My Month as a Slut

My sister clapped her hands and said, “Let’s get dressed up like sluts and go to the Beverly Center!” This is how it started.

For my thirteenth birthday, my parents had gotten me tickets to fly down to LA. It was my first plane ride by myself. “I’m sure you’ve done this a thousand times,” the stewardess had said when she shepherded me on the flight early, sticking a bag of peanuts in my hand. I’d clutched my plastic cup of Sprite and stared out the foggy portal window, my stomach fluttering. I was a teenager now; my life was beginning; I was on my way to visit my 24-year-old sister, my idol.

My sister tore through her closet, pulled out a babydoll dress, white tights with stencils of old-timey pistols, and patent-leather Mary Janes. She sat me on the lid of the toilet then she drew on my lips, teased my hair, went in for my eyebrows with tweezers.

I winced. “Don’t.”

“But the look’s not complete if you don’t pluck your eyebrows.”

“It’ll hurt,” I looked away. She looked at me for a moment, then put the tweezers down.

She got a sitter for my nephew and drove us to the mall in her rumbly Mazda, parked in a lot where the automated gate spoke to us in a tinny voice. We walked the gleaming floors—“Look! Puppies!”— bought Slushies and tried on lipstick and giggled and chased each other and hollered at the men in polo shirts with upturned collars who stared at us.

I felt alive and powerful—female with my sister whom I loved more than anything.

*

Back at my parents’ house in Oakland, I tried to replicate the slut look.

It was 1995 and aside from my sister, Courtney Love was my icon: tear-smeared eyeliner and torn dresses, bruises and barrettes. I could identify with the way Courtney Love layered cutesiness on top of grossness, because I was gross: gawky and sharp-boned, my skin boiled with acne and slick with so much grease I’d leave a little pool of oil on telephone receivers. Every night I’d slather on harsh acne products but all they did was scorch the skin redder, give off the smell of smoldering sulfur when I sweated.

My girlfriends shared my Courtney Love infatuation. We were in the eighth grade, raunchy and giggly with budding breasts inside training bras. We’d gotten our first periods; we’d started shaving our legs; we had a path of self-destruction set before us like a row of dominoes.

We’d take the bus up to Telegraph Avenue and buy bags of oregano from twitchy dudes in People’s Park. We’d ride the BART out to the suburban Sunvalley Mall and go on shoplifting sprees: nail polish and band t-shirts and patches we’d later sew on our backpacks with dental floss. We’d snort No-Doz and shotgun Jolt and smoke cigarettes we stole from Lynda’s parents’ corner store, trying to teach ourselves to inhale. We’d cut ourselves on our legs, where it showed only if we wanted it to; when we were alone, we’d roll up our jeans and compare our wounds.

We were being unleashed onto the world, something was unleashing inside of us, and suddenly there were men everywhere: men at the bus stops; men on the sidewalks; men at the backs of the BART trains and in cars driving by. Men who stared and whistled and licked their lips, who sidled in close to us and grazed their hands casually past our waists and butts.

They weren’t the guys we wanted to have doing that. They weren’t David Shamzad, Thee Cute Boy at my old school with a mushroom haircut and dreamy brown eyes. They weren’t Ian Tompkins, a boy at my new school with a skateboard and banged-up elbows, for whom I’d write my first song (“Oh Ian / You kick / A lot of ass…”). They weren’t even Matt Wathen, my new school’s resident bad-ass, with his newsboy hat and pocket full of dime bags.

They were old, “like my dad’s age,” and not always as homeless and crazy as you’d think. More often they were normal looking, “Dad-like” until they licked their lips slowly and muttered what they wanted to do to us, about the tight wet pussies we hadn’t known we had. Until they squeezed in close to us on the two-seat side of the bus, trapped us against the windows while their hands rubbed slowly in the pockets, their elbows bumping into our sides.

A heat would rise in me every time—I’d feel it burn in my cheeks, give off that sulfur smell. The blood would buzz in my ears. A black panic would rise from some beehive inside me. I’d freeze, keep quiet, keep my eyes down and pretend I couldn’t hear them.

I grew to hate the part of me that was quiet, silent, burning in shame when grown men would honk, whistle, whisper, reach. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”: I’d learned in school on MLK Day. And yet I didn’t stand up for myself, didn’t protest for what I knew was right, didn’t say anything at all.

So what did that make me?

