As a teenager, I knew all the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show by heart, and the unscripted lines that the audience shouted back at the screen. I came fully equipped with rice to throw at the wedding scene, hot dogs to launch when Frank appeared, with water guns to simulate rain and with newspapers to protect against it. I danced the Time Warp in the aisles. In the movie theater after midnight, props at my side, as if a personal guest of the transexual of Transylvania, I felt the celebratory thrill that comes from having absolutely no doubts about the object of celebration. I held back nothing. I was a true believer.
From the moist, androgynous, lipstick-red lips that floated against the black screen in the opening sequence, filling it as if engorged, to the conversion of innocents and the dissolution of their identities, to the strut and thrust emanating from Frank’s shapely, fishnet-bound legs, I fully sanctioned everything that Rocky Horror represented. Everything: the provocation of polymorphous perversity and the intoxicating whiff of danger. And I sanctioned it with the zealous immediacy of one challenged to a duel in defense of one’s honor.
Why would a straight teenage girl from the suburbs love–and even somehow need–this spectacle? Why was I filled with such glee at the sight of transgression? Why did Frank’s criminal excesses not bother me? Had I no moral compass? No sympathy for his victims? After all, his seduction of both Brad and Janet was fraudulent; he created Rocky only to be able to control and possess him; he flew into jealous, murderous rages; he tyrannized his subjects. Yet, when he teetered atop the radio tower before succumbing to his fate, done in by the uprising, I felt regret. I wanted to see the show over again to reinstate Frank to his proper role as leader. Our leader. My leader.
I was not bothered, I think, by Rocky Horror’s violence, because it was pure camp, established to suggest that the normal order of things might be overturned through its exaggerations, its humor, its self-consciousness as artifice. Frank was not really in power, and our interaction with the screen was a feeble attempt to enter a world infinitely distant from our own. Each of our interactive gestures reinforced the fact that we were not fully absorbed, that we were tethered to normalcy by the very props that expressed our longings. Frank’s seduction of Brad and Janet was not de Sade’s innocence chastised. They were not hurt but won over. Set free.
Above all, I forgave Frank his abuses because he was a reaction against a world order in which Dionysian excess had been excised. I celebrated Frank’s flamboyance because I lived in a world that was deadened by modesty and constraint, by chinos and crew-necks and polo shirts, by the pretense of virginity and the fetishization of innocence. Chartiers Valley High School in 1980 belonged to a police state whose surveillance system protected against every non-sanctioned pleasure and every act of imagination, a system that forbade hyperbole and enforced an imperative of never feeling anything strongly. The best thing–the only acceptable thing–was indifference. Passion of any sort was pathological, an illness, a departure from normalcy.
But I did not want to be a cheerleader. I did not care about the COLTS. I did not identify with normalcy because in my high school it was normal not to ask questions and not to engage and not to care. Above all, not to care. But I had been trained in theatricality by a single, working mother who lit the deep burgundy walls of her living room with torchieres. I had been schooled in urgent contemplation by a father who spoke of magic, the union of opposites, and the first philosopher, Thales, in his dusty library full of rare books and ivory pipes and maps of foreign places. I was raised not to shun hyperbole–that trope of excess–but to use it as an expression of the soul. But there were consequences for deviations.
One day I walked into school–I was in the sixth grade–and Kathy B. looked away when I greeted her. Kathy was a tall pretty girl with bouncy “feathered” hair, a leader, because she had developed first and because she had caught a teacher looking down her shirt, an act that solidified her reputation as desirable and introduced me to the word “pervert.” I glanced around to see if the cause of Kathy’s distraction was evident. But I saw nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual gang of girls standing around among the desks waiting for the bell to ring. Maybe I had imagined the snub.
As I approached them, their positions shifted and what had at first appeared to be a scattered group became a tight cluster. None of them moved over to make room for me as I would have expected, none of them returned my greeting. They stared through me, beyond me, as if I were invisible, a ghost of the girl who had occupied the room listening to Mr. Nemeck’s stories about a boy who died of bee stings under a mobile of the planets, discovering, to my horror, that the system that seemed most fair to me was called Communism. What did this say about me? But the very tightness of the circle of backs proved my presence, proved, because it was tighter and more energized than would be normal for a Monday morning minutes before the bell rang, that I was there and that the wave of nausea overtaking me, the heat of indignation rising to my face belonged to a real girl, who, only a year before had not even begun to develop, who still longed to play softball shirtless and free like the boys.
