When one Friday after girls’ curfew I heard an excitement of feet in the corridor I braced myself for another folkway. A panty raid perhaps? My mother had told me about those, another reason besides auto accidents to own good underwear. But there was singing now, coming closer – “Where oh where is Mitzi Morris? Way up high!” Carrie burst through the door with a crowd of upperclassmen, who without a word scrambled