Who could resist such shock waves of grit and grace? I fell headlong into the pop-culture explosion around me, bored senseless with the homogeneity of life before rock 'n' roll. I pierced my ears, illicitly and crookedly, with sewing needles and bottle corks, using ice cubes as my only anesthetic. I wore chalk-white lipstick and nail polish in acolyte imitation of London's Yardley Girl, an early-wave supermodel who was kohl-eyed and anorexic. Amarillo, too, responded to the lion at its gates with radical measures. The Dean of Girls at my high school, a formidable woman known to all as Miss Willie, took to carrying around a ruler to measure our hemlines, and she wielded that weapon as though it were a holy scepter. Once apprehended, we had to drop to our knees on the linoleum floors of the high school corridors, genuflecting before Miss Willie's mighty gauge. When I was sent home to change, I took the reprimand as a badge of honor; within a few years, I would be wearing far more confrontational garb. Like the rest of the would-be bad kids at Tascosa High, I had to make do with the minor rebellions of smoking in the parking lot and skipping journalism class; the only real trouble we could find involved unlocked liquor cabinets and illegal keg parties.
Except for sex, which in the mid-1960s presented a dangerous territory that many had wandered into but few were willing to acknowledge. As a child, probably in the late 1950s, I had discovered that my mother stashed the best books under her bed, away from her daughters' eyes; this dust-bunny archive was where I found The Carpetbaggers and In Cold Blood over the next few years. But first there was Peyton Place, which I devoured. I was shocked by the idea of Constance MacKenzie's nipples being hard as diamonds, even if I didn't quite understand why they were. Most of my education in sexual desire had come from the elliptical instruction of popular fiction, where women got carried upstairs as a way to end the chapter. So mine were only vague prepubescent fantasies, fostered by novels instead of boys, and then almost accidentally. And that was before I got ahold of Mary McCarthy's The Group, which shattered whatever fictions America had left about good girls and chastity when it appeared in 1963. McCarthy had dared to have her women experience sexual bliss and dared to call it what it was; in the American vernacular, the word climax would never be the same.
I must have made off with my mother's copy of The Group somewhere in the mid-1960s, a few years after it appeared; certainly the fragile paperback I still own, with its background shot of the movie cast, testifies to that. But McCarthy's randy sophistication was more than I could yet tolerate; besides, her characters were Vassar girls, and that was in another country. And McCarthy's novel had, after all, belonged first to my mother. My own self-conscious march into sexually explicit fiction came at around the same time, accompanying another foray into adulthood. I had just gotten my driver's license, which meant I could plant my flag all over the Panhandle, or at least Amarillo, and I remember being surprised and disappointed by what that freedom implied: So what if you could go anywhere at all, if there wasn't anywhere to go? For a fifteen-year-old, such unrestricted vision meant that I could take off in my mother's car for, at most, a couple of hours. But at the time it seemed like a mockery, as though my mobility had opened up the horizon, only to underscore the emptiness of its plains.
Excerpted from A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell Copyright © 2006 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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