KR OnlineNonfiction

First Ed

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Summer 1991, Vol. XIII, No.3

First, Ed—who, for all the sense of drama her memory evokes, is surrounded with a certain haze, a nimbus of uncertainty. Did our encounter, the one I remember, take place in 1963 or 1964? It must, I think, have been 1964, if only because the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” (a crucial clue) was on the radio that summer, lilting out of dashboards all over San Diego, along with “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Pretty Woman,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It was the summer that my father’s large brown and white Oldsmobile got a cracked block from the heat, and his hair, which had gone gray after my mother divorced him, went completely white, like Marie Antoinette’s. A few months later the Dodgers, resplendent with Koufax, won the Series, and I and my fellow sixth-graders, transistors in hand, celebrated with loud huzzahs on the rough gravel playgrounds of Whittier Elementary School.

All during the long hot months of vacation, I went once a week for a swimming lesson at the old YWCA downtown at 10th and C Street. We had recently returned (my mother, my younger sister, and I) from two years on the English coast, where we had lived in a gloomy village near Dover. My British-born mother had taken us there—in a flurry of misguided nostalgia and emotional confusion—immediately after her divorce in 1961, and we had stayed on, in a strange state of immobility and shared melancholia, until mid-1963. In the summer of 1964, however, things seemed better. While my sister and I reaccustomed ourselves to the unfamiliar sunshine, my mother exulted in being back in California, in living as a “bachelorette” (with two children) in the pink Buena Vista apartments, and in the hope—not yet dashed by various Jamesian revelations—of her imminent marriage to the handsome Chuck, the mustachioed ensign in the Navy with whom she had committed the sweetest of adulteries before her divorce.

My mother had been a swimming instructor for the Y during the ten years she had been married to my father, and the organization kept her loyalty, being associated with water, freedom, light, pools, and “living in San Diego”—with everything, indeed, that she had dreamed of as a teenager working for the gasworks in St. Albans. She herself had taken a number of classes at the downtown Y: the intermediate and advanced swim course, synchronized swimming, and beginning and advanced lifeguard training, during which she learned to divest herself of numerous layers of clothing, including laced snow boots, while submerged in eight feet of water. Despite my mother’s demonstrated aquatic skills, however, I adamantly refused to let her teach me any of them, and remained, at the relatively advanced age of ten, a coy nonswimmer. After several abortive sessions at the bathroom sink, during which she tried to make me open my eyes under water, it became clear that I was not going to learn anything under her tutelage, but would require instruction from some more neutral party. Hence my introduction to the Y, the children’s evening swim program and the delicious orchestrated flutterings of breast, elbow, and ankle.

The YWCA was an antiquated building by southern California standards—Julia Morganish, from the teens or twenties, though not a work of her hand. It preserved the dowdy grandeur of turn-of-the-century California women’s buildings, manifest in its square white facade, Mission-style touches, and cool, cavernous interior. Of the actual decor of the building, I remember little: only, vaguely, some seedy fifties leatherette furniture parked at odd angles in the reception area, peeling bulletin boards, the ancient candy machine expelling Paydays and Snickers with a frightful death rattle, and the small front office staffed—inevitably—by a middle-aged, short-haired woman in slacks. The place had an interesting air of desolation: various lost or ill-fitting souls lingered in the front area especially—off-duty sailors, people speaking Spanish, Negroes and Filipinas, mysterious solitary women. I never saw any of the guest rooms, and did not know that they existed: it would not have occurred to me that anyone might actually live there.

The indoor pool was deep in the netherworld of the building, seemingly underground—a greenish, Bayreuthian extravagance, reeking of chlorine and steam. Entering from the women’s locker room, one found oneself immediately at one of the pool’s deep-end corners. A wobbly diving board jutted out here in dangerous invitation, while at the opposite end a set of pale scalloped steps beckoned to the less adventurous. Running around the pool on all sides was an ornate white tile gutter, cheerfully decorated—by the same wayward deco hand, presumably, that had done the steps—with tiny mosaic flowers and swastikas. The water itself was cloudy, awash with dead moths and floating Band-Aids, but nonetheless, in its foggy Byzantine way, also warm-seeming and attractive. A slippery tiled walkway, inset with more flowers and swastikas and the imprinted words DO NOT RUN, completed the scene. Along this elevated platform our blond-haired teacher, an athletic woman named Pam, would slap up and down in bathing suit and bare feet, calling out instructions in a plaintive Midwestern tongue.

