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All right, now this moment from the life of a teenage girl in these United States.
School has just let out. Perfect spring day. Kara and her boyfriend, Jeremy, come outside, and he jumps on her back.
Get off me. Jeremy, come on. You're hurting my back.
You love it.
When I recorded this, I'd been doing documentary radio stories on Kara and her friends for two years. So it was natural that at this point, Kara would just turn to me and say--
Ira, kick his butt. Get away from me. You're too violent. Jeremy, stop.
Well, today on our program, the lives of teenage girls. From WBEZ Chicago, you're listening to This American Life. I'm Ira Glass, back for another week, to kick your butt. Not really. Back for another week documenting everyday stories of these United States using all the tools of radio storytelling-- documentaries, monologues, overheard conversations, found tapes, anything we can think of.
And to consider the question of what it's like to be a teenager in America today, consider this incident between Kara and Jeremy and their friends. They had just come outside after a rehearsal for a school play that Kara is putting together based on the writings of Henry Rollins. And if you don't know his work, Henry Rollins is a pop star. He plays this sort of testosterone-loaded post-punk rock. And at the time of this recording, he was Kara's favorite writer.
So, Kara, do you have a favorite piece in the Rollins show?
"Ladies, you want equality."
She pulls out the papers that comprise the show's script, and she reads to me. And I should say here that Rollins and our 18-year-old teenager get rather graphic here in a way that might not be suitable for younger listeners. Rollins, in this poem, says that guys are basically scum. Basically just scum. His vision is very unambiguous. They're scum. And he gives heartfelt advice to all women who he addresses as "ladies."
"If you want equality to men, it's not going to come to you in the mail or in your sleep. You're going to have to take it, grab hold of it, wrench it out of their hairy-fisted grasp. What I'm getting to is this-- go to the gunsmiths, get a 0.357 magnum with a long barrel. Load it. Put in your bag. Go on with your life.
OK, it's just another day. You're walking down the street. You pass this gas station. Some gas station attendant is standing there, glaring at you, checking you out, smiling at you. This ugly, greasy, stupid guy comes over to you and blocks your way as you try to walk down the street. He breathes on you and says, hey, baby, looky here, seven inches. You pull out the gun, stick the barrel in his face, and scream, I've got eight mother [BLEEP], I've got eight.
There. Now you're speaking in terms he can must surely identify with. You're not only equal. You dominate. Believe me, it's come to this. Take advantage of their weakness. They take advantage of yours. You're entitled."
The guys in the group all look at each other. Finally, Kara's boyfriend, Jeremy, says, "There's nothing wrong with a guy looking at you and thinking how good you look." Kara tells him that isn't the point.
No. They say things. They'll follow you. They'll come up to you, and they'll talk to you like this. And they'll make sure that they do that, that their pelvis is pushing against you here.
I have never, ever seen anybody do that, though.
But you're not a woman, though.
Kara tells him a story about some guy who was staring at her in a pool hall.
So when I was leaving, he went-- he came up real close to me. He's like, "Bye." I turned around, and I was like, "I hate rude men!" I screamed it, and then the entire pool hall was like-- and I was like--
Man. You guys are rough. I'm never saying bye to a girl again in my life.
Mary's boyfriend, Aaron, has joined the conversation. "So how should we treat girls?" He asks. "If we like a girl, how do we let her know without offending her?"
Right. That's why I'm asking how should we do it. And sometimes we don't know. And sometimes we don't know.
Don't look at women like they're pieces of meat. Because they're not.
But what if they're dressed like that and want to be looked at like that? There's always that instinct in the guy. And if he sees something he really likes, he's going to look at it. If you would see a guy that you really like and really think is hot, you don't sit here--
Wait, wait, wait. Listen to me. Listen to me. Listen to me. One, two, microphone check. Wait, listen. You're going to say, if a guy walks by that has a real nice butt that you like, you're not going to be like, damn.
They talk about this for 20 minutes. The boys ask over and over, what should we do? What do you want us to do? How should we act? And over and over, the girls name a few simple rules that anyone could follow if they pay attention. One, do not invade a girl's personal space. Two, don't say anything rude. Aaron says that certain things are only seen as rude if the girl doesn't like you. If she thinks you're cute, then they're OK.
Say if I was real-- if I was good looking, and I was sitting there staring at you, and if I was all--
But I don't want to talk to a dork.
But how does he know that? If I was a dork, maybe I think I'm looking. What if we're just at the staring stage?
No, no. Because if you don't know somebody, you've got to go by their--
What's striking is that there are certain moments when it actually seems like the boys really do want to know how they should act. They really want to know. And in those moments it's clear that this conversation could only happen in high school. After high school, everyone's opinion about these questions is pretty much set. But in high school, sometimes there's still a feeling that everything's up for grabs. So you can tell your boyfriend not to be a jerk, and he might actually listen.
