our bodies did not belong to us, but to our fathers on earth and our father in heaven; one day, if we were lucky, they’d belong to our husbands. Our bodies were temples, they told us. But temples need worshippers, or else they’re just empty buildings.
There were plenty of worshippers at church. The churches to which we belonged were of the evangelical brand, notable for their populations of zealous converts who’d led sad and seamy lives before being lit on fire by Jesus. In one church, our youth group leaders were two handsome young men both of whom had been male strippers. In fact, our pastor had been a pimp, his wife a prostitute about whom he told stories of beating before he found his way to the Lord. Their wives were dour-faced women, saddled by arms full of infants and diaper bags and clung to by toddlers with sticky fingers; they scowled at us when we ran up to hug their husbands after service. We ignored them. Those hugs were soft, and warm, their husbands’ beards scratching our cheeks, musky cologne pressing into our noses and lungs. Every Sunday I looked forward to the five minutes the pastor would take from the sermon so we might greet and hug those in adjacent pews. Jenna and I positioned ourselves strategically so we’d be sitting directly beside, in front of, or behind the boys or men we most liked to hug. “You give such nice hugs,” I remember one growling in my ear as he pulled me into an embrace; something inside me clenched with pleasure. All of this, of course, under and approved by my father’s watchful eyes.
In another church, our youth ministers were recovering alcoholics who would talk to us about why we should wait for marriage to have sex and tell us how hard it would be since many men would, of course, want us so badly. They’d refer vaguely but wistfully to the girls they had “ruined” before their conversion. After group prayer, we teens would play capture the flag in the parking lot, while our illustrious leaders would guard the bases, keeping us warm when we arrived there by hugging us to them or rubbing our hands between their palms. One of them was enraptured with a fourteen-year-old friend of mine whom he nicknamed “Face” because, he said, she was so pretty. It hurt my feelings that he only called me “Red,” tribute to the much-maligned color of my hair and decidedly not my beauty. “Too bad I’m too old for you,” he’d tell my friend, hugging her to him, or, he’d wink, lift her chin up to his face, cluck approvingly, “Trouble. Trouble. Trouble.” Eventually, he started dating a woman in the choir and shortly thereafter began to ignore us; when he resigned from youth group, we felt betrayed and whispered loudly about his new wife’s snaggle-toothed smile and pointy chin when she passed us in the pews. We were certain she had cast some spell on him, forced him to abandon us.
There were also the men who’d show up for the first time on a Sunday morning, sit behind us in the pews, and afterwards ask if they could call. We’d give them our numbers, knowing they’d never get past our dads who would ask them how old they were. Once, but only once, Jenna called one of them up herself and he showed up at our house on a Saturday while my parents were out shopping. She was thirteen, he twenty-eight. I wouldn’t let him into the house, so Jenna met him on the porch instead. I watched them through the blinds as they kissed. It was the kind of kissing inexperienced kissers do, tongues battling in the hollow of wide and motionless mouths. Jenna came back inside, flushed. “He said I was jail-bait,” she confided. “What does that mean?” I didn’t know.
I was fifteen when I French-kissed for the first time. It happened while watching Road House in a movie theater with a nineteen-year-old named Eric. My friend Sandy, who my mother complained was “fast,” had set me up with him; I’d met Sandy at church and Eric was her ex. They’d already had sex. I was supposed to be at a sleepover at Sandy’s, but instead I’d let Eric pick me from her house and take me on a date. He kissed me as soon as the lights went out in the theater, pressing me against the hard-backed seat and spilling my popcorn onto the sticky floor. He tasted like cigarettes and beer, though I didn’t know it at the time. The second time I snuck out with Eric, we made out in the back of his mother’s car during a Fourth of July party. We stretched out on the backseat while Boys to Men played on the radio, but I wouldn’t let him slip his hands up my shirt or beneath the waistband of my shorts. It was hot inside the car and he was frustrated, so after awhile we went back to the party and he disappeared into the crowd, leaving me alone to wander the yard among strangers. Everyone was drunk; his mother offered me a Budweiser, and I carried it around, not drinking it, letting it sweat in my palm. I retreated inside, where dirty dishes were piled on the counter and the carpet smelled of dogs; upstairs the toilet was stained brown with rust. In the bathroom mirror I practiced my smile. It felt quivery and loose, like it might slide off. I called Sandy from the phone in the kitchen and her mom picked me up. I told her my stomach hurt.