We were five or six in all, a sprinkling of little girls in cotton suits with elastic waists, and one or two even smaller boys in miniscule trunks. Under Pam’s guidance we soon mastered the basics: the dog paddle, a variety of elementary crawls and backstrokes, flapping sidestrokes, “sculling” and “treading water”—all with much gasping and excitement. It was on one of these occasions, while struggling to float on my back without inhaling water, that I must first have seen Ed. The ceiling over the pool was high up, some thirty or forty feet, with tall windows of opaque glass near the roof line, through which a few dim green rays of evening sunlight would sometimes penetrate to the fluorescent fug below. A dusty balcony overhung the pool at this level, stacked with seldom-used folding chairs for the spectators who came to observe the water ballet displays put on by the synchronized swimming class. Ed stood up there aloft, along with a few seamen in whites, waiting for the adult free swim hour which immediately followed our class.

Even from my unusual angle I could see that Ed was spectacularly good-looking—in a hoodish fifties way which had not yet, by mid-1964, been utterly superseded by the incoming styles of the era. I might grace my bedroom bulletin board with the toothy images of John, Paul, George and Ringo, but Ed’s “look” (as I knew even then) was far more compelling. Indeed I felt oddly giddy those times when she met my gaze—as though our positions had reversed, water and air had changed places, and I was the one looking down from above. She wore men’s clothes of a decade earlier, Sears and Roebuck style, the tightest of black pants (with a discreet fly), a dark leather belt and white shirt, a thin striped tie, and, as I saw later, the same pointy-toed black dress shoes worn by the Mexican “bad boys” at Clairemont High School, down the street from the Buena Vista apartments. Her hair was excessively, almost frighteningly groomed into a narrow scandalous pompadour, and had been oiled with brilliantine to a rich black-brown, against which her face stood out with stark and ravishing paleness. She appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties—definitely “old” to me—though something about the drastic formality of her costume also gave her the look of a teenage boy, one dressed up, perhaps, for a senior prom. She spoke to no one, smoked a cigarette, and seemed, despite her great beauty, consumed by sadness. She had a thin face of the sort I would later find irresistible in women.

One evening, more sultry than usual, my mother, who normally dropped me off and picked me up after class in the front foyer, was unable to collect me, owing to some sudden disorder in the radiator of our bulbous green Studebaker. My teacher Pam and her mother, the gamy old Peg, a short tanned woman who wore pants and also taught swimming classes at the Y, agreed to drive me home to Clairemont in their car. As soon as they had closed up the office we were to leave.

I had already finished changing and sat by myself in the locker room, waiting for my ride, when Ed came in. The other little girls were long gone. The floor was still wet with the footprints of the departed; the thick damp air hung about like a dream. At the same time everything seemed to open up, as if I—or she and I together—had suddenly entered a clearing in a forest. Ed said nothing, yet seemed, in some distant way, to recognize me. I sat still, not knowing where to go. She scrutinized me ambiguously for a few moments. Then, as if some complex agreement had been reached between us, she began to strip away, vertiginously, the emblems of her manhood.

Ed, Ed, my first, my only undressing. She moved gracefully, like a Pierrot, her pallid face a mask in the dim light. She removed her jacket and unbuckled her belt first, laying them carefully on the bench next to me. Then she slipped off her shoes and socks. I gazed down at her bare feet. Her eyes met mine and looked away. Then she loosened her tie with one hand, and pulled it off, followed by her heavy cuff links. Glancing again in my direction, she began to unbutton her shirt, twisting her torso in an uneasy fashion as she did so. She wore, heart-stoppingly, a woman’s white brassiere. This she unhooked slowly from behind, and watching me intently now, let her breasts fall forward. Her breasts were full and had dark nipples. She stopped to flick back some wet-looking strands of hair that had come down, Dion-like, over her brow. Then rather more quickly, with a practiced masculine gesture, she began to undo her fly. She removed her trousers, revealing a pair of loose Jockey shorts. She hesitated a moment before uncovering the soft hairiness beneath—that mystery against which I would thrust my head, blindly, in years to come. I stared childishly at the curly black V between her legs. She took off her watch, a man’s gold Timex, last of all.