That's a good side of everything being up for grabs. There's also a bad side. With everything up for grabs, it's hard to know how you're supposed to act. Which brings us to today's program.
Our program today is made up of three stories about teenage girls who have to decide how they're going to act in situations where the ground rules are unclear and very malleable. Act One of our program, Jo Carol Pierce bends the rules in a small town in Texas.
Act Two, Chicago writer Rennie Sparks struggles without rules in suburban America, somewhere.
Act Three, a man tries to lay down rules for a girl. Stay with us.
Act One. Texas Girl.
Act One, Texas Girl.
Jo Carol Pierce is this performer from Austin, Texas, who just put out her first album at the age of 51, squarely outside of the teenager category. But she talks about her teenage years in the record. And she's working this really unusual style on this record. The CD is called Bad Girls Upset By the Truth. I have it here.
And over the course of the record, she tells this funny, emotional story punctuated periodically by songs she's written. It's a version of American musical theater, one of the most American cultural forms. It's a kind of American musical theater that no one is bothering with, except for her. And it's the kind of CD that is not going to get much radio air play anywhere, and so we thought that we would begin today's show by playing you just a chunk of this record, a couple songs and some of the story.
And the story that she tells on the record begins with a suicide attempt, a teenager's suicide attempt. In real life, Jo Carol says that she thought about suicide well into her 30s, and she also worked at a suicide hotline. And the suicide on the record comes during a fight with her boyfriend.
Jo Carol Pierce
Me and my boyfriend were driving around the loop, and we were having a terrible fight. I remember that he called me a son of a bitch. And that confused me, so I opened the passenger door and flung myself into traffic. First, I was hit by a pink Coupe de Ville, knocked me into the path of an out of state semi and just squished me flat into that burning asphalt.
But after I had committed suicide, I started seeing things in a whole new light. I noticed what a cute boy my boyfriend was. Couldn't understand why I'd been calling him a decorated rat only moments before my fatal plunge. I took his hand. It was chaffed and slightly smaller than mine. We went home, and I made him some biscuits and gravy from scratch, because I really wanted to.
It's good to commit suicide when there's something you just can't figure out. Like when I hit high school and I found out you're a bitch if you don't and a whore if you do. Commit suicide when you've got a burning question that no one can answer for you. Mine was, what are these boys for, and what am I supposed to do with them? Don't get upset about the war in the Middle East. Do something. Kill yourself.
It's good to commit suicide over small things that other people might neglect, like grocery shopping. I can't imagine walking into that ATB without first committing suicide. Think about it. Commit suicide first thing in the morning. And that way, you feel better all day. Do it your first day on a new job, and the next day you can call in dead. Do it early in a love affair and just get it over with.
That's why me and the boys are going to commit suicide right now. We hope that you will join us. Just start getting really pitiful and morose, and in the third verse, we will slit our wrists.
[MUSIC - BY JO CAROL PIERCE AND BAND]
The main story of Bad Girls Upset By the Truth is this man, or this series of men, actually, who appear in Jo Carol's life. She calls them Secret Dans. And she falls for them, sleeps with them, and it's a lot of them. More, in fact, than anyone around her thinks is proper.
Jo Carol Pierce
I got in a world of trouble going from Secret Dan to Secret Dan. I got a bad reputation in my peer group. Lots of my friends were getting married, and when they did, they would just drop me flat. And my friends that weren't real mad at me were real worried about me. And everybody was discouraging me from falling in love. They said, Jo Carol, why don't you do something you're good at?
So I tried to explain to them why I had to do these very upsetting things. I said, look, the reason that I cannot pass up a single Secret Dan is that each one of them is just another side of Jesus. And I know that because every time I kiss another one, I can feel Jesus right through his skin. And I need to know Jesus fully. Jesus in a brown leather jacket. Or the kind of thuggy Jesus with the hooded eyes like Robert Mitchum. Or the Jesus you want to make biscuits for. Or the Jesus you want to wrestle with. Or the Catholic Jesus. Or the Jesus who's so good in bed you think he's Catholic, but really he's not. There was even a Yankee Jesus.
And my friends said, nuh-uh. But I could tell my friends were upset by the truth, because they'd go off in small groups and whisper. And every once in a while I would hear this phrase, "mental hospital." And it made me nervous, so I got married. And when my husband slipped that golden wedding ring on my finger, it was the first time I'd ever strayed off of that spiritual path that Jesus had set out for me so specifically years before.
It was back in high school. One sunny night I was out jumping bar ditches in my parents' car when it overheated and stalled and left me stranded out there on the Idalou highway. I didn't know what I was going to do until this darling boy named Joey came along in his shiny truck, and he fixed my car on the spot. And then he witnessed to me about Jesus. It was his Highway Witness for Jesus Program.
And he was so darling that I just went to church with him that night. I liked sitting next to him so much, and before I knew what I was doing, I had grabbed his hand. He jerked and turned pale, but he did not get up and move. His heart was beating just like a hammer in the palm of his hand, and it was pounding home the sermon about the burning bush and the tongues of flame like never before. And I knew I had to keep that beat forever and ever.
