Connect : Disconnect | Suzi Banks Baum
I want to tell you what it felt like to grow up in a girl’s body with no touchable lexicon that made sense, that used words and references that reflected me as a person with a body and not as a conundrum cloaked in medical jargon or as a pure home for the Holy Spirit or as a temple of doom. I want to tell you how my sexual coming of age allowed me to explore the outer reaches of my good girl life, and how my body called me to burst out of those bounds and make my own way.
It will be years before I know about love and that my body has its own knowing that is singular to me. But long before love, before this holy knowing, I had an intense desire for connection and a fervent craving to experience what I grew up believing was entirely off limits. I was compelled into the un-worded territory of intimacy at a time when there was little to guide me and no one with whom to talk about it.
And so I begin:
I’m on my back, on an examination table at the public health clinic in Escanaba, a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I’ve stuck my heels in cold metal stirrups for my first pelvic exam. This visit to the clinic is supposed to be anonymous. I had set up this appointment from a pay phone, taken Mom’s car, told no one, especially not my mother. I’m naked under a cotton sheet on a winter afternoon. I’ve been having unprotected sex for six months. No guy I’ve encountered wants to be inconvenienced by a rubber. They promise to pull out before they come.
I have too little information about this place inside of me that everyone has words about. I cannot see this mysterious place within me, lamentably bloody at times, thrilling at others, a carnival between my thighs, the place songs I listen to on my transistor radio call heaven.
I have been raised with the threat that if I allow intercourse inside this place before I am married, I will go straight to hell. I am expected to live a chaste and decent life, obedient to God and my church and my country and my parents. But it is 1975 and all of these entities have either failed me or faltered horribly. I feel condemned and wrong in all the ways I am becoming myself.
There are people with assigned roles having to do with this hidden place inside my body, doctors, and a future husband to whom I will of course promise to be obedient. This part of my body is tied to a calendar which even the moon has something to do with. This part of my body feels oracular and full of sensations I want to read as messages—this body part is not a bottle, not a vial, but a container of something of which I want to be in charge. My body asks me to be obedient to it.
I don’t know the real words of sex yet. I hear people get called a cunt or a twat. It is a put-down to be called frigid, but also to have hot pants. Vagina is not a word I say. It will take me 20 years to say labia or vulva without grimacing. Down there gives the general direction of sex but includes other things. I want specificity. My time of the month is also called a curse, and I sort of agree with that. My best friend Amanda and I avoid all things vagina, but when we finally talk about it, neither of us knows how to pronounce the word. The way she says, “VAH-gin-ahh,” it sounds like a musical term. What do I know? My mother says crotch, but that describes where the seams of my jeans come together.
For the purposes of this writing, I will refer to what happens in this place in my body as fucking. When I am 17, I do not make love, which people say because it conjures flowery romance which is what I do not experience. Having sex, like having anything—a cold or a car or even a baby—is not the right verb. I didn’t call it fucking then, but I will use that word now. When I am 17, I know that guys come. Jizz comes out when that happens. It squirts onto my belly or my thighs and hopefully not inside my vagina. Breasts seem important, but mostly the action is focused on this part of my body I cannot see.
In the six months since I started going all the way, my body, which is neither celebrated nor spoken about, has become a generator of heat and attraction that calls into question everything I have been taught.
I have no idea where I am going in my life except for out of this small town. Maybe I will go to college. In Escanaba, the wood framed houses have few windows. They stand situated to take the brunt of the harsh winter winds off the lake and endure the parching heat of summer. Up until now, my body has felt part of this landscape, capable of walking to school on early winter mornings in a short dress and pea coat, knee socks and fur-lined boots. Yes, my eyelashes freeze stiff, and my thighs sting red, but I thaw out during first period Econ.
I am not going to get married because no one here wants to marry me. Sex has proven there is more to life than waiting to do that with only one person. Neither my mother nor my church guides me with any sort of plan or suggestion, and my body has a strong desire of its own. My body wants to get me out of this town.
So here in this health clinic, I am looking for The Pill. That is a choice I have made.
But to get to the moment when my body and I first made a choice together, perhaps, I have to be on a metal-framed bunk in Old Shady Nook, the ancient clapboard two-story house at the edge of the birch woods at the camp where I work in the summer between junior and senior year of high school. The dining room aides sleep on bunk beds in small rooms. We tie our hair back with matching colored scarves which I collect and hang off the mirror in my room. The building is full of bats, which makes us all very jumpy at night.