But if my girlfriends and I were together, it felt different. If it was daytime and we were surrounded by a lot of people, we’d go crazy, that teenage-girl crazy: we’d scream and holler and point, “You sick-ass motherfucker! You pervert!” Sophie would squeeze her lips in precision and shoot a lougie at them—she was the best at spitting distances—and it’d arch through the air and land on them and we’d howl in laughter.

“You fucking creep!” we’d scream, laughing. It was a kind of giddy bandwagonism but also something else. All that pent-up anger, every time we’d had to bite our tongues and say nothing, every time we’d been alone—all that shame and rage would all come out then and become a kind of sisterhood we shared.

The dudes never seemed that perturbed though. They never even seemed that embarrassed.

Sometimes they’d even grin and laugh.

*

I stood in front of the mirror sideways, frontwards, backwards with a pocket mirror over my shoulder. I scoped out my outfit: fishnets, a pink babydoll dress that barely covered my ass and kitten-heeled Mary Janes. My neck was stained purple from the Punky Color hair dye and my skin sheened with grease.

To assemble my grunge-princess slut look, I’d gone down to the Buffalo Exchange and shoplifted second-hand supplies. I’d stolen fishnets in every color, so cheap they sagged in the crotch, just above the hemline of my pink pleather skirt with the little buttons you could snap off just like that. I’d gotten a fuzzy cardigan with holes in the elbows, sleeves too short for my long arms. It was winter; I’d gotten a black plastic raincoat. I’d stolen sparkly rings and make-up I didn’t know how to apply.

I assembled different outfits and began wearing them around the house: “playing dress-up,” my parents called it. I practiced walking in my two-inch heels, clipping down the hallway with a sashay in my angular hips. My girlfriends would come over for sleepovers and we’d try on the outfits, take Polaroids of ourselves that we’d later examine, critique, trying to perfect the slut look.

Finally one Saturday, I felt ready to wear the look out to Telegraph. Sitting in the back of an empty bus with my friends, I felt like I was on my way somewhere bigger than just the strip of smoke shops and records stores I’d been to a thousand times.

When the bus heaved to the stop, I carefully stepped down the stairs and onto the sidewalk. My skin tingled. I felt like I was arriving.

It was cool that day, sunny but crisp. I tried not to shiver. I walked with my plastic raincoat unbuttoned and my head held up. I tried to walk like I had in the hallway of my parents’ house, like I had something, owned something—myself.

I walked right in the center of my friends, though whether I was leading them or using them for protection, I couldn’t have told you. I was taller than them in my heels. I felt like a different creature than them, than who I’d been.

A couple boys my age looked at me. They didn’t talk to me, but still—they looked. I chattered with my friends and pretended not to notice, not to relish in it, not to need it. I felt the stares of grown men drag across me like fingers on glass, sticky and smudging, but this time it felt different. I felt safe from them.

“Everyone’s staring,” Becca whispered.

“It’s like you’re famous,” Lynda laughed.

I felt powerful and cool, just like that day at the Beverly Center with my sister.

*

She was my half-sister really, and I hadn’t known she existed until I was six.

My dad was twenty when the girl he’d been sleeping with got pregnant. She told him the baby wasn’t his and besides, she didn’t need a man to raise her baby. She had my sister, half-sister, on the floor of an old hippie house in Milwaukee, and a few months later moved to California. My dad always suspected the girl was his; every few years he’d look for them—“Once I had a number that was only off by two digits!”

By the time my sister was seventeen, her mom had married a moderately successful Hollywood producer and lived in a big house in the hills. She decided that maybe my dad was my sister’s father after all. She set out looking for my dad and found him in a couple of days.

My parents sat my brother and I down at the dining room table and told us the news. I was ecstatic. As a six-year-old girl, all I’d wanted was a sister—a cool older girl who’d love and adore me, who I could cuddle up against, who would tell me all the secrets of girlhood, about kissing boys and how to put on make-up.

When my sister and her mom came for that first visit, they struck me as a different breed of woman than I knew. I’d grown up with Oakland women—women who worked, who didn’t diet or read fashion magazines, who only wore lipstick on special occasions. My sister and her mom were LA girls, thin and freckly, with fine features and sun-kissed cheeks, long hair and something my mom called “come-hither eyes.” They didn’t wear a lot of make-up, but the way they batted their lashes made me think they didn’t need to. I was enamored.

“Sister power!” was the name we developed for the cuddly, giggly love fest that would ensue whenever my sister came to visit—tense visits that made my mom bristle, my brother act out, my dad and I pang with longing for someone who wasn’t quite ours.