And then we watched the preacher baptize Naomi [? Stutler. ?] And maybe it was the way her back arched when he pulled her up out of the water, or maybe it was the way that white robe clung to her body that inspired me to the point that I knew Jesus in my heart for the very first time, because he said something right in my ear. He said, "Don't you ever even worry about keeping that beat. You just let that beat keep you." I pretty much knew what was going to happen with the boys if I let that beat keep me, and I wasn't all that surprised that Jesus wanted me to go all the way. Because, after all, he did.
I took my first step on my new spiritual path that evening after church when I suggested to Joey that we park at a prairie dog camp and discuss Jesus a little further. Later on, Joey was real disappointed in himself for what happened out there, but I wasn't. My new spiritual path was just like walking on cloud nine.
I didn't hear from Joey for quite a while, but I didn't think anything about it. Because I had asked my question, what are these boys for, and what am I supposed to do with them in the plural. And it had been answered in the plural. And so I was real busy. But one evening Joey threw pebbles at my window, and I sneaked out behind the playhouse to meet him. And I found out why I had not heard from him was he had been saving up to buy me something very special.
But unfortunately, the day he got it out of layaway was the very--
Jo Carol, I heard you drove through the [? Hidey-Ho ?] take-out window naked today after school.
Jo Carol Pierce
Oh god, I am so relieved. I was afraid I had made that whole thing up in my head and was turning out to be crazy like Mama. Because, see, what happened was I drove up, Buddy [? Grays ?] gives me my change and my chili dog. And I just sit there waiting for something to happen. And finally I say, "Buddy." He says, "What?" He says, "Hi." He says, "Hi." And I drove off feeling like I wasn't even in this world. I am so relieved somebody besides me thinks that happened.
How could you do this to me, Jo Carol?
Jo Carol Pierce
Well, sometimes I get real bored.
Well, if you're bored, there's plenty of constructive things you could do. You could raise a sheep or some chickens for the FFA. Or join the UFO Watch or go with me on the Highway Witness Program.
Jo Carol Pierce
Now, wait, Joey. What did I ever do to you?
You went out with Gary [? Cooney ?] tonight.
Jo Carol Pierce
After he took Martha Lynn [? Searsey ?] home?
Jo Carol Pierce
You ruined my life in my senior year.
Jo Carol Pierce
Oh, Joey, I am just sick I ruined your senior year. But how did I do it exactly?
I worked all my spare time to buy you this ring.
Jo Carol Pierce
Oh, Joey, that is so pretty. Bless your heart, it really is.
It was my college education.
Jo Carol Pierce
Look how it sparkles almost like a genuine diamond. If I wore this, people might think it was really real.
And that's when he took it from me. And he pulled it across the glass of the playhouse window, leaving a very deep scratch there.
Jo Carol Pierce
[SINGING] This diamond is really real, Joey.
[SINGING] Do you think I'd buy you a rhinestone?
Jo Carol Pierce
[SINGING] Do you really wanna marry me?
No. [SINGING] I just wanna go on home.
Jo Carol Pierce
[SINGING] Oh, Joey, how did it come to this? I'm so depressed.
Well, Jo Carol, why do you think they even call it premarital sex? What are you going to call it if you don't get married afterwards?
Jo Carol Pierce
Oh, you could call it a whole lot of things. Like if you're trying to be--
Oh, I don't want to hear.
[SINGING] I should have gone the way I came, like a flicker in her flame. Left her there remembering how my diamond scratched her window pane. Should have gone the way I came, in the darkness, in the rain. In the morning all that would remain is my scratch upon her window pane.
Jo Carol Pierce
[SINGING] I'm so flattered, I can't tell you. But Jesus has another plan for me. And, Joey, it'll be better for you, too. Some day you're gonna thank me for all the girls you would have missed and never kissed if I said yes.
Jo Carol, you're only worried about all the boys you want to kiss and mess around with.
Jo Carol Pierce
Well, that too, yes.
[SINGING] I should have gone the way I came, like a flicker in her flame, and left her there remembering how my diamond scratched her window pane. Should have gone the way I came, in the darkness in the rain, in the morning all that would remain is my scratch upon her window pane.
Jo Carol Pierce
[SINGING] So it really has to be goodbye?
[SINGING] I don't know what else I could do.
Jo Carol Pierce
[SINGING] One more time to remember me by?
Don't worry. [SINGING] I'll remember you.
Jo Carol Pierce
[SINGING] One more time so I'll remember, too.
No. I don't want to.
Jo Carol Pierce
Joey, do you take me for a fool? I know you do.
Oh, god, she knows I do. And I do.
[SINGING] I should have gone the way I came, like a flicker in her flame, and left her there remembering how my diamond scratched her window pane. Should've gone the way I came, in the darkness, in the rain. In the morning all that would remain is my scratch upon her window pane.