On this particular afternoon, I lay awkwardly on someone else’s lower bunk with a very cute boy from the maintenance crew during rest time. Miles is a year older than me. We paired up in the tidal swirl of magnetic attraction that shapes the social group of dining room aides and maintenance guys. I have no recollection of the conversation we must have had while we took a walk around camp one evening when I admitted my virginity to him.
I have never had a boyfriend. I don’t know how to do this part that comes before. I press my lips with shiny gloss before Miles sneaks in. I wear a halter top and cut-off army pants and one of those scarves.
The weight of my virginity, which I have been led to believe is the sacred thing I will one day give to the man I love, tips on this precipice. At this moment, perhaps conveniently, I believe my virginity is something I can live without. And besides, who will know? More important to me in this moment is Miles, who is not supposed to be here. He shows no sign of fear, just a quiet steadiness as he pulls down the zipper of my shorts.
“It will hurt a little,” he whispers.
Losing my virginity right now, at this particular moment, has gained momentum. I couldn’t pull up my zipper if I tried. The mysterious heat inside my body is ignited by the combustion I feel between us. To stop feels undoable.
I wonder what he thinks as his dick grows hot and hard against my thigh. He slips his finger
between the folds of my labia, asking if I am wet. This confuses me.
He spreads my legs apart and they don’t move so readily in this direction. He doesn’t whisper encouragingly. I let him push his dick into my vagina.
I shrink back. This is a turning point, no return from this moment so swiftly arrived at, there, inside of me. There is nothing affectionate in his manner, nothing personal in his touch.
What I don’t see then I have never seen, how another enters this place inside of me.
While I have a high tolerance for pain, 46 years later I feel that first penetration, the sharpness still echoes in my sinews.
But now I am 17. This is the moment I have longed for, maybe not this exact moment, but something of being chosen by a boy. Miles moves over me like a person on a mission. I am startled by how close he is, his bowl-cut hair. His maybe-beard grinds against my face.
There is a shimmer once his dick is inside this place in my body, where I feel something entirely new. And this shimmer which feels jubilant–something deeply, quietly, personally, singly, mine-all-mine joyful–occurs at almost the same time that I feel utterly ashamed for letting this happen. I feel the collapse of all the promises and commandments I have ever spoken. But there is uplift too. I wonder for a second if this has something to do with love. The sin of this thing we have done and the exciting fun of it crash around inside me.
Miles does nothing to protect himself or me. Neither do I. This is another assigned role, a responsibility for the thing that could happen inside my body. Since it is my body, it feels like it is my job.
He comes with a grunt muffled in the pillow next to my ear. I wonder if I am supposed to do something else.
He slips out and lifts off me. My halter top coils under my chin, my shorts ring my ankles. As Miles straightens his sleeveless basketball jersey, his eyes meet mine with a sort of smile. I don’t know him well enough to guess his meaning. He zips his jeans. With a shake of his thick bangs, he leaves Old Shady Nook out the back door without saying a word.
I feel vivid and violated, even though I agreed to this.
And then an equation assembles within me like a theorem in geometry class: When a boy and a girl intersect for sex, the girl will register many feelings, including pain. No such feelings, including love, shall ever be mentioned.
I tug on a sweatshirt. My cheeks are red and raw from his beard. Embarrassed, I hustle back to work along with the other dining room aides. We are clear-headed, church-going girls hired by this camp to serve the campers and staff, and clean up in the dining room. I become a leader of this pack, all of us wearing those dumb scarves. I am good at serving.
As I walk among these girls, something new dawns in me because of Miles. My theorem expands: When a boy and a girl intersect for sex, a boyfriend is made.
But Miles doesn’t act like a boyfriend at all. Miles does not want to be my boyfriend even though I believe that what we did on the bunk bed made that so.
We meet secretly at rest time in the apple orchard to talk. He is particular about my body, how I should sit on a picnic bench so my thighs do not spread out on the seat. How to not prop my arm up with my elbow locked. I coyly set my chin on my shoulder. He says this makes my arm look fat.
These things I never, ever forget. My young, soft, long-limbed body. How I walk around men. How much I want to be seen. Touched.
Miles opens the gate. The rules about how I am supposed to behave conflict with that shimmery sensation that feels like mine. The rest of that summer, I flirt, but I don’t go all the way with any other guy.