Eric didn’t call me after that, although I did see him one more time. It was in a McDonald’s after I’d been canoeing with the youth group. I had fallen in the water; my clothes were dirty, my hair scraggly, and my make-up melted in rivulets down my cheeks. I had just paid for my milkshake when I turned around to see Eric. He nodded at me and I rushed past him, embarrassed by my Alice Cooper appearance. Later, referring to my appearance, he told Sandy that he had dodged a bullet. Eric was a high-school drop out and an alcoholic. His tongue had felt thick and dry in my mouth, his fingers calloused. I was an honors student and, except for my brief flirtation with lying to my parents about my whereabouts, morally irreproachable. But his assessment of my worth was all that mattered.
What was “real” anyway, I reasoned. What was identity? Isn’t identity unstable? Always shifting? Isn’t that how we decenter power? I used my courses in feminism and philosophy to rationalize the fact that there wasn’t really any “me” to begin with. “I” was a series of constructs, an assemblage of parts I could compartmentalize, rearrange, brush on and, just as easily, strip away.
If I had been careful before about making sure to put my face on before I went in public, I now became a zealot. With boyfriends in college, I woke up early to sneak into the bathroom to reapply whatever makeup had worn off overnight. I bought only waterproof makeup in the summer and didn’t go under the water lest what wasn’t waterproof wash off. If a man didn’t desire me, I read it as a sign that I needed to procure whatever lure would bait him. Perhaps my hair needed to be less red. Or more. Perhaps my green eyes should be blue. Or purple. Or turquoise (a smitten eye doctor supplied me with six months supply of colored lenses for free). For many years I was convinced it was my pale skin and freckles (a suspicion initiated by a fellow student’s remark in high school that I would be “even more hot” with a tan). When I suffered one too many sunburns trying to tan my tender Scotch-Irish skin, I switched to lotions and sprays which left me orange—but which was better than pale. For a time, I wore pantyhose under shorts because I was so embarrassed by my pasty legs. One night, I looked in the mirror and realized that everything about me was fake—bleached hair, colored contacts, painted lips, acrylic nails, spray-tanned skin, adhesive eyelashes, waist-cinching corset, padded bra, platform heels. I was a fraud. False-advertising.
But by then I was taking classes in poststructuralist theory. What was “real” anyway, I reasoned. What was identity? Isn’t identity unstable? Always shifting? Isn’t that how we decenter power? I used my courses in feminism and philosophy to rationalize the fact that there wasn’t really any “me” to begin with. “I” was a series of constructs, an assemblage of parts I could compartmentalize, rearrange, brush on and, just as easily, strip away. I was a Colorform paper doll. Mrs. Potato Head. An Etch A Sketch. Shake and start over. This man liked a woman who wore baseball caps and big hoop earrings; I went shopping. This one wanted a woman to take home to Mom; I went to church. Another had a thing for Claudia Schiffer; I bleached my hair and bought big rollers. This one was into athletes; I joined a gym. Sometimes when my girlfriends and I went to bars in El Paso where we meet college boys from UTEP or GIs stationed at the nearby military base, I’d even make up a new persona. I was Savannah. Or Callie. Or Elena. I was a medical student. Or a dancer. Or a runaway. I had no scruples about lying. After all, I knew they weren’t really interested in me; an Elena was as good as a Savannah or an Elizabeth. I was all surface. Smoke and mirrors, I’d joke.
How tenuous a hold women have on the power they believe they possess. When I was seventeen and still living at home, I pulled a book from my parents’ bookshelf. It was about marriage and was written by a Christian woman. My parents were evangelicals then and most of our reading material involved how to be better servants of God. This book had a foreword written by the woman’s husband. I remember reading something to this effect: “My wife is a beautiful woman. Still, how hard it must be on her to know that every ten years, a new decade’s worth of young men no longer find her desirable.” What hooked my seventeen-year-old brain was the instability of power—that at some point, no orange tackle box could save her. I hadn’t considered this before. It was like suddenly realizing there was fine print in a contract I had already signed. I remember looking into the mirror and thinking about what my mother’s friends would say to me when they’d come to coffee—things like, “Oh, to have that body again!” Or, “Oh, how time flies. Enjoy that face of yours now!” What were they talking about? Would men really stop desiring them? Up to this point, getting older had meant only that I would get prettier. I’d grow boobs. I’d be able to wear makeup. I had never before thought of getting older as being bad. Suddenly I realized that I was sailing toward a horizon on a world that was not round, but flat. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do but brace for the fall.