Jo Carol, if you keep on like this, who will every marry you?
Act Two. Suburban Girl.
Act Two, Suburban Girl.
Well, you're listening to This American Life, where each week we take a theme and invite a variety of writers and performers and artists of various sorts to tackle the theme. This week our theme is teenage girls. And our next story is by Rennie Sparks, a Chicago writer and musician. Her band, The Handsome Family, does the musical scoring under the story.
This story is about a girl who is struggling in a situation where some rules-- there was a friendship, how you act with your best friend-- those rules are strict and completely binding. But all the other rules in the girl's life are totally in the air. And in the world she's in, she actually never worries about whether she's being good. Instead, she has other worries.
Dawn and me eat scrambled eggs with tall glasses of tomato juice for dinner because we're on a diet. Dawn knows how to throw up, so she eats toast and butter, too. But my fingers go so far down my throat, and still nothing comes up. I'm a fat cow.
Dawn and me are best friends. I sleep over at her house now ever since my stepfather called me a pig for eating all his cocktail onions. I'm waiting for my mom to call and beg me to come back home, but it's been almost two weeks now. I'm wondering if maybe their phone is broken.
Sometimes my mom spaces on time. She drinks a lot of green Hi-C with vodka in it. I've seen her sit down with a drink in the morning just as Oprah is coming on, and then it's like next thing she knows, Hard Copy is coming on and my stepdad is walking in the door, screaming because he can't smell any dinner.
But I'm over at Dawn's house now. We share a single bed with the quilted pink covers. We stay up late smoking cigarettes, talking about love with the ashtray balanced between us on the sheets. Dawn loves guys who give long, wet kisses that make her eyes roll up in her head. I love bites that last like red splashes on my neck for weeks, so that everyone knows I've been going at it. Dawn and me both agree, though-- mostly, we just want to fall in love. Tonight we're going to the mall to fall in love.
Dawn's mom is divorced, and Dawn gets to call her Lorraine instead of Mom. We smoke Lorraine's Marlboro Lights at the kitchen table with a green ashtray. Lorraine is in the shower with her loofah pad and her pineapple-smelling shampoo, getting ready to go out with an optometrist she met at work.
Lorraine works behind the counter at the U-Haul center on Motor Parkway, and she gets to wear this tight, orange dress that says U-Haul on it. She meets a lot of men because of that dress, not to mention that any guy who gets divorced ends up at U-Haul sooner or later with a sad look on his face.
Lorraine comes out of the shower and models new underwear for us. Her hair is slicked back, wet and shiny. The underwear is red lace, with a fishnet heart cut out in the center, so you can see Lorraine's hair down there. And it's sort of dirty blond, even though Lorraine's hair on top is jet black. There's a long, purple scar up Lorraine's stomach from where they pulled Dawn out, but Lorraine's stomach is flat and tight like a boy's. She must know how to throw up, too.
"Ta-da," Lorraine says. "You look fox, Lorraine," Dawn says. "Yeah," I say. "No doubt."
The optometrist pulls up in a Chrysler, a dark blue car with brown interior. I'm thinking, loser, but Lorraine runs out of the kitchen, shoving her earrings in, smoothing down a red satin dress she bought at Shoes and Things for $20. She's blushing and pursing her lips to smooth her lip stick down and breathing fast as she let's the optometrist inside.
He looks bewildered, unprepared to be stepping into a woman's house.
"Dawn," Lorraine says in her giggle voice that is saved for men only, "I'll be home late, or not at all." Dawn rolls her eyes. "Watch it now, young lady," "OK," Dawn mumbles. "I'll feed the fish."
"OK, Lorraine," the optometrist says nervously." "Seafood OK?" Lorraine just giggles and takes his arm. They head out to the car and drive away, and I want to cry, thinking of that skanking old guy with his hands all over Lorraine's perfect, tight body. But then I remember Dawn and me are on our own now.
We sit down at the kitchen table and light cigarettes and drink half a glass each of Lorraine's pink Zinfandel wine, because more than that she notices. "Man," Dawn says, "I can't wait to get a place of my own. All I'm going to have in the fridge in pink Zinfandel and powdered doughnuts and 7-Up. Dawn loves powdered doughnuts because they're the easiest thing in the world to throw up.
Tonight we're off to the mall to hunt for babes. Dawn says if she falls in love at the mall, she'll go out to the pit. "And leave me hanging by the fountain," I scream. "No," she says, plugging in her crimping iron. "There'll be a babe for you, too. We'll find two babes and fall in love and make them take us to the pit."
Dawn's going to be a stewardess when she graduates high school, or work at the U-Haul with Lorraine. I'm going to Wilfred Beauty Academy to learn acrylic nails. When I get out of Wilfred, no one will call me a fat cow. They'll call me a nail stylist.