I did not know why I had suddenly become a pariah. These were my friends. I had no others. These were the people I had been going to school with since I was five, the girls I talked to on the phone for hours, wrapping my fingers in the curly cord at the kitchen table. But class was starting and there was no opportunity to confront them, to convince them that I had done nothing to deserve this. The hours crawled along. For the entire morning I was friendless. Even when I sharpened my pencil I felt people whispering, looking at each other knowingly, avoiding eye contact with me. At lunchtime, I could bear it no longer. I approached Dana, who was tiny and wiry with thick orange hair, freckles, and glasses, which I envied; everything about her struck me as “cute,” compact, and lovable: she had a dachshund and collected stuffed animals; she was a springy gymnast, a fellow Jew; she tickled my arms on sleepovers.
“What’s going on?” I asked, a certain pleading quiver audible in my voice. “Why is everyone ignoring me?” I searched for her eyes behind her glasses, small and brown, framed by thick, ginger lashes.
Dana did not look away like the others. She looked defiant. She may even have had her hands on her hips.
“You fucked John L.,” she announced. “You’re a whore.”
“That’s a total lie!” I protested, my face hot with the shame of the suggestion. “How can you believe them over me?” The rest of the class was a blur behind us. Nothing mattered but whether she would take my side.
Dana hesitated, apparently relieved by my denial. If there were no truth to the accusation, then maybe, as exciting as it was to experiment with righteous condemnation, the shunning could come to a halt, maybe I could be readmitted into the circle, despite the momentum that had been established. It gave her an out. Moments later the offense had been expunged, my record wiped clean. The word “lie” restored my innocence and the enemy category now adhered to the liars.
It never occurred to me to tell Dana, Kathy, Chrissy, and the rest of them that their treatment of me should not depend on whether or not the rumor was true. If it were true that an eleven-year old elementary school girl had “fucked” a six-foot-tall eighth grade boy about to leave junior high (the verb itself implying an agency that strained credulity), then maybe I’d need them more. Because I grew up in the same district as the girls who shunned me for an interminable morning, I implicitly accepted that the punishment they meted out in advance would be fair if the crime were proven. Otherwise, I would have protested the principle of the thing. But I did not. Sex, whether willed or unwilled, whether active or passive, whether coerced or desired, was a sign of whoredom for girls and triumph for boys. If I had secretly dipped my feet in the pool of experience, my friendships would dissolve instantaneously, as if the pool contained a powerfully destructive chemical agent that worked on a body with the indifference of scientific laws.
But all the time I was denying the lies to Dana’s face, I knew the truth: I had dipped my feet. I had not done what they thought I’d done, but there had been a day when, for a reason I never understood, I did not figure out how to extricate myself from the dark walk-in closet and the man-child and his younger brother, my boyfriend, sheepish and reluctant, hiding in the behind a row of hanging clothes so he didn’t have to see his brother’s demonstration of how a French kiss was executed, or realize that the French could not possibly do it this way because France was the seat of romance and this was something else entirely, not pleasant in any way, repulsive in fact, slimy and probing, activating an instinct to flee the scene in the only way I knew how, twisting my tongue so as not to feel the texture of his.
Rumors don’t die easily. My friends returned to me after a few interminable hours and I was readmitted into my intimate group of friends, but out in the larger world, the rumors that I had done something with this boy continued to hang in the air like pollutants trapped by the cold. One day at the fairgrounds, I was reminded of their toxicity. I was with some friends when a group of high school boys, friends of John L., walked by. One of them stared at me, his mouth forming a half smirk, half smile, as if he hadn’t decided whether to position himself as friend or enemy. There was a logic to his ambivalence. If I had gone into a closet with one boy, perhaps he thought I would go into a closet with him. On the other hand, I was also available to be humiliated, which was easier to accomplish and–as far as he knew–would not put his own ego or heart at risk.
“She’s pretending she doesn’t know me,” he laughed.