This knowledge made the performance I was giving all the more important. I began to really feel the pressure as I was finishing college. Although an honors student with plans for graduate school, I was convinced that I was running out of time to accomplish the most important goal: marriage. My mother had been engaged three times before her senior year of school. My cousins and many of my friends from high school were already planning their weddings. “Some women never get married,” an older cousin consoled me when I showed up, date-less, to Thanksgiving dinner. “It’s okay,” she patted my arm, unconvincingly. At the time I was dating a med student, but tradition instructed me that the man, not the woman, gets to propose. After three years together, he still wasn’t proposing and was making plans to move elsewhere for his residency. “Of course he hasn’t proposed. Why buy the cow if he’s getting the milk for free?” my father intoned. “But I’m not a cow!” I protested.
One night I went to dinner with my roommate and her parents. Over drinks her mother laughingly told us about how she got her husband to propose: “I spray-painted the window of his car with the words, ‘Shit or get off the pot!’” I cringed at the metaphor. But I got it. Soon after, I told my boyfriend, blankly: “I’m twenty-three. I’m not going to look like this forever. Either you ask me to marry you, or I need to go out and use what I’ve got now to find someone who will.”
No surprise that we broke up soon after. So I went to grad school. I finished graduate school ten years ago and have been teaching gender studies classes at a community college for almost as long. The conversation hasn’t evolved much. My students read and discuss poems by feminist poets like Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich and Kim Addonizio. I lead them in discussions about the traps of a media-driven society obsessed with an unrealistic feminine ideal. We mourn for young girls growing up under the guidance of shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, and Extreme Makeover. We reminisce about our mothers’ beauty routines and the suitcases of Barbie dolls we kept under our beds. We admit to each other our obsession with the mirror, our dieting woes. We shake our heads and cluck our tongues at sexism masquerading as girl-power in popular songs like “Put a Ring on It,” and “All About That Bass.” They are comforted to know that their professor, long-steeped in feminist theory, still battles with her own vexed position in regard to beauty and desire. I, in turn, feel guilty for allowing them that comfort, which I worry confirms for them that there is no way out of the [tackle] box and therefore no reason to seek, much less attempt, escape.
Last year I turned forty. In our culture, this means I have officially entered the point of no return, crossed over into the no-woman’s-land of middle age and its menagerie of cougars and crones, am preparing to fall off the edge of the world. Woman overboard, my body parts sagging, shrinking, sinking. Here, then, is the whirling sea of my life: my ex-husband dating a woman seventeen years his junior; my father engaged to a woman who just turned fifty; my mother choosing an aquarium of brightly colored fish instead of a husband. I myself am remarried, this time not foolish enough to imagine marriage as a destination. If I’m on a raft, my husband’s on it too, both our hands in the water paddling. I take my face off before I get in bed. I trust him to love me—faceless and bare, hooked and gutted.
Still, there are nights when my husband falls asleep before me, and I close the door to our bathroom, stare into the mirror, push my disloyal skin back and up, beseech it to stay and not sag. When it refuses, I reach for the vials that line my shelves, for their promises of youth and beauty and perpetual power. As if from over a hill I hear Botox and Juvederm and their minions calling, like Christina Rossetti’s 19th century goblin men: “Come buy, Come buy.”
They sound so kind, and full of love.
Elizabeth Johnston has been telling stories since middle school, when she found (like Scheherezade) that a good story can distract bullies.Her poetry has appeared in a variety of literary magazines and collections and been nominated for Pushcart and “Best of the Net” prizes. You can read her most recent poems in New Verse News, Mom Egg Review, NonBinary Review, The Luminary, Rose Red Review, Carbon Culture, and Cahoodaloodaling. While primarily a poet, she also tells stories in other genres, as evidenced by “Tackle Box” and a number of scholarly essays on gender. Her co-authored play, FourPlay, was featured at the 2014 Rochester Fringe Festival and received honorable mention in Cahoodaloodaling’s 2014 In Cahoots Collaboration Contest, and her play, “Cinderella Snubs a Hand Out” will appear in Cahoodaloodaling’s summer 2015 issue. Elizabeth is a founding member of the award-winning writer’s group, Straw Mat. She makes her home in Rochester, NY, where she enjoys the messiness of life with her partner, Brian, her daughters, Ava and Christina, and a menagerie of unruly pets.