I have a new makeup stick in dark coral pink. I put it on above my eyes like I saw in Beauty Digest. Dawn puts it on her cheeks and outlines her lips in burnt sienna. She rubs a stick of musk behind her ears and under her arms, filling the room with the smell of a jungle.
We lie flat on the bed next to each other to zip our jeans. When I stand up, there's a role of fat over the waistband, so I borrow a loose sweater from Dawn, something with draw strings at the bottom. Dawn is straight and thin and wears padded bras that make tiny puff breasts under her shirts. I wish I could throw up like her.
We each swallow four of Lorraine's Dexatrims and two of her No-Dozs and then fluff our hair out so we look like wild animals. We only take one each of Lorraine's Valiums, because those she counts.
The cab lets us off at Sears. We go in through the luggage department and straight into the bathroom. Dawn doesn't like the way her hair turned out, so she wets it in the sink and kneels under the hand dryer, on knee on the tile floor to do it over. I look at myself in the mirror. My hair and nails are perfect. I know how to copy the looks. But my cheeks are full and red, not hollow and sharp like Dawn's. Tomorrow I'll eat nothing but tuna fish and water.
We walk out to the benches around the fountain and spot Carol and Gail. Even from two stores down, I can see Carol's lost weight, and I'm instantly jealous. She was always a pudge like me. Then she had to go to the clinic for an abortion, and she threw up for two days after the anesthetic. It makes me wonder why no one sells anesthetic to fat people for a diet. I guess it's against the law, but still it isn't fair.
Two weeks before Carol went to the clinic, she said, "Janine, walk with me to the deli." So I walked with her to the deli and got a ham sandwich with only a little mayo and even pulled the crusts off and threw them away. Carol got change for the phone. She called the clinic and said she got raped and wanted the morning after pill. This wasn't true.
Carol told me about the moment down in the pit when Scott Malone had finally got off her, and she had to squat and search for a full minute before she found the rubber. It didn't matter, anyway, because the clinic said she had to tell the police first if she got raped. So Carol hung up and fell against gallon jars of pickled cauliflower, crying her eyes out. But when I tried to put my arm around her, she said, "You smell like ham, Janine," and pushed me away. I don't care. Dawn is my best friend, anyway.
Dawn and me and Carol and Gail are sitting in front of the fountain waiting for babes. Gail is beautiful and goes out with Joey Cosmo, who has a roll bar in his truck and wild blond hair like a rock star. But he's at some truck show in Garden City tonight, so Gail is a free agent.
I never told anyone, but I have a secret about Joey Cosmo. Once I walked by Sheer Impact, and I saw Joey sitting under a dryer with perm rods in his hair. It made we want him even more, seeing him with the plastic sheet over him, the white towel around his neck, and blue and yellow perm rods covering his head like a helmet. Any guy who thinks he ought to try and look good, even if he's a babe already, has got to be sort of sweet. I wouldn't cheat on him just because he went to a truck show without me, but I'm not beautiful like Gail, and the rules are different.
Tonight Gail has done her eyes in blue liner. Her hair is soft blond that curls at her shoulder, and she's long and thin in pink cords and a black sweater that shows a beige bra under her arm when she lifts a hand to flip her hair back. It's hard to believe we're both girls. I've never come close to looking anything like her.
"What's up?" She says, throwing her cigarette into the fountain. There's a hiss as flame hits water. "Nothing," Dawn says. "How you feeling?" I ask Carol. She gives me a look. "I'm staying at Gail's." "Janine's staying at my house," Dawn says. "How come?" Gail asks, suddenly interested, thinking something's up like I'm pregnant or something. "My stepfather's a skank," I say quickly, feeling a moment's pride being the center of attention. "They're all skanks," Gail says. "My stepfather stole 10 bucks from my purse last week." Dawn's elbow sinks into my side. "Babes," she whispers. And there they are.
Janine and Dawn make their move for the babes in a minute when our program continues.
It's This American Life. Rennie Sparks's story "Skanks" continues. A little reminder that some scenes and language in this story might not be suitable for younger listeners.
Dawn, Janine, and their friends, if you recall, are sitting on the bench by the fountain in the mall.
Three guys turning the corner from Monkey Ward's. We lean back with our toes stretched out in high heels. I can feel the water spray against my back, but I don't move. The waist of my jeans is like an iron band. I can hardly breathe.
Dawn stands. "Janine, let's go." "We just sat down," I say. "Look at that babe in the red leather," Dawn says. "He's checking me out." "Can't we just sit here a while?" I say. "Janine, do you want to be a fat cow all your life?" Dawn says. "The blond one isn't bad. He's got long hair. Let's go."
We go after the babes. They strut around the corner of Camera Hut with long, pink combs sticking out of their back pockets. Dawn's right. I have to do something with my life.
We follow them down the north corridor of the mall. I watch the babe in the red leather. His thin hips jut back and forth in tight black denims. I feel myself slow and heavy at Dawn's side.
