Ours were the usual girlish crimes. We pocketed lipsticks from the Younkers cosmetic counter, 45’s from the record department in the basement of Sanford’s, cigarette lighters from Woolworth’s downtown. We wore our rubber flip-flops into Arlan’s Discount Mart and walked out with a brand new pair of high top black Converse sneakers on our feet. There was sex—in the back seat of a car, on a blanket in the woods, on the sofa in the basement, under the bleachers at school. There was smoking—Marlboro or Winston, unfiltered Camels and Lucky Strikes, Kool or Salem Menthol, handrolled Buglers for the purists, Gauloises and Gitanes for the worldly, baby pink Dunhills for the Mod chic. There was drinking—apple wine, three-percent beer, rum and Coke, sloe gin and 7-up. And there were drugs—cough syrup, tranquilizers, amphetamines, mescaline, marijuana, acid, MDA, PCP.
Where I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, trouble-making boys back then might end up in military school—Shattuck in Minnesota or Wentworth in Missouri—or the reform school at Eldora. The equivalent of this for incorrigible girls was the Iowa State Industrial School in Mitchellville. For me, it was boarding school in Virginia.
My own transgressions were mostly meek, all bravado without much real risk, but they were enough to raise red flags with the adults who knew me, like Mrs. Fox in the sixth grade, who told my mother in a conference that I was hanging out with the “wrong crowd” because my boyfriend was JW, a thirteen-year-old dreamboat who had already been held back twice. I railed against what seemed to me to be unfair restrictions—I was not allowed to go out on a weeknight. I was not allowed to go to the dances at the West Side Y or the concerts at Danceland. The Pavilion at Bever Park was forbidden after dark, when it was most fun, and I had to sneak away from choir practice if I wanted hang out with my friends in the parking lot at Henry’s Hamburgers. I threw tantrums, slammed doors, screamed obscenities, told my parents that I wished they both were dead. This last was enough to finally get their attention and motivate them to follow through on their threats—they were understandably tired, I had two older sisters, they’d already been through all this before—to send me away to boarding school if I didn’t shape up.
I came back from The Madeira School in Virginia that Christmas break smoking cigarettes and sporting groovy purple granny glasses, although my eyesight was just fine. I wore brown vinyl boots that came up over my knees to mid-thigh, a cream-colored miniskirt that was wider than it was long, a crushed velvet turtleneck, and an over-sized moth-eaten pea-coat from the Army-Navy Surplus store. I had a Mary Quant haircut, shorter on one side than the other. Big silver hoop earrings framed my face, and rings sat stacked on all my fingers like brass knuckles. Over my shoulder I carried a beaded and buckled fringed leather bag.
One girl—MG, one of those “good good girls” that I held in such contempt—sneered when she saw me, and I heard her murmur under her breath that I looked like a slut. But I figured she was just jealous, because I wasn’t a slut, I was a virgin just like her. JF and GB, CT and DE those were the real sluts, and everybody knew it. They were the girls who seemed to have sacrificed their reputations for their desires, not me. But I took some pleasure in being labeled one anyway, because it was so far off the mark and yet still gave me some sophistication, some worldliness, I thought. As if I’d been around.
I was the one who’d left home, after all. I was the one who had read Camus and Sartre and Ionesco. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. Vonnegut, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Richard Brautigan, Tom Wolfe. I’d seen Jimi Hendrix live in concert; I’d been to anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C. I went to school with girls whose fathers were senators or ambassadors, who worked high up in the State Department or the Pentagon, who owned national baseball teams and television networks. I knew girls whose mothers were movie stars, whose great-grandfathers had been famous industrialists, whose families owned half the oil in Texas. I’d picked pumpkins at Bobby Kennedy’s house and stayed at the Watergate Hotel. I was the wise-cracker, the smarty-pants, the know-it-all, the intellectual. Chewing my fingernails and smoking my cigarettes, drinking coffee and popping No-Doz so I could stay up all night reading books and writing stories of my own.
When I lit up in front of my friend B, who had been my pal since nursery school, she was satisfyingly surprised and disapproving. We were at the Maid Rite on First Avenue, a run-down diner that is still famous around town for the fried pork tenderloins and loose meat sandwiches it serves. It was one of the places that my mother told me to stay out of, so of course it was one of the first stops I made when I was home. Pool tables, juke box, farmers in seed caps perched on stools at the bar, smell of beer and smoke and hot oil. This was a Friday night in December, at the beginning of Christmas break, and we knew that when the basketball games ended the place would be overrun with high school kids like us, that’s why we were there. To see and be seen.
We’ve taken a table in the corner, positioned with a view of the door so that we’ll know when the boy that B has a crush on arrives, and I’m lighting another cigarette, shaking out the match, sipping at my vanilla Coke and picking at what’s left of the onion rings in our shared basket. I’m telling B about school—what it’s like to live in a dormitory with thirty other girls, how we break into the kitchen at night to steal food and have to climb up to the attic of Old Main if we ever want to sneak a smoke. How Julie G. keeps trying to get herself kicked out. How Alice P. has not one hair on her entire body, not even eyelashes, not even pubes, because of some disease, I can’t remember its name. She wears a wig and has to pencil in the eyebrows on her face. About a girl named Miriam who plays the harp and is nothing but skin and bone because she refuses to eat. She weighs less than eighty pounds and hasn’t had her period in over two years. And my friend Claudia G., whose mother lives in Paris, has been seeing a Harvard man who is almost twenty-three. I’m bragging about how I’ve been asked to join a secret club called The Brazen Hussies, a gang of girls who play pranks around campus, and I’m just getting to the part about how last year they put the gym teacher’s Volkswagen Beetle in the library, when there’s a ruckus at the door and in comes the triumphant basketball team. The cheerleaders and the jocks, the players and their girlfriends.
I see that Bob is still with Marilyn, Doug is with Kathy, and Roger is with Jane. Some things never change, except… and that’s when I see her: Paula Oberbroeckling, who transferred to Washington High from the Catholic school. Paula, with her long legs and straight blond hair. Paula, who has trumped my smoking, my stealing, my drinking, and my drugs by dating Robert, who is black.
What I didn’t know then was that some six months later Paula would go missing, and four months after that what little was left of her would be found.