Before then, I didn’t know how to be with boys. My cousin, who is the oldest boy in a set of cousins we spend lots of time with, is one year older than me. Since his family moved to Ford River, we big kids play Rummy 500 and London Aire with our grandma. Over sparkly cat’s eye glasses tethered to her neck with a jeweled chain, she instructs us on how to deal and hold our cards. According to her, card-playing builds respectable social skills.
My cousin teaches me to drive on county roads lined with cedar and birch that run straight to the horizon in his friend Darren’s Corvair. In winter, he teaches me to skate on hockey blades. He skates up behind me to nestle my hips so our ankles touch. I feel the way his blades strike the surface of the ice. He is a good teacher. My cousin is super cute and funny. My crush on him makes a hot feeling rise in my chest when we go to their house. I get dizzy. We have so much fun laughing together and playing with all the little kids.
During my junior year, he teaches me how to make out. We sneak into his bedroom evenings when we are charged with babysitting the combined crowd of our siblings. While the television blasts in the living room downstairs, the kids cartwheel off the couch. Behind his locked bedroom door, I learn things that cannot be done on ice skates.
But my cousin cannot be my boyfriend.
I have a pang to know boys. They move through the world with apparent ease. Girls bake biscuits in home economics and take dictation in typing class while boys learn to weld, or fix cars in auto shop, or set type in print shop.
Boys at church are busy. They get to be acolytes in special robes. They light the candles set in the candelabras that the Altar Guild ladies polished to a high sheen. I watch them carry the long candle snuffer which they use to blink out the flames at the end of the service. They run the control panel for the radio broadcast of our Sunday 10:45 a.m. service. Girls help with the children’s choir or take care of babies in the nursery during the service. I sing in the adult choir when I am in high school, which means I sit under the stained-glass gaze of Jesus in my black rayon twill choir robe that weighs a silky heaviness on my thighs.
I study that panel of colorful glass opposite the choir loft which depicts Jesus just after his resurrection. He stands in bare feet on the rock-strewn ground in front of the cave where he was buried on Good Friday. His hand rests on the boulder which had been moved away by angels or some undocumented force. He is calm and collected. In a few minutes, Mary Magdalene will discover him. But she is not pictured in stained glass.
Under the stares of the lock-jawed Lutherans in the congregation I feel bored, static, unchosen, and unruly.
Boys in theater classes are more available. They listen to different music—Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, jug bands. Some of them do sports. But we need each other to put on musicals and dramas. I sew costumes, learn stage makeup, and paint muslin-covered flats. We play charades in acting class, but the books and movie references are things I have never heard of, like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Trout Fishing in America. We give each other back massages during rehearsals. I practice-kiss with smoky-mouthed actor guys by the water fountain outside the auditorium.
High school expands my world exponentially. But like scenery in a show-stopping musical, the walls of my familiar life of family and church are whisked away, and a baffling wider landscape appears. I don’t know who to talk to about this. My best friends are as confused as I am.
Here, there is no gradual way to acclimate to boys, a slow on-ramp to liking someone who likes me back. I watch couples form and do romantic things in the hallways between classes. I feel the weightiness of my girl’s life—the social pressure to look a particular way, family pressure to behave a certain way, expectations at church to be a certain kind of person. This place in my body feels magnetic and repulsive, indecipherable. On the outside I am pimply, and hot, and gullible.
I need a beginner version of a boyfriend like I need lessons for driving on ice-slick roads. But fucking catapults me past all that. Fucking grows me up quickly, outstrips my ability to make good decisions. My body throbs with inevitability. But how can I reconcile the power I feel rising in me with the expectations of a morally upright life? Where in this expanding equation am I?
I do not have boyfriends in high school. I am never once invited to a dance or hold a sweaty palm of a quiet, smart jock like Donny, the doe-eyed boy I’d kissed behind the ice shanty in sixth grade. No one pays one bit of interest to me unless they need my notes from English or to help them learn their lines for a play.
I feel untouchable. No twirling my fingers in the phone cord, leaning on the kitchen counter talking to a boy far past bedtime. No love notes passed in Algebra class. No making out in the shadowed ends of the hallways at school. I doodle boy’s names in the margins of my chemistry notebook, but I don’t wear anyone’s letter jacket. No one picks me up in their car. One time, because of a mistake at a service club meeting, a chubby football player with a big old car gets stuck taking me to a school function. It is sort of a date. He says he’ll pick me up. At the appointed time, he honks his horn in front of our apartment but my mother forbids me to go downstairs, saying either he comes up to meet her or I don’t go out. He honks a few times and then hits his accelerator and roars off.