They go into Orange Julius, and Dawn clicks fast on high heels behind them. The two bomber jackets buy chili dogs, but the red leather buys fries. He turns as he squirts ketchup, and he has these unbelievable sea-green eyes. I feel a butterfly come alive in my stomach, and I could almost collapse with the feel of it coming over me. But I force myself to look at the blond one, like Dawn wants, even though he's ugly.
"What's up?" The babe asks, staring down at the floor. He smiles, and I see his teeth are white and clean like a commercial. He has dyed black hair with brown roots. "Nothing," Dawn says, moving in. I try and give the blond one a look, but he's worse close up. His hair is long but hangs flat against the sides of his face, and his body is round and square like Barney Rubble. I feel myself rolling loose, bursting against my jeans, and I can see from his face that I'm just as unappealing to him. I manage a weak smile.
They slide into a booth with their food, throwing fries at each other across the table. We order cheese fries and sit across from them. We suck cheese off the fries and then put them back on the plate, waiting. I suck only five fries. Dawn sucks down practically the whole plate. She can. She's already thrown up twice since breakfast.
Finally the babe finishes his food and looks across the table at Dawn. "Hey," the babe says. "Hey," Dawn says. "What's up?" he says. "Nothing," she says. "You want to hang out?" "Sure," she says. "I'm Dawn. This is Janine." "Hey," he says, looking my way for the briefest moment. He's a definite babe. Tall and thin with hollow cheeks and a square chin. "Listen," Dawn says, leaning in towards the babe. She gives a look-- perfect, all eyes and lips. "Janine was checking out your friend," she whispers. "The blond guy. She's in love with him or something." "That's Stevie," the babe says. "He's cool."
The babe stands, pressing his hips into the edge of the table. Dawn's fingers stroke the tabletop. Her nails, hard pink shells, click against the tabletop. "Cool," she whispers. She stands, brushing against the babe as she pulls out of the booth. There's the sizzle of fabric against fabric. "We'll meet you by Macy's," she says, and struts fast out of Orange Julius, heading back towards the Sears bathroom. I follow, running to keep up.
In the bathroom I open my eyes as wide as possible, feeling tears building up at the edge of my mascara. "I can't believe you, Dawn." My voice is heavy and scratched. "Telling that guy I was hot for his skank friend." "He's all right," Dawn says, putting on lip gloss with a fingertip. "He has long hair. What's with you?" "I don't want to hang with him is all." I press my index fingers to the corner of my eyes. The tips of my fingers are black with mascara and tears. There's a noise at the back of my throat that wants to come out, but I know Dawn will be mad if I let it.
My stomach feels huge. The thought of that skanky Barney Rubble out there makes me want to puke, though he's no worse than some of the others I've had to put up with. It's no coincidence that every babe Dawn finds has a skanky-looking best friend along with him. That's what people see when they look at Dawn and me. I've noticed how beautiful people like to have a skank friend to hang out with. It makes them look even better.
"Oh, man," Dawn says. "Are you my best friend, or what?" "You know I am." My voice cracks in half. Carefully I wipe away the black tear running down my cheek with a twist of Kleenex. "I just don't want to be with that guy," I tell her. "He's a skank, and you know it."
A lady comes into the bathroom carrying a shopping bag. She goes into a stall. Dawn turns the hand dryer on so we can talk privately. "Look," Dawn whispers. "If you're my best friend, you'll do this for me. Because I'll tell you one thing for sure-- only my best friend can sleep over at my house tonight." I stand there weeping. It takes forever to get my breath.
"Janine," Dawn says finally, tiring of my crap, "fix your face and let's go." I get out my compact and brush powder across my cheekbones, and then redo my mascara and eyeliner. I work quickly, knowing Dawn will leave me behind if I don't hurry.
A woman comes in with a little boy, chocolate ice cream smeared down his cheeks. She lifts him up to the sink and wets a tissue to wipe his face. I want to go away with her. I want to be a child again.
"Look," Dawn says, leaning into me, her voice softer now. "You don't have to do anything. I just don't want to be alone with the guy the first time. We'll stick together, I promise. And later when we get home, we'll eat some eggs or something. OK?"
I nod my head. My face is glowing again in the mirror. I open my eyes wide, testing my mascara. A toilet flushes, and the woman with the shopping bag comes out, washes up, looks at herself in the mirror. She slides her lips together, evening out her lipstick. She's pretty for an old lady. She must be at least 40. It's depressing to think about all the years I'll have to worry about my makeup and my hair before I get old enough that no one cares.
We leave the bathroom, head to Macy's, and there they are, waiting for us by the exit. The babe sees us and pulls a wig crooked on a mannequin to show off. I smile. My skin is tight with layers of powder, but underneath it I can feel my face swollen from crying.