“I don’t believe in that ‘half’ stuff,” my sister said once, cuddling me close.

“Yeah, me neither,” I decided then, swooning with the scent of her: shampoo and Secret deodorant.

And so she was never my “half-sister” again. She was my “sister”—everything I wanted, everything I wanted to be, the one who would come on an airplane with one little carry-on bag, who’d always leave again and I’d stay up all night crying. The one I’d write long letters to, the one who’d always write back, her handwriting so swirly and glamorous I’d study it and try to replicate it, though I never could. The one who I loved and who loved me and who I could never really have.

*

“Is that what you’re wearing?”

My mom looked up from the purse, jacket, lunch bag and work supplies she was juggling, enough to see me snap on my Mary Janes and readjust my twisted fishnets.

I shrugged and averted my eyes. “Yeah.”

After a couple weekend trips to Telegraph, I’d decided to wear my slut clothes to school. I’d decided it was going to change everything.

That year I had started going to school in a quaint small town an hour-and-a-half bus ride from my parents’ house in Oakland. It was my first time going to school outside of Oakland. It was a real school: I had science class for the first time; I had a uniform for PE; I had a locker and textbooks and art classes with actual art supplies.

It had been hard making friends. The kids were different than they were in Oakland: quieter, more demure, seemingly never leaving the one-square-mile of the town. But along the edges existed other kids, out-and-out partiers who dropped acid and had sex. I didn’t fit in either camp—I had the good grades and citizenship marks of the goody-goodies but the musical taste and angst of the partiers.

I’d eye the partiers in the halls, feel a lure in their glazed eyes and fidgety fingers. I wanted to be one of them, but I’d never done drugs, never been kissed, never even slow-danced. So maybe my grunge-princess slut look would be the ticket—to being cool; to being Courtney-Love rebellious; to being desired by whom I wanted to be desired, in the way I wanted to be desired; to control this thing growing in me, blooming in me and boiling on my skin, coming out in the stink of sulfur.

My mom just sighed as she put on her jacket. “Looks cold to me.”

I got out of the car twenty minutes later, stepping into soggy grass that made my kitten-heels sink and go squelch! I pulled my shoulders back and kept my eyes forward as I walked towards the building.

I felt the stares on me like pebbles hitting glass. Hands raised to mouths.

My new look didn’t do anything it was supposed to that day. Ian Tompkins didn’t talk to me. The partier girls didn’t think I was cool. I wasn’t invited to go behind the bleachers to smoke weed and make-out with Matt Wathen. It was winter and it was a cold time to be a slut; it rained and my feet got soaked in their heels, little puddles of water squishing every time I stepped. By 10am, my face was damp with oil, pooling beneath the uneven layer of foundation I’d globbed on. Mascara sank beneath my eyes.

No one was fooled by the fishnets and short skirts and the plastic raincoat. They could still see the grossness, the awkwardness. Maybe they could see it more.

*

After my nephew was born, my sister didn’t like her tits anymore. “You sucked the life out of them!” she declared to my nephew while she tugged her tits up in the mirror, then flopped them back down.

So she got a tit job. She dropped out of beauty school and realty school in quick succession. She began stripping at a Beverly Hills club where movie stars and famous people went. (“Edward Norton is such an douche!”) She started dating a balding artist ten years her senior; his most noted work was a grocery list with the words: “Milk, bread, eggs, heroin.” He was making ends meet by working as a phone sex operator. They’d hooked up when my sister was twenty-one, a few months pregnant and not sure who the real father was.

Breast enhancement, tattoo removal, lip injections: all the beauty procedures my sister had done in those years were tax write-offs. It was her job, she said, to look good. When I saw her, she still wore t-shirts and Keds and pants that never quite fit, hanging so low on her hipbones that her thong showed when she sat down. But underneath that she was pruned, perfect. I knew there was this whole other side of her I didn’t see, this other life that dragged her deep into the nights:

“God, it’s hard to take Charlie to school when I’m at work until three.”

“I tell the other moms I’m a cocktail waitress.”

“They always want you to get drunk. It’s easier to do the job when you’re drunk.”

None of it changed how I saw my sister. I still looked up to her. She still knew something about femaleness that I didn’t, knew things about the world that I didn’t. It was my sister who’d bought me my first Charles Bukowski book, my sister who’d given me her 86-87 Bad Brains tour shirt. It was my sister who’d told me my idol was a fake.