What I do with Miles in Old Shady Nook happens a hundred miles north of Escanaba, so no one but Amanda knows. From the beginning of our senior year, I am the loyal senior class president, making announcements about class business on the PA system from the principal’s office before the 3:45 dismissal bell. No one seems to notice that I am buzzed. Amanda and I get out of school at 2:30 since we are on the early schedule. We smoke part of a joint walking home, then eat a packet of graham crackers slathered with peanut butter at my house. We glug down cold milk, then walk back to school so I can make the announcements. Then we go to play rehearsal.
Boys in our high school are not at all interested in either of us. We hang out with older guys after community theater productions or at cast parties. The parties are always at someone’s house where there are bedrooms with doors that close or couches in dark rooms where fucking older guys is brisk and daring. I wear dresses, so easy to hike up. We are groupies of a popular blues band in town. They play at Civic Center dances. We do wild things with the band, Amanda and I and our other friend Tru. Sex becomes currency. A fuck here. A fuck there.
I do not attend a single homecoming dance though I plan the floats, help build them, and order the corsages and boutonnieres for the homecoming court. I pin their flowers on, straighten their bowties. I beam at the girls shivering bare-armed in elegant dresses and crowns, the guys in suits and sashes out on the edge of the football field. They smile radiantly, past me and up into the football stands filled with their adoring fans, these glamorous chosen ones of my high school.
I go to prom with Simon, one of my best friends, who is gay. We’ve known each other since fifth grade. We don’t want to miss our senior prom, dry ice fog pouring from under that stairway to heaven we’d built. We both wear white. He drives his sister’s powder blue Mustang, and we fuck in the bucket seat. We figure everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t we?
It takes some gymnastic arranging, but since we are friends, we talk in full sentences to each other. We are parked right in front of the house of the party we are going to out on Portage Point. The porch light fixture illuminates the interior of his small car. I think this is his first time with a girl. We have fun.
At Escanaba Area Public High School, girls who wear heavy black eyeliner and tops that show cleavage, who smoke in the bathrooms and go all the way with boys in cars out in the F-section parking lot are called sluts, or easy, or cheap. They are also called greaser girls because they are often attached to the boys in auto shop.
I am not a slut. But the sex I have with older guys never leads to what I thought sex was supposed to lead to–being someone’s girlfriend, the someone you talk to over a single order of hot fudge cake you share in a banquette at Big Boy restaurant on Ludington Street. Someone who dares to walk up the backstairs to our apartment to meet my mom.
My geometry/sex theorem requires an amendment: When a boy and a girl meet for sex, they will not necessarily form a unit. In the case of me, no pairing shall result from this intersection.
Amanda worries about me, how wild I am. I have gone from nothing to everything. She is ticked with me too because I fuck guys who don’t care about me. Her anger does not slow me down. I think she is as wild as me. What I don’t see, I truly don’t know.
Amanda’s glamorous older brother comes back from Los Angeles to Escanaba for a few months. He wears his jeans differently than anyone I’ve met in town. He has a way of getting me into bed that is both funny and exciting. After we fuck, he fills my lap with books and my head with visions of life beyond our small hometown. He talks about movies that have never played at the Delft or the Michigan theaters on Ludington Street. He teaches me to smoke hash.
Reggae songs by Bob Marley and the Wailers teach me and Amanda how to dance differently. We think the wildness we have found is different from what everyone in our high school does at beer parties out in the woods. We believe we get away doing the dangerous, stupid things we do with guys, drinking Sloe Gin Fizzes at bars even though we are under-aged, slipping into beds with people we barely know. We go to church with our families on Sunday mornings. We are members of the National Honor Society.
Fucking ignites a freedom in me, a part untethered to my mother and my sisters. I am solely in charge of sex most of the time. I could not care less that I don’t fit the skinny, blonde, straight-haired cheerleader type that is the beauty standard at Escanaba Area Public High School. I know now that the secret power of sex does not make me smart, but I crave the sweet sensation of being desired in the hot wrestle of fucking.
In the winter of senior year, I face what scares the shit out of me. This is, as my mother threatened when she first had a sense that I might be doing things I shouldn’t, “a problem I have brought down on my own head.” While I don’t conform to type, I am smart enough to know I play with more than fire with all this fucking.