"Hey, what's up?" The babe says. "This is my buddy. Stevie. He's cool." "Hi," I say. I bend my lips up into something like a smile. Dawn is giggling with her hand over her mouth. "What's up?" Stevie says. His eyes are crooked and small.
We head out to the parking lot. It's dark out. Headlights reflect off cars as we walk out to the strip of grass that separates the highway from Macy's parking lot. Thick, green bushes are planted in a row that lead out to the entrance and exit signs that separate the lanes of traffic in and out of Macy's.
Dawn and me lean against the enter sign. Stevie and the babe stand across from us. The babe has a pint of Southern Comfort. He passes it around. A wind is blowing, drying the sweat under my arms.
"So," the babe says, finally, "what's up?" "I'm cold," Dawn says. "Here," he says. He takes off his leather, wraps it around her, leaving his arm on her shoulder.
Suddenly they're going at it. She falls against the enter sign with a bang, and I move away quickly as he presses into her with his hips and chest. I look at Stevie and past him at the cars streaming by on the highway. He makes a noise in his throat and spits on the grass.
"What's up?" he says. "Nothing," I say, looking down. He put his arm around me. The babe has a hand up Dawn's shirt. I catch a corner of her bra under his cupped hand. Stevie's hand curls around my shoulder slowly. I can tell he thinks I won't notice.
The babe breaks away from Dawn a moment and says, "time to hit the pit?" Dawn looks at me. "Come on, Janine." I shake my head. She puckers her lips. We go behind the exit sign. She's sweaty, her makeup rising like a film over her face. "Janine you want a place to sleep tonight?" Her voice is thick, breathless. It's dark enough out that I just let my mascara run with a flood of tears. I know Dawn can see, but she just flips her hair and steps back away from me, talking loud so the guys can hear.
"You think you can do better?" she says. I look at her. Even in the wind from the cars and the sweat on her face, she's still something I'll never be. From the tiny points of her shoulders to the long swoop of her legs, down to her ankles, like glass balanced on high heels. I give in.
We cross the highway and take the path down to the woods we call the pit. It's just dug up land from where they took the dirt to make the cement for the mall a million years ago. Thin pine trees planted along the highway have grown tall to block out the streetlights, and below, sticker bushes divide the pit into narrow pathways and openings where people hang in the dark to fool around or do drugs or hide from the cops.
Stevie has a hand on my ass. He whispers in my ear, "You got at nice body, OK?" The babe and Dawn have disappeared into the woods. I call her name, but she won't answer. From up the hill I hear a truck shifting gears, a horn. Some guy screams, "Dildo." Stevie says, "Shh, relax."
We walk further into the pit, passing the dark outlines of couples against trees or rolling slowly in the dirt. We find a clearing with an overturned shopping cart, and Stevie sits. I go to sit next to him, but he grabs my head tight over my ears so that everything sounds like an ocean. And behind the roar I hear him whispering, "I love you. Yeah, I really love you, OK?" Pushing me down to my knees, pushing my face into his zipper. And then there's the smell of him, gagging me through his jeans.
I've been in this position before, lots of times, because of Dawn and other girls who were once my best friend. And lots of times when I thought maybe a guy might really like me. I know I'm supposed to go numb, just open my mouth and let it happen, and then wait for Dawn to call me to go home.
But this time I can't seem to. This time there's no pretending that I'm doing it for Dawn or for myself or for any reason at all. Because this time I can see suddenly that Dawn is getting tired of me. Even if I play this right with Stevie, my days are numbered as her best friend.
I open my eyes. After a moment, the gold thread along the zipper of his jeans appears. Tears are running into my mouth. My M up is shot. I try. I try so hard for Dawn, for my best friend. I try to keep my face pressed against his zipper, but I can't. And when his hand comes down and unbuttons his jeans, I pull away and stand up.
"You're a skank," I hear myself say. "Hey," he says. "Come on, help me out here. You can't leave me like this. It's killing me, OK?"
I call for Dawn, but she still won't answer, so I turn and start back up toward the road. "Hey," Stevie yells after me. "You on the rag or something?" "I'm leaving, Dawn," I yell one last time. I know if I walk back to the mall, I'll be doing something awful. I know as soon as I step out of these woods, I won't have a best friend anymore.
"Oh, get lost, fat girl," Stevie yells from behind me. Then after a moment he adds, "It's your loss, OK?" I start to run. I run up out of the woods and across the highway and through the lines of parked cars and into Macy's. I run through lingerie and pantyhose and piles of scarves. I run to the center of the mall where I stop, with a burning cramp squeezing my side, feeling my fat stomach covered in sweat under Dawn's borrowed sweater. I stand there panting, my face aching with dried tears. No one seems to notice me.
The benches by the fountain are empty, and something tells me if I've lost Dawn, I've lost Gail and Carol, too. I've lost all the girls that sit at Dawn's lunch table at school. I'm all alone, and I have nowhere to sleep tonight.
