The Perfection of Adults by Elizabeth Dunphey
Her hair was real black, an unnatural shade that Clairol advertised, with a fringe like Nico. She stood about 5’6, in her bare feet, but she looked taller. And she had swollen hips, but they were appealing. She was my friend. We fought tooth and nail, like Veronica and Betty or Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. She was punk and I was preppy. There was dirt under her nails, but she mastered the look. She tried to be bad, and she was bad, but you could see the Doris Day purity in her blue eyes. Some time in high school, a Spanish boy french kissed her, another Puerto Rican boy made love to her, all the details she poured out on the phone. She had a Liz Phair song in the background.
I would sit in my room, nestled on the bed, and her purr came through the phone. I glanced out the window and the heat of spring was upon suburban New Jersey. Everything bloomed, the yellow flowers near the Atlantic. It would always be this way, I though, my sixteenth year of life — watching and wanting to be her, the sticky languor of a beachside community. If you looked at the two of us, you would think she would succeed and achieve the dream – the 2.5 kids, the senator husband,/the/perfection/of/adults. .
But something happened. I won the game. I got into the good school, and I was wisked away to a destiny for good girls. It felt damn good. When I moved to Manhattan, for college, I barely think of the girl at all. That was the first of many betrayals to my youth. On the train, I saw the gorgeous lights of the city and I knew I would forget her. Months later, in the coldest ache of winter, I walking down the street, down Fifth and I pass a shop window, and I see a dark beautiful woman and realize: it is me, not her. She was dead to me now. It’s fitting that she has no name because I have forgotten it.
I assume there must be a moment. When you stop being a teenager and become a woman. For me, the moment I changed, I believe is college. Never before, and never after, was I more radiant. Never before, or after, would I know who I was.
It started with a man. His name was Radley. He was my teacher, and a seduction took place. He was older than me, obviously, and even older than Dad. He was beautiful and smart and cultured, with the dark eyes of a Black Irishman. He spoke several languages: the language of myth and art and semiotics. And the language of teenage girls. This, he spoke most fluently.
It took time for us to warm to each other, of course. I thought Radley was a hopeless snob. And he was afraid of me. He would look at me, and then look away, and that said all he could not tell me.
I attended C.N.Y., the most expensive, most desired college in America. But I went to high school on the New Jersey Shore. I was one of the few students to get into a really great school.
In my yearbook, my classmates had written general statements, like: ”Farewell to a sweet girl. You were really nice!” The impersonal and dull nature of these notes only proved a point to me. I was getting away from them, getting away from the macho mafia boys who leered and the tan, caustic beach girls who ignored me. I was breaking free, to become a cultured city woman who went to galleries.
I was making the big break, where you fall down a few times, but realize you are finally a grown up.
First, I was his babysitter. Radley O’Malley asked me at the end of the semester, very causally, if I wanted to sit for his eight year old son. I agree, flattered. They lived downtown, in a duplex. His son has the biggest brown eyes with the longest eyelashes. They are his father’s eyes. How could I not love them? We baked cookies together.
After work, Radley comes by. I am in the kitchen, nibbling on fruit. He walks into the apartment, and I feel the space between us. I should not be pigging out. I am the replacement for his ex wife. Matilda, the fat ex wife, he tells his students. It is a slur, that does not go unnoticed by me. I am a little voluptuous too. Does he think I am fat? I never ask. He never tells. It’s the first hint of his mean side, his sarcasm.
As he pays me the money, he seems to be studying me in the light of the hallway. Intensely. I smile at him.
“So farewell, Radley.” I say, sensing he wants to tell me something, something important.
And he kisses me, his hands in my hair, my beautiful hair in my black braid, loosening it to my shoulders, his hands on my back, and on my ass, and in my hair again, to stay there. I break free, and run down the hallway without looking back. I am escaping him, and his advances, but I am also playing the game. I feel something in my gut, and I know what it is, it’s power.
After all, I do not love only him. There is someone else, a boy in one of my classes with a face I cannot forget. His name is Byron, ironically enough. Like the poet. He’s a born and bred New Yorker, as far from the Jersey Shore, as Mars is to Venus. We are the exact same age: eighteen years old. I do not know it then, but our birthdays are only one week apart. This is kismet or what they call “karma”.
He has the looks. He has rich chestnut hair and a hard, muscled body under rock star t-shirts, all lean young flesh. He is a rich Jewish boy, the son of doctors. He flirts with all the blond girls. But he will not, and cannot, stop staring at me.
Later, years after he died, I learn he is a musician. Stereotype aside, I must be a groupie, because I cannot stop staring at his beautiful young, Byronic face. I know the truth: I loved him. Or else, I wanted him really, really bad. He made me cry the last day of class, because he walked away without looking back at me. I was alone again.