In 1976, abortion is legal in Michigan, but I have no clue where I would go to get one, or who I could talk to about that. I am ignorant about how to purchase rubbers or what to do with them. A few girls get pregnant in senior year. They wear smock tops until they “go away” for a while. I want to take birth control pills. It is the best way I figure to protect myself. At home, sex is never, ever discussed. There are no other options. The filmstrip from Kotex sanitary pads in Junior High taught me about menstruation, but that is the limit of explanation about the changes my body is going through.
I discover a copy of Women: Our Bodies, Our Selves on a shelf in the living room, put there by my mother, I guess. She doesn’t mention its presence. I read it cover to cover. The book becomes my arbiter of worldly knowledge. The photograph of a young woman folded onto her knees in a pool of blood, dead from a self-administered abortion with a wire coat hanger in black and white sears into my brain.
I figure The Pill is my only choice if I want to keep fucking. I make an appointment at the free health clinic out by the community college. It is on that table under the sheet with his fingers examining my vagina, that the doctor asks if my mother knows I am there. He is her doctor, too.
I tell him no. He discovers a cyst on my right fallopian tube that he says has to be surgically removed. So while I make the choice to go to the clinic, it is Dr. Nyquist who breaks the news to my mom where I am, what I came there to get, and that I need surgery. I hunch deep in my parka in his office while he is on the phone with her. I am sure she is polite with him on the phone, but I have no recollection of what happens when I get home.
My sexual adventures stall while I don a modest ankle-length robin’s egg-blue corduroy robe and have surgery at St. Francis Hospital. I don’t understand exactly what this surgery is about, if it will affect my ability to have babies, or what else might result. The long cut across what the doctor calls my “bikini line” surprises me. I have a large mound of bandages under my robe.
A few guys come to the hospital to visit. One brings me green grapes. He sits at the foot of my bed in a suede bomber jacket. He is a graduate from a university downstate. He writes short stories in a cabin out in Wells. He plays with my toes while my mother fumes in the hallway. He speaks in a low voice, wants to know what is the deal with my hospital stay? We talk about books until my mom kicks him out.
Maybe you’re reading this and words like promiscuous or loose or whore run through your head. Such a nice girl I was. Such a nice girl who discovered the thoroughfare of her vagina and once that gate opened, did not stop looking to exchange her currency anywhere.
Really. Everyone wanted into my body.
Guys who barely knew my name, who did not know where I lived. Did not know my family. Or guys who did, who looked like they might be a steady thing, but fucking never, ever led me to anything steady. It only led to more fucking.
Maybe sex did not happen like that for you. Maybe you had a sweet gentle entry into touch with a person who cared and wanted the best for you. Maybe you planned the whole thing and didn’t get raped on a beach by a maybe boyfriend. Maybe all those hickeys on your neck were the story of a heavy make-out session where the guy stopped, who actually said no, this is not what I want to have happen here. Maybe you never had bruises on your pelvic bones where that jock you’d helped with his lines for Spoon River Anthology humped you so hard, both of you in zipped-up jeans on the floor of someone else’s wood paneled basement rec room, that you could not undress in front of your sisters for a month, that song by the Raspberries blasts while you let him feel you up, “Please go all the way…”
Maybe you are my neighbor Diane, who, when a new boy named Paulie moved in one street and a block over, you matched up with him like dominoes. They are still a couple 50 years later. They married during college and the rest is their life of jobs and houses and kids, joy and tragedy, snowmobiles, and sailboats.
I tossed my choice like a lifeline across a chasm of despair to have physical connection, the need to join in, in, inside my body. But I would not exchange my life for Diane’s or anyone else’s. That early wildness does not ruin me in the ways I’d been threatened it would. I move forward in my small town, on fire by the power of fucking, and hungry to get out.
About the Author:
Suzi Banks Baum builds community wherever she goes. Her work dwells at the crossroad of literary and visual art. A writer and book artist, her devotion to daily creative practice is the super-food for her signature teachings. Suzi travels to Gyumri, Armenia to teach the book arts to women artists. Her book, An Anthology of Babes gives voice to 36 artist mothers. Published in Kerning literary magazine (2021), The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory by Anchala Studios and the Walloon Writers Review, her piece, Shoal, won third prize in the Hypertext Literary Magazine Doro Böhme Memorial Contest in 2021.