I go into Anthony's and buy three slices with pepperoni with the last of my money. I eat as fast as I can, with warm grease dripping down my neck. My throat burns with swallowing so fast.
Inside the Sears bathroom there are two girls at the sink. I don't know them. One girl has her head back, and the other is French braiding her hair. Best friends. When they see me, one of them reaches up, turns on the hand dryer to shut me out.
I go into a stall and lean over the bowl, one hand holding onto the toilet paper roll. The other hand turns into a knife. I stick it down into my throat until my stomach starts to shake and my mouth gags open, and the pizza rushes back up me and down, splashing into the bowl.
The hand dryer clicks off. One of the girls says, "Lisa should never wear yellow. Have you noticed that? She looks like a frog in yellow. It's weird."
I lean against the wall of the stall, my head against the coat hook. My stomach feels thin and flat, empty. I let out a deep breath of air, and just for that one moment, between letting air out and filling myself up again, I feel beautiful, like a puzzle piece sliding in to fit. But then it's gone, and I flush the toilet and come out.
"Skanks" was by Rennie Sparks. Music was by The Handsome Family.
[MUSIC - "I ENJOY BEING A GIRL"]
Act Three. Good Girl.
Act Three, Good Girl.
Well, our program today about teenage girls comes to a close with this last story from radio producer Greg Whitehead, who lives in Massachusetts. This story is called "This Mindless Thing." Again, some content in this story may not be suitable for younger listeners.
I was 13, and he was 15. And we were going to go to the movies. We went to the Blue Star shopping center on Route 22 to see Live or Let Die. And I think his mother drove us. And we sat in the movie next to each other, and he didn't make a move. And nothing happened. And then his father came and picked us up and drove us back to his house.
So he said, "Do you want to come up to my room?" And as we went into his room, he closed the door and said, "We're not allowed to lock our doors in my house." So otherwise he would have locked the door.
This is really hard.
So I don't know. He roamed around and was showing me stuff, and I was just being sort of polite. And showing me all his toys and junk and silly things that he had, and then proceeded to make the moves, make the big moves on me. And I was just very innocent. And he was very aggressive and just started kissing me and then just said, "Take off your shirt."
And so I'm sitting there thinking, well, the door is unlocked. And he said, "Well, you know--" And he had a little sister who was pestering us.
So eventually I said, [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] And he's like, "Oh, no." And asks me do I want to see it. I did. And of course, I want to see it. I mean, I want to know what it looks like. But at the same time, I feel like I'm in this incredibly ominous-- this is a dangerous situation. It's pornographic. Now I know how much of a little girl I was. I was just 13. I mean, 13 is young.
But there it was, it was this mindless thing. And I thought, well [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] --I want to see it jump, this is what I have to do.
So yeah, so he whips it out. And we both sit and we look at it.
And he says, "Well, do you want to touch it?"
And I didn't want to, but I did to get to a safe place. It was just horrible and dirty. More dirty than anything I've ever done since, even trying to be dirty. It was clinical, and I felt like I was being experimented upon. And the worst thing was that I was so passive. And I did what I was told, because I was a good girl. It was like a game to him.
Now that I'm older, now that I think about it, it was a game. It wasn't playful. It was a very sophisticated game. It was a game. And it wasn't loving to coerce someone or to seduce someone-- or to seduce a little girl. It was as if he were 40.
So here was this mindless thing. And he would look at me and think that I had been curious. "Want to see it jump?" So he could make it move. And flop around all by itself.
--mindless thing, but it has a mind of its own and a body of its own. It sort of moved around. And I was just appalled. I had no idea that this was what happened, that you could make it move all by itself, without touching it. And that it just stood up, stood straight up. It was like his little ventriloquist dummy that he could make talk to me.
It wasn't playful. It wasn't erotic. It wasn't loving. We put our clothes back on.
My mother came and picked us up. And I walked outside on his nice suburban lawn. I just wanted to get out of there. And his mother was there, and my mother was talking to his mother. And I stared at our mothers.
If they knew what had been going on. I just wanted to get out of there, to get to a safe place. But then I knew I could never tell anyone what had happened. So I could never be in a safe place.
[MUSIC - "THANK HEAVEN FOR LITTLE GIRLS" BY MAURICE CHEVALIER]
Could we have chosen a more creepy song than this one to put at this place in our program? I do not think so.
Anyway, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and by myself, with Peter Clowney, Alix Spiegel, and Dolores Wilber. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and the fabulous Margy Rochlin.
Musical help with today's show from Chicago DJ John Connors and from the mysterious and elusive Rumpty Rattles. Original musical scoring under Rennie Sparks' story by The Handsome Family.
If you'd like a copy of this program, it only costs $10. That's 10. You can call us at WBEZ to get one. 312-832-3380. That's 312-832-3380. Or you can email us. All emails get answered. Eventually. The address, [email protected]
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass.
Time to hit the pit?
You bet. We'll be back next week with more stories of This American Life.