by Lee Ann Roripaugh
At fourteen, you were completely obsessed with The Bell Jar. Of course, you loved the wry, fucked-up voice of Esther Greenwood, but mostly you were obsessed with the way the book so coolly articulated the possibilities of an exit strategy. You didn’t know anything about exit strategies at fourteen, but when you first heard the term, you immediately recognized the image of your fourteen-year-old self searching for a neon beacon reading EXIT in molten red letters at the end of a smoke-filled hallway.
* * *
Your fantasies for escape started out small: Running away from home and hiding inside the Fine Arts Building at the university where you took your weekly piano lessons, for example. You imagined yourself sleeping in the women’s bathroom, eating out of the vending machines. Or you imagined being adopted by the funny, always-beaming clarinet professor who said you were a piano genius and called you kiddo. His daughter was in the class ahead of you at high school and she seemed happy, popular, well-adjusted.
It was the smallness of your fledgling exit strategies, though, that made them completely unrealistic, you realized. Like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble starring John Travolta, you needed to escape the airless, gerbil ball of your toxic sphere.
How you thrilled when you read, for the very first time, the passage in which Esther Greenwood insisted to herself that despite what her fiancé Buddy Willard’s mother said about women needing to be the place that arrows shot out from, she, Esther, wanted to be the arrow instead! It reminded you of the rockets launching on television from Cape Canaveral and exploding through the earth’s atmospheric layers—troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, ionosphere, and exosphere—and breaking all the way into the rarefied alien air of outer space!
Your own mother was similarly fond of pseudo-sexual militaristic metaphors. For example, her code word for your father’s genitalia was cannon, which you thought was horrible and gross. And after you were molested by the boy who lived across the street, your mother told you that your submarine was sunk and said you must never, ever tell anyone about how your submarine was sunk.
Anyways. Maybe it was because your submarine was sunk, but one of the parts of The Bell Jar you were particularly obsessed with was Esther Greenwood’s intricate machinations to rid herself of her virginity. You obsessively read and reread the account of her semi-sordid, borderline-abject interlude with Irwin, the math major, with riveted fascination. And because your virginity was still technically intact, despite the fact that your submarine was sunk, you decided you were going to pull an Esther Greenwood and go on a mission to liberate yourself from the false and unfair moralities of your virginity.
* * *
An opportunity eventually presented itself in the form of the first-chair cellist from your high school orchestra. As an added bonus, having witnessed the first-chair cellist spin a donut in the high school parking lot prior to an out-of-town orchestra trip, your parents found the first-chair cellist unspeakably loathsome—so much so, they forbade you from ever riding in his car.
It’s true, the first-chair cellist was, in fact, a complete jackass: a misogynistic born-again Christian with a gun fetish. But your parents didn’t know any of this. All they knew about was the donut. Which they found disrespectful.
Your father, in particular, liked to shame you for being a crappy feminist anytime you did something silly, frivolous, or vain, but years later, you’d marvel at your parents’ blatant sexism: all the girlfriends they prohibited you from spending time with because they said they were too “boy crazy” and sure to demonstrate “bad judgment,” or the ways in which they wouldn’t allow you to go somewhere by yourself, but would give you permission to go with a boyfriend. What did your parents imagine was the price of that freedom? Anyways.
* * *
You were still fourteen, though, and not allowed to go much of anywhere with anyone, during the height of your Bell Jar obsession. What you discovered, though, was that your parents weren’t comfortable saying no when it came to spending time with the sons of their friends or colleagues. A loophole! Which you learned to exploit. And because it afforded you an escape from your parents’ house, where you existed as an unhappy paradox of crappy feminist/sunk submarine, you ended up spending a lot of time drinking coffee with two born again Christians named PeeJay and Peter. PeeJay was the son of one of your parents’ widowed friends.
At the time, it seemed odd to you that even though PeeJay was in college, so many of PeeJay’s friends were musicians from your high school, including the first chair cellist. Odder still was the fact that PeeJay’s friend Peter, who was also in college, also a born again Christian, was engaged to your 15-year-old friend from music camp, Nancy. In retrospect, you have no idea why your parents, who weren’t at all religious (and who, in fact, denounced anybody who so much as even went to church as being a religious crackpot), didn’t find PeeJay and Peter unacceptably creepy.
(There was another, similar loophole when you were a senior, involving Ben, the son of your father’s department chair. Also inexplicable, because never mind donuts, while he was still in high school, Ben had been in a legendary drunk driving accident—flipping his car over the bridge next to the Gibson’s Discount Center. Ben broke his back in the accident and almost died.