But he is just a boy, they are all just boys. I want the man. And that is Radley — Irish, like me, my professor and my pal. We shop for second hand books and eat Indian food. We cloak our affair in secret, so no authority will find out. I brag to my roommates, though, and swear them to secrecy. I was always different than girls my own age. I had a maturity, a sophistication, a desire for knowledge. I wanted to be a special artist or a writer so famous, my prose sparkled. So the fact that Radley chose me, out of all the other girls does not really surprise me. I am different — a strange creature and my fate is special. Or maybe I am just pretty.
When we make love the first time, it hurts. I feel like I am being filled with shards of glass. But after a few times, it gets easier. We explore and try different positions. He has taken my virginity, I tell him, reluctantly. And he lights a cigarette and tells me ‘there is no such thing as purity, and we are all whores in the end’.
What else could he say? This is New York. Most of my school acquaintances are more daring than me. They go to nightclubs into the wee hours (this is the 90s – clubbing was still big). They hobnob with celebrities. They brag about the nightlife in women’s studies class.
I have only one girlfriend, an awkward brunette art history major from Long Island named Annie. The reason I chose to talk to Annie, is because, like me, she seemed shy and alone, almost traditional. We go to coffee shops on Christopher Street and talk politics. And men. We are obsessed with men. It’s ironic, on one hand, we despise them because they treat us like the lesser sex. We are feminists after all. But on the other hand, we want and need them, and stare longingly at every cute man in a pea coat jacket who walks into our coffee shop. It’s fun to hang out with girls, it’s nice to talk politics, but once I found men, I lost almost all interest in my friends.
Why talk about things when you can have fun in the bedroom? It’s pointless.
I kept Esteban a secret from Annie. So far, I have only told my roommates Natasha and Raven. Natasha tells me, rather primly, that he is taking advantage of me. Raven munches on popcorn and explains that I am only a teenage girl.
But she doesn’t get it. How can they? Making love with Radley is like being burned alive. He is my dream crush object. I care about him, and if he is taking advantage of me, I know the truth: I don’t give a damn. This is a special window of time, a special island. Freshman year of college is a rite of passage and I’m not going to be getting drunk at frat parties with other kids my age. C. N. Y. doesn’t even have fraternities. New York is our club. And I have graduated to the big league.
The holidays. They are something to behold in the city. So many different cultures and religions, but you’d all assume we were WASP Christians. The sound of Bing Crosby holiday cheer pipes through the Macy’s store as I browse all the silk scarves. I know I should buy a gift for Annie, and my roommates, and Esteban, but I feel a headache. I watch the city girls in their warm coats flick back their hair. I sit down briefly and try to discern the source of my pain. It comes to me: what about other girls? I’ve never really thought about it – but what about the young girls in Radley’s classes? Does he ever get crushes on them, as I have with Byron?
If he could pluck me, couldn’t he pluck one of them? I had been deflowered by him, and I knew the sad truth. When it comes to a fuck, that is the only way men think at all.
The scandal breaks around New Years. Sexual harassment. Radley O’Malley resigns in notoriety from his job at C.N.Y. It’s not me – it’s some other girl. Apparently he made a comment in class about an actress and her breasts. I always worried about that ballsy tendency in him. He is so strong willed, so unfettered by what fetters most men. He is free, I always thought. But he doesn’t know when to stop.
Sometimes in lovemaking I could sense it. They always say bad boys make the best lovers, but when he held me down, and I screamed his name, I felt caught up in his spell. His older man voodoo. And now he had been broken. They kill horses, don’t they? I always hated that movie.
I could see it right away when we met, he had lost his chutzpah.
Esteban sipped a Heineken grimly, and motioned to the bartender for another. We were meeting in vibrant St. Marks place, not far from his apartment. The plan, as always: meet, drink brew, talk aimlessly about school bureaucracy, and then have wild sex.
He looked like he had aged twenty years. Really. He looked awful. His greying brown hair appeared almost all white. Was that possible? Could he have gone white overnight? He looks old.
I sipped my drink, letting the alcohol seep into my veins. I myself looked about twenty four and never had trouble being served liquor in New York.
In the middle of the morning, I gathered up my things. I pulled my coarse hair into a bun, and washed my face in his kitchen sink.
“Layla,” he crooned, from the bed. “Layla, my love, don’t leave me.”
But if I’m being honest, that’s what I did.
I sat on the subway, the ACE to West 4th street, to my dorm. I had this woozy look to my reflection, like I had been thoroughly laid. The numbing effect of the rattling subway car filled my body. The panhandlers even avoided me. I imagined I was emanating some powerful aura that was so bright it would blind the sun.
Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Dunphey
Elizabeth Dunphey has studied at NYU and Dartmouth College. She has been published in Literature in LA and the Eunoia Review.
posted by Paragon Dream
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Filed under: Fiction