Her transfiguration was not complete, of course: now she took out a rusty-looking woman’s swimsuit from a metal locker and began, uncannily, stepping into it. She became a woman. Then she folded up her clothes neatly and put them away. Still she did not speak—nor, it seemed, did she ever remove her eyes from mine.

I am aware, too late, how almost painfully sexy Ed was—and perhaps, at the level of hallucination, intended to be. Even now I seem to see the disquieting movement of her chest and shoulders as she leaned over the bench between us, the damp pressed-in look of her thighs when she began to pull the resistant nylon swimsuit up her body, her breasts poignantly hanging, then confined, with the aid of diffident fingers, in the suit’s stiff built-in cups. Indeed, I seem to be assisting her, leaning into her, even (slyly) inhaling her. She bends slightly at the knees, balances herself with one hand against the locker, begins to hold me around the neck—but this is a fantasy of the present. In that moment my feelings were of a far more polite, delicate, even sentimental nature. Astonishment gave way to, resolved into, embarrassment. When at last Ed drew on, over the dark crown of her head, a flowered Esther Williams-style bathing cap—the final clownish touch of femininity—I felt, obscurely, the pathos of her transformation: she had become somehow less than herself. But her eyes, with their mute, impassive challenge, never faltered. They seemed to say, I own you now. And I realized too, though I had no words for it at the time, how much I adored her, and what tumult lay ahead.

The other women came and got me soon enough—Ed must have gone—for the next thing I remember is sitting deep in the well of the backseat of my teacher’s Plymouth, the warm night breeze blowing in my face, and the lights of downtown glinting in the background as we drove away. Pam and her mother talked in a desultory, friendly way in the front seat. They used slang with each other and swore softly—almost as if I weren’t there, or were much older, which I enjoyed. I looked at the back of their heads, at Pam’s blond nape and her mother’s cropped gray thatch, while the sounds of the radio—KCBQ—wafted sweetly through the summer air:

We’re going to the chapel
And we’re
Gonna get ma-a-a-rried
Going to the Chapel of Love

Then, as we wound our way down 101 through Balboa Park, under the tall bridge by the zoo, the two of them began—as if to the music—to talk about Ed. They seemed to know her; they spoke almost tenderly, referring to her by name. Ed looked more like a guy than ever, my teacher remarked. The words hung about softly in the air. I began listening hard, as I did at school. Her mother, Peg, reflected for a moment, then glanced back and smiled at me in the dark, enigmatically, before murmuring in reply, “Yeah, but she don’t have the superior plumbing system.” And into the night we sped away.

Many years later, when I had just turned twenty-two, and lay in bed with a much older woman with whom I was greatly in love, I told the story of Ed, this story, for the first time. I was already getting on Helen’s nerves by that point; she tried to find the fastest way through my postcoital maunderings. Ed was, she concluded, “just an externalization.” As she often reminded me, Helen had spent fifty thousand dollars a year for eight years of psychoanalysis in Chicago. She wore her hair in a long braid down her back to represent, she told me, her “missing part.” She was thin and dark, and when she wasn’t teaching wore a man’s watch and lumberman’s jacket. My mother, she said, “sounded like a hysteric.” A lot of things happened later, and I finally got to resenting Helen back, but that’s a winter, not a summer story.

American literary scholar, Terry Castle has published eight books, including the anthology The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall, which won the Lambda Literary Editor’s Choice award and was named one of the Year’s Ten Best Books of 2003 by The Advocate. She is a well-known essayist and teaches English as the Walter A. Hass Professor in the Humanities at Stanford.