The author's mother wearing her agal and keffiyeh that she'd gotten as a gift from a Pakistani sailor she met in the Decatur Street Greek bars, circa 1955.
August, 1974. The first age-appropriate boys I have sex with swim on the Tulane swim team. "Boys" forms an important distinction here because I'd lost my virginity with thirty-something-year-old Joe in May. I'd discovered the swimmers at the University Center with the Lemann kids, whose parents drove us and own a membership to the pool. Sometimes I ride my Flandria up St. Charles Avenue to get there by myself.
There's a Billy, a Bob, a Michael, and his beautiful but 'fruit' brother Kevin ("fruit" was an unkind epithet we used instead of saying mean), Ed, and sweet blond Pete. Ally, a rich fat girl and boyfriend hunter I'd befriended, whose brother has a Firebird, opens Pandora's box by telling everyone Ed and I fucked. I really like Ally and want to keep her as my friend so I tolerate her betrayal. I will tolerate anything for friendship. We have a lot in common: we're both overweight, desperate to have a boyfriend, and tell everyone everything.
I discover something else at the pool. The swimmers talk to one another. Word gets around thanks to Ally; I become one of those girls. I didn't screw them all. Well, I did fool' around / make-out / whatever term you'd like with quite a few of them, except one. Pete, a short muscular but unattractive swimmer, drives me home occasionally. We sit outside and talk, but I spurn his affection. He's nice, and offers something I should want but young masochist me can't resist the beautiful bad boys who have girlfriends off to the side. Ed had a girlfriend. So did Mike. They all did except Pete.
Despite the humiliation, I return to the pool again and again. I have become an addict and addicts need drama: mix it up, stir the pot, play one person against the other and let the shit fly until it rebounds in your face. Humiliation is another part of an addict's dynamic. A deeper truth underlies all this theater—I am desperately seeking attention slash love in the only way I know how to get it—and when I fail, I prove myself unlovable. It's like fulfilling my own prophecy of unlikableness and then punishing myself afterward.
I am the big-boobed, big-nosed, too smart but insecure funny girl who sabotages herself at every turn.
Then a real crisis hits—I miss my period, and, prompted by my grandmother Mamoo, my mother, Maud Ellen, springs into action. We hop into a United Cab and off we go to see Warren Rosen, the family practitioner. We sit opposite this man in an old-fashioned white doctor's coat, sitting unreachably behind a big wooden desk.
"Well, Mrs. Farrar, what seems to be the problem?"
"I think it's her pancreas," she says, not batting a lash, "Warren."
Maud Ellen knows when to level the playing field and how to place pauses in a sentence for maximum effect. In her brief working career, she'd been an advertising copywriter for the now defunct States-Item in New Orleans.
"Mama," I say, employing the intimate to nudge her into her role. "It's not my pancreas. I think I'm pregnant."
Dr. Rosen writes on a prescription pad, tears off the top sheet and hands it to her.
"Max Rosenberg is your man. Not me," he says.
Fortunately, Dr. Rosenberg gives me Provera, which brings my period on.
After this first scare, he puts me on birth control. I'm crazy about him. He's the first man I'd ever met who's unfazed when I splay my thighs on his table and show my parts. The way his fingers slip into my vagina remind me of the veterinary exams of cows I'd seen once with Betsy, on her dad's farm in Tylertown, Mississippi. Maud Ellen takes her dogs to the vets, so she takes me along to mine, Max R. A kind man, he never moralizes. He must have gone home shaking his head after my visits. I will revolve in and out of his office dozens of times over the decade he ministers to my complaints. Yeast is the usual culprit, which comes from all the sugar in booze. I didn't know about the effects of alcohol on the vagina's ecosystem then. I obsess over the infections. Hell, I obsess over everything.
Then Maud Ellen, instead of dealing with me, ships me off to Biloxi. Jane Wood is one of my grandfather's sisters. One of her great grandchildren, Maury, has been procured as my playmate. Her mother, named Jane Kempe but called Suzie, takes Maury and me to see Jaws, which gives me nightmares.
I tell Aunt Jane my "Sailor Bill Love Story," my twenty-one-year-old able-bodied English sailor, my virgin jerk-off, although I don't tell her that, and all about the Greek bars.
