What I didn’t realize was that Marilyn’s blatant immodesty repulsed me because of something else that we shared. Before either of us were nine, we had been traumatized by adult men who made us objects of their thoughtless lust.
While she seemed to be shameless about exposing her body in public—even to the point of nudity—I became so terrified to be seen in the nude that by the time I was in high school, I couldn’t bring myself to undress and shower in front of other girls in my Physical Education classes.
In the 1950s, dressing out and participating in a P.E. class was mandatory every semester throughout high school, as was stripping and showering before you could go on to your next class. I use the word showering loosely: for most girls, the act amounted to wrapping one of the small white towels around their hair and running through the communal shower area between blasting shower heads. In order to keep track of who showered, the gym staff gave every girl a plastic ring along with her towel each day. If your ring wasn’t hanging on the wooden board at the far end of the shower area, on the peg corresponding to your locker number, you were given an “F” for the day, even if you had dressed out and participated in the day’s activities.
“Hey, Tammy,” I whisper to the stark-naked girl next to me in the steamy locker room, wearing only a towel draped around her neck. She is just about to close her locker and head for the running showers. There really isn’t any reason for me to lower my voice, since the air is filled with several dozen girls’ voices, all talking and laughing loud enough to be heard above the hiss of the dozen showerheads. But I don’t want our gym teachers to hear me offer Tammy cigarettes as a bribe for what I desperately need her to do for me.
She acts like she hasn’t heard me. I start to panic. Maybe she’s going to ignore me. After all, we’re not really friend-friends. More like locker-room acquaintances. In fact, she’s one of the “in-crowd,” while I’m the furthest thing from it. “Tammy,” I begin again, still keeping my voice low, trying to communicate that I am about to say something that needs to be treated with more than a little stealth, “I need a huge favor and I have some cigarettes I could give you.”
Tammy pauses in her locker-stuffing effort, glances over her shoulder at me, and waits for me to finish my sentence. Now I have her attention, and for good reason: cigarettes are the gold standard of contraband among most girls in the school, which puts me in a sweet position. Back at home, my grandma has been sharing her smokes with me since I was twelve the way most grandmas would share candy. Even when I put a handful in my purse to take to school, she never says a word.
I hold out the plastic ring. Tammy knows what I want her to do; this isn’t the first time I have asked. Still, she has to mull over her decision. If she gets caught it could mean some serious consequences for both of us. And the chances of her getting caught could be pretty high if one or the other of our gym teachers is sitting in the doorway of the shower room, supervising us while we shower. I don’t care what they call it, I can’t stomach getting naked and running the gauntlet. More than once, on days when the teachers were paying too-close attention and I couldn’t get anyone to put my ring on its peg, I’ve become so upset I had to retreat to the toilet stalls and vomit.
Tammy glances at me and leans around the end of the locker row, looking both ways to see if she can tell where our gym teachers are. Apparently, she thinks she has seen both of them, because she turns back to me and holds out her hand to take my ring. We both know we are risking suspension if we are caught—but Tammy wants the cigarettes almost as bad as I want to avoid getting naked. Taking my ring from me, Tammy puts it with her own ring and turns toward the showers. I watch as she falls in with some other girls going in at the same time and starts acting as if she’s been part of their chatter and laughter all along. Clever.
For a minute I sit still and listen. A minute is usually about all the time it takes for a girl to get through the shower and to the board and hang up her ring. Suddenly I hear our assistant gym teacher, Miss James, yelling—almost screeching—Tammy’s name.
“Tammy! Tammy Davis! What are you doing?”
There’s no more chatter. No laughing. Even the sound of the showers seems to have faded almost to nothing. Still, I have no trouble hearing Tammy’s trembling voice, “N . . . n . . . nothing, Miss James.”
“Don’t you lie to me, Tammy Davis. I saw you put Veronica’s ring on its peg.”
When I hear Miss James use my given name, I know I’m dead. Usually everyone calls me by my nickname, Ronnie. Damn! How’d she know it was my peg? As if all the teachers didn’t have my number memorized by this point in the semester.
My shoulders sink as I hear Tammy crying and begging, “Please don’t suspend me, Miss James. My dad will kill me. I promise not to do it ever again.”
Miss James’ tone of voice is almost back to normal as she continues, but I can still hear her as if she were standing right beside me. “Well I hope you and Grace (Miss James’ favorite sarcastic nickname for me) are going to learn a lesson from this, because I am suspending both of you.”
I clutch my towel to my chest, despite being fully clothed. The girls up and down my locker aisle are all looking at me, and I feel as good as naked. They’re the lucky ones, the normal ones. The ones that can blow off getting naked. And now they’re the ones who can finish dressing and rush out to spread the story to everyone who will listen— which, of course, will be everyone. By lunchtime, I’ll be the butt of a hundred jokes and the object of everyone’s stares. Without warning, my breakfast rises up into my throat, and I run for the toilet stalls.
Tammy may have had to face her dad with the news that she had been suspended for the rest of the week, but that was nothing compared to what I was certain would happen to me if I got suspended too many times and failed P.E.: the looming threat of having to drop out of high school. Tammy might get a whippin’ for what she did, but I felt like my hope to ever have a life would be destroyed if I didn’t get through high school. I was already hoping for a miracle just to graduate. Besides, what kind of idiot fails P.E.? That’s how all my peers felt about it, and it was definitely how I felt about it. Failing P.E. would confirm to me what a negative, downright evil voice from somewhere inside me seemed to hiss at me every day: that I was nothing but a “dumpster-diving, trailer-trash kid—a klutz, a fool, a joke, a lazy-ass moron.”
Never able to control my terror of being naked in front of other people, there were days when I couldn’t face going to school at all because of P.E., which never concerned my mother. After all, she hadn’t finished high school. She was a child of the 1920s, and a girl child—just like Norma Jeane. She remembered all too well growing up in the Depression and then suffering the death-blow that World War II had been to her hopes and dreams. School just didn’t seem that important.
There was one excuse I could give my mother for needing a note to excuse me from P.E. When my period started, I would tell her in terms she understood: “I got sick, Mom.” I used the expression, even though I thought it was stupid and old-fashioned. I preferred “I got my period.” My mother was rendered bed-ridden with her periods, so she sympathized with me. It was true that some months I would suffer from extreme and severe menstrual cramps and heavy flow. I kept my terror of nudity from my mother and my grandmother, which left me all alone with my horror and with the childhood memories that fueled it. There was no way I could ever tell my mother about the grown men who had “played” with me in the years since I was seven, or how their groping, fondling attention to my nakedness had left me obsessed with avoiding exposing myself to others. I knew that not getting a high school diploma would affect my whole life, but vomiting from terror and maybe even dying from the shame of my nudity was too much for me to face.
With the mixture of desperation and gratitude of a drowning soul I leapt at the school district’s summer school P.E. program. You didn’t have to take a public shower in summer school. You could just go home, sweat and all.