Ben had his own apartment in his parents’ basement, where you spent a lot of time with your blue jeans down around your ankles, Led Zeppelin on the stereo, while he ate you out. His kisses tasted like Marlboro Reds and weed. You had a not-so-vague suspicion that the reason he spent so much time at the high school, despite having already graduated, was because he was selling pot to high school students. Still, unlike the first-chair cellist, Ben was—while maybe not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree—goofy, open-hearted, sweet.)
* * *
So, anyways. After a lot of group coffee dates with PeeJay and Peter, you began accepting rides home from the first-chair cellist following after-school orchestra rehearsals. You asked him to drop you off at the top of the hill from where you lived so your parents wouldn’t know you’d been riding in his car. Sometimes you made out a little first. You usually let the first-chair cellist make the first move, although he always ended up blaming you for the make-out sessions. Afterwards, he’d say that making out should only lead to marriage, and that he didn’t want to marry you.
“I don’t want to marry you, either,” you’d tell him. “I don’t want to get married at all,” you’d sometimes add, which he seemed to find shocking.
Soon, the first-chair cellist began inviting you over to his house, which was across the street from the high school, during lunch period. His parents both worked, and the house was always empty. He’d take you to his messy room, which was bewilderingly arrayed with posters of Farrah Fawcett, a doe-eyed velvet Jesus, ham radio equipment, and back issues of Guns-n-Ammo.
It wasn’t so much that you liked the first-chair cellist, it’s that you found him curious. You were curious about what boys were like in the small mountain town where you grew up, and he seemed to be what a lot of boys—although obviously not all—were like.
On the day you had sex with the first-chair cellist in his messy bedroom in his empty house across the street from the high school, it wasn’t so much that you planned to have sex with him, as that the conditions seemed optimal, per The Bell Jar. Opportunity: check. Squalor: check. Speed: check. Bonus points for discomfort: check, check, check.
All throughout that afternoon and night after having squalid, fast, uncomfortable sex with the first-chair-cellist, you carried around a smug sense of having somehow broken out of the airless bubble of your bell jar, your toxic hamster ball. You felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. As if you’d finally found a loophole! Into some tiny hostage crawlspace to wriggle in and bore through—bringing you that much closer to a glowing red EXIT sign in the dark.
* * *
The next day you weren’t even a little bit surprised when the first-chair cellist informed you that what you’d done was wrong, that it was a sin. He told you that if you got pregnant, he wasn’t going to marry you. You reminded him you were only fourteen and couldn’t get married even if you wanted to, which you didn’t. This just seemed to make him more panicky. He said if you got pregnant, he was going to run away and join the army. You reminded him that you’d used a condom, which you had. You’d provided the condom, in fact, having stolen it from your father’s nightstand while your parents were out grocery shopping. You’d been carrying it around with you everywhere you went, in case an opportunity to rid yourself of your virginity arose—a fact which the first-chair-cellist misconstrued as being indicative of both sinful premeditation and vast sexual experience on your part.
Because you wanted the first-chair cellist to stop talking to you, you pulled out some prescription painkillers from your handbag. You showed him the vial of pills. For some reason, you weren’t even sure why, you’d taken them from the back of your parents’ medicine closet that morning. They’d been prescribed to you when your impacted wisdom teeth had been taken out. “Yeah,” you said casually, even though it wasn’t true, “I’ve been kind of totally messed up on these.”
You enjoyed watching him go silent.
“I didn’t know you were on drugs,” he said. “You’re really screwed up,” he added. “I don’t think I can help you.”
“I wasn’t asking you to,” you said.
Later that night, before you went to bed, you locked your bedroom door, then swallowed down all of the pills, one by one, with a can of Tab.
* * *
You woke up late the next morning—literally, as if from the dead—to your mother pounding on your bedroom door. She was angry because you were forbidden to lock your bedroom door, and because you’d slept through your 4:00 a.m. piano practice.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
“I feel sick,” you mumbled, and it was true. Your ears were ringing and your head hurt. You felt as if the simple act of speaking entailed fighting your way through a swaddling of heavy, woolen mummy blankets.
As you began to come to, your first thought was that the feeling you were having was disappointment, but then you realized it wasn’t disappointment. It was something much more oxygenated and complex. Something weirdly powerful and full of a strange, crackly kind of rage.
You felt like someone had cracked open an air vent, like you could breathe again. Like you’d been fired into life and had managed to break the sound barrier. Like you’d maybe even broken through the atmosphere and orbited the earth once or twice. So what if you’d come crashing back down into the ocean—space capsule ablaze and in flames?
Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of four volumes of poetry: Dandarians (Milkweed, Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). A fifth volume, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, is forthcoming from Milkweed in 2018. She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The current South Dakota State Poet Laureate, Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review.