"My heart is breaking. I just have to see him," I say, hoping Aunt Jane's generous nature might result in a gift of money for a dream trip to England.
Aunt Jane's big raised cottage, immaculate and beautifully maintained, smells like money, and I'm not beyond crying "poor little Kempe" to get funding. I had money launderers at home begging, borrowing and stealing; namely, my mother, with her peddling of family-owned antiques, and Mamoo, getting checks from her son and dole outs from her brother.
Not long afterward, Aunt Jane's wily daughter blocks access to her mother. Aunt Jane is a charming and intelligent woman, a reader with a sweet temperament. Her daughter, who lives with her, is a frustrated thespian. Little Jane, as she's called to distinguish her in this House of Janes, had a tart tongue and an eye for satire as sharp as Maud Ellen's. She describes the North Vietnamese soldiers as "nasty little yellow men." Children bore her. She serves us artichoke hearts for dinner.
"Just pull the choke out and cut the heart up with your fork, dear," instructs Little Jane.
Maury, who'd never eaten artichoke hearts before, is wide-eyed terrified.
On a long walk on East Beach, I meet a man in a rowboat. I point to the impressive house on the other side of the double highway, and describe it as mine. Not only am I a beggar, but I'm willing to lie, and pretend to be someone else, a someone who has money in her back pocket. The man asks if I'd like a ride, and I decline with thanks. A day later, he knocks on Aunt Jane's front door, and introduces himself. Obviously, he thought I was older than I appeared. Little Jane, sensing she has a second sexpot in the house now, (her daughter had her two children as a teenager), quickly returns me to my senders in New Orleans, Maud Ellen and Mamoo.
September. 11th grade, I'm back at the Garden District Academy, now called Lutheran High School. I don't know how Maud Ellen paid for Carrollton Presbyterian, but I'm sure my uncle had a big part in it. I hated leaving Carrollton and the teachers, especially my French teacher, Mary, whose apartment has become a refuge from Chestnut Street. Mary has a younger boyfriend, and through her I meet his older brother, Wallace. I ride my Flandria to his house on Zimple Street where he lives with his mother and his schizophrenic twin named Homer.
We smoke pot and listen to John Lennon's Walls and Bridges. #9 Dream with its nonsense lyrics, which came to Lennon in a dream, becomes my anthem. I use Mary as a cover one night when I sneak off to Wallace's house. Maud Ellen calls her looking for me. Rock-star-skinny Wallace wears tight blue jeans, has a big nose and stringy, dark hair.
"I'm dying from blue balls!" he complains.
I love the thought of his torture and refuse to have sex with him. Somehow it feels incestuous. I love Mary and don't want to hurt her, but I'd use her if I needed to. I used everybody and everything to make me feel better.
Dave, a nineteen-year-old, blue-eyed blond who'd been in Coliseum House rehab, is a new crush. Another Lennon-like clone, he wears tinted, gold-wire frames, reads the poetry of Richard Brautigan and gives me a copy of The Hobbit. I tell him everything—about my father's suicide, Joe Stahl, the swimmers and the Greek bars.
Dave talks endlessly about the girls he's in love with, saying, "You're not the only chick I date."
"We're off to a good start," I write in my diary.
Then I go to bed with him where I learn all about someone named Patricia.
I read The Happy Hooker and discover masturbation. From my diary: "I even thought about Skouria (our current dog). Unreal. I can't get over it. I came so bad I felt like I was tripping."
I become a "forced heir." Mr. Kirkpatrick drops dead and I am to get my father's share of his estate, approximately twelve thousand dollars. Louisiana has a law, which may require someone to leave heirs a portion of their estate. My father predeceased his step-father, who had adopted him, leaving me as his designated heir, something Mr. Kirkpatrick's children didn't like.
The idea of escape ferments. The plan is to go to England to meet "Sailor Bill" and start a new life, except I want Maud Ellen to tag along. She's an integral part of my adventures. The fantasy of geographic relocation has an irresistible lure, as if it would transform us from baby narcissist and her bigger narcissistic mother into a happy normal mother and daughter. I am too naïf to realize that Maud Ellen isn't interested in children, especially her own. She really only likes dogs. And if relocation doesn't work the backup plan involves The Rescuer, who will arrive to fix everything else.