“You know Courtney Love didn’t come up with that whole babydoll look,” she said during a visit, curled up in the backseat of my parents’ car so that our knees touched.

“Really?” I asked, embarrassed that I hadn’t known.

“No,” my sister said. “She ripped that off of other people. Like everything she does.” She looked out the window, streaked with headlights from the highway. “She’s a fake.”

But what was real? I wanted to ask, cars speeding past us on the road. Where were the real girls, how did you find them? How did you become them?

What did they do when the men winked and whistled and called them names?

*

One afternoon, too demoralized by the street harassment to ride public transit home, I stopped by my mom’s work to catch a ride. It was pouring rain; I was soaked to the bone, had taken off my rain jacket and was trying to shake myself dry. I could feel the make-up sliding down my face, the curls matted to my neck, the sheer sparkly top dampened and even more see-through than it already was.

A matronly co-worker came in the room, startled a little when she saw me looking like a drowned rat prostitute. She furrowed her brow at me.

“My my, is this how the kids are dressing these days?”

God, did anyone in that town get anything?

“No,” I answered flatly, with enough anger to make her look away.

*

I’d been a slut for nearly three weeks when Matt Wathen eyed me in the hall.

They were those open-air halls all cheaply built California schools have and they were the only place I ever saw Matt. He was the school’s most bona fide bad-ass: a scrappy kid who smoked cigarettes like he’d been doing it his whole life, dangling there without the smoke even getting in his eyes.

He’d never noticed me before. With his patchy attendance and tracked-to-flunk classes, we’d never even made eye contact. But now he grazed his eyes up and down, all over me, slow and unwavering.

He cocked his head and smiled a little.

He walked towards me, kinda pursed his lips when he got close and leaned in. The air buzzed; something in me prickled, the exact way something in me prickled when the men on the buses and BART trains and sidewalks and passing cars would lean in.

Before he could say anything, I put my head down and walked away, my cheeks burning and stinking of sulfur.

I was a fake.

*

Some Saturday, Sophie and I walked down my parents’ steep hill. I watched her feet, flat and steady in sneakers while mine wobbled in the heels, calves caught behind a chain-link of fishnets.

When we got to the bottom of the hill, we heard the engine of a truck approach. It growled like an animal. I felt a twitch in me, heat rising from that deep place. I kept my eyes down.

A sharp whistle: I looked up and a man’s head appeared. Messy hair and a grin. He craned over the passenger’s seat and inched the car towards us.

“Mmmm,” the man said, as though he were salivating, as though he were licking me up, consuming me.

I stared down. The black panic inside me swarmed to the surface. I felt the burning on my cheeks.

“Don’t fucking stare at her!” Sophie screamed.

The man glanced at Sophie. He grinned wider. He inched the car closer.

I opened my mouth to say something, but the bees had caught in my throat.

“Hey fuckface!” Sophie leaned down, picked up a rock and threw it at the car. It bounced off the roof, made a clank sound as it ricocheted off somewhere.

He laughed, revved the engine and drove off.

Sophie turned to me with a defeated look. “Fuck that dude,” she said.

I looked where his car had driven, two little red taillights disappearing.

“I wanna go home and change,” I said.

*

So my slut phase ended just like that, one month after it had started.

I stole a t-shirt from Mars Vintage that said “Recovering Slut” and wore it to school a few days in a row to announce my reform. I wore it with my flared jeans and Converse, black hoodie with the thumbholes cut out. I was back to what I’d always been: gross and awkward, a cop-out not in possession of anything, even herself.

“Yeah, I guess it’s not a good idea,” my sister said on the phone one night, after it was all over and finished anyway.

I told her about all the gross old men, the judgy co-worker, the dumb kids at school who didn’t get it. I didn’t tell her about Matt; I didn’t tell her about the bees.

My sister just sighed. And it was almost a sense of camaraderie I felt then, almost that sense of sisterhood and fuck-you femininity I’d felt that day at the mall. But something was missing, deflated. There was no power in it.

“God, guys are such creeps,” my sister said wearily, her voice coming through the phone in a buzz.

“Totally,” I agreed.

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About Lauren Quinn

Lauren Quinn is a writer and kindergarten teacher currently living in Hanoi. She will always be an Oakland girl at heart.

Comments

  1. You’ve captured the demons so well. There’s no experience quite like a young girl beginning to recognise her power, but feeling still feeling powerless, confused, thrilled and terrified.

    (I read this while Lana Del Rey was on. It was a perfect combination.)

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