All I could do was ignore them. Stick to my defense. But how long can a young girl resist internalizing shame?
It was 1980 when I entered high school, the year when Reagan’s election inaugurated a conservative renewal. We were mostly products of parents who came of age with the fifties vernacular: floozies and dishes and broads. Most of them believed that men were men and women were women until the failed but touching experiment of the seventies unleashed existential confusions. As children of the sixties and seventies, we imbibed our parents’ ambivalence about the tension between the constrained security of their own youth and the thrill of the sexual revolution that replaced it, a revolution that was was dying when we were pubescent but that we imbibed from John Travolta’s dazzling moves in Saturday Night Fever and from the mini skirts, halter tops, and hot pants that comprised our landscape. Everything was telling us that being free was our destiny, until everything told us that this freedom was a mistake, that family values would replace it. So on the one hand, somewhere there was pressure to be “free,” to give in to whomever wanted to claim our bodies, and on the other, there was pressure to be coyly refusing, girlfriend material.
Here’s what I knew about the rules of sex in my high school in 1980: it was necessary to be a virgin and it was necessary to be straight. It was so necessary to be straight that no one imagined that ordinary people might be anything else. I knew that the gym teacher was suspected of being a lesbian and that when she entered the locker room, the girls would giggle and run to their lockers, hiding their bodies under towels, as if a lesbian would be incapable of seeing young breasts without being overcome by uncontrollable lust.
Inside the classrooms the backlash had begun, with teachers railing against feminism, making it perfectly clear that some questions would not be tolerated. It was not a culture conducive to learning anything but the rules of survival. The Chemistry teacher awarded points for wearing purple and the Driver’s Ed teacher fumbled through a World Culture textbook he’d never seen before. Meanwhile, kids cheated and passed notes and devised a system that made popularity visible and quantifiable in the form of carnations, color-coded for status, the reds bestowed upon the happy few. There was a palpable energy of judgment, a constant tension about whether one would escape condemnation for this or for that. And there was precious little to hold one’s interest. School culture was at once perilous and deathly boring, the worst possible combination.
I knew from my experience in elementary school, that sex was a transgression that could not be overlooked. In high school, I would not risk revealing anything unsanctioned. I had a private life in the Jewish city neighborhood where my father lived and where kids did not busy themselves condemning each other for things we all wanted to do. Back at school, I embraced a policy of secrecy, and thought myself safe. But I did not know that even the most subtle divergences were punished.
One day, without realizing that it constituted a transgression, I wore a short black skirt with a wide, stretchy black belt that accentuated the waist. I wore them in honor of my grandmother, who owned clothing stores in New Jersey, and who had taken me to New York City to do the buying, where tall birdlike women confidently tossed their heads and hips and told me that the belt looked sharp, that it was the latest thing. But in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the point was not to look sharp but to blend in. I had gone wide-eyed to the city, absorbing what the bird ladies and my grandma had to teach me, my grandma, who had herself suffered for not appearing sufficiently innocent. And I returned to taunts that my skirt and belt would not do. They were not chinos. They were not beige. They did not scream virginity. Pretending to respect the prevailing order did not ensure safety.
So Frank’s outbursts and tantrums and demonstrations of omnivorous appetites served as an antidote to a soul-corroding culture. If the uprising against him suggested that tyranny must be punished, I had no trouble locating the tyrants in the rebels who held him at gunpoint, accusing him of a lifestyle too extreme, condemning him for his very appeal. They were the tyrants.
They–the kids at school–who self-righteously lined the ramps in the hallways between classes searching for signs of non-compliance, condemning all that was not flattened and emptied of passions. But when I had seen Rocky Horror only last Saturday night, I could fortify myself on the memory of Frank’s obscenely oversized pearl necklace, his appropriation of good-girl jewelry, his habit of wrapping everything, even his own neck, in quotation marks. The implications of this wrapping were profound enough to save a drowning girl. It meant that although things were what they appeared to be, they were also, at the same time, something else. And lo, the earth shifted beneath the prim feet of the great and powerful. Their necklaces were not secured. Frank made the world of meanings slippery. He offered an escape. Under his regime, I could not be so easily captured.