End of Dave. During a tête-à-tête, he boots me. He says, one, I am too inexperienced, and, two, I'm too fat. I tell him I'm not on the pill, which is a lie, and if I turn out to be pregnant he'll never know. He cries.
I have just learned how to use sex as a weapon.
December 26. The night begins with Maud Ellen's funny little rhyme. "Kempe, darling, let's tour the decks on Deca-tur." My best friend Frank arrives in his dad's Delta 88 and chauffeurs us downtown.
Maud Ellen calls the Athenian Room a "Homeric home-away-from-home." I baptize it the Olympic Tea Room. I love the bar: the smells, the bodies whirling on the dance floor, and the Arabic scale of the music which reminds me of the movie Lawrence of Arabia. I see Peter O'Toole's blue eyes set off by his white keffiyeh and his tanned, desert skin.
Blond, slim and energetic, the Northern Greek owner of the Athenian Room looks better than Marcello Mastroianni. Vasily is a heroin addict twice my sixteen years, whose second wife left him to become a man, and he likes biting his girlfriends. Still, every time Maud Ellen and I ascend the dark red-, vomit-, piss-, and semen-stained carpet leading to the second-floor bar on Decatur Street and he yells, "Yasou, Eleni, and her beautiful daughter" I feel like I'm on a swing. I love swinging high, higher, highest and pretending to morph from a freckled pudgy into Batgirl, a sleek sylph training for a mission, observed by Batman and Robin. My rump tingles when it almost slips off the wooden seat at the highest arc. Sometimes while babysitting, I telephone the bar and talk to Vasily.
Maud Ellen entertains a captain by sitting on his lap, sipping Retsina and, as usual, not minding me. Frank nurses his drink, ignoring me too. This is what I love about Frank—he's as unavailable as my mother.
"I'm going to the bathroom," I announce, slipping away.
"Fine," said Maud Ellen, ministering to the captain.
I weave between the crowded tables, my rump skimming the edges, and as I reach the end of the bar, near the kitchen and toilets, Vasily springs from behind the counter where he tends to drinks.
"Yasou, glikia mou!"
"Yasou, Vasily!" I articulate the syllables with care.
"Ah, you speak Greek so good. Ela thou. You like baklava, yes? Come, come." He heads to the well-stocked kitchen where cooks prep food for the hungry crews, who eat between rounds of dancing and plate smashing. Vasily hands me a piece of the pastry, oozing honey and nut pieces. I bite into it, and remember my diet. Then I gobble it up. As I suck the sticky sweetness off my fingers, I catch Vasily's bushy-tailed eyes.
"Glikia mou, would you like another treat?"
He gestures for me to follow him into a storage area, separated from the kitchen by a curtain. Ever eager, I do. Once we're behind the curtain, he turns, unzips his pants and removes his cock, which immediately stands up. Still holding the pink-scalloped pastry paper, I peer at the resplendent arrival.
"What's that?" I ask, knowing exactly what it is and what it's doing out.
"Gleeko. It's sweet," he says. "Give it a little kiss."
Looking into his eyes I see a spark, and, click, it pinches my heart. I look at his cock, then at him for approval, which I get. Leaning over, I crumple the baklava paper in my hand, squeeze my eyes shut, and kiss its head.
"Good girl," he says. His hands stroke my hair. "Open your mouth."
My lips part, the cock slips inside. Suddenly, I feel four other hands caressing my hips and breasts.
"Don't worry, these are my friends."
So, I do what I imagine Xaviera Hollander would do in The Happy Hooker, my new favorite book. The movement in my mouth speeds up and then stops. I straighten and swallow.
"I need to pee," I say, ignoring all three men.
"Good girl. I love you. Next time we do more."
The baklava paper pasted to my palm, I dash through the curtain. In the bathroom, I turn and lock the door and throw the paper in the toilet. At the sink, I spit, wash my hands and lips and stare at the face staring back at me in the mirror.
"I love you," I mouth into the glass. I don't care for Vasily's creepy friends, but I love what I'd just done. In my diary later that night I write, "I have never tasted sperm, and it's exciting if you can overcome the first effects." I return to my seat. The captain nibbles Maud Ellen's ear. Now I have what my mother has and what the swimmers never gave me.
I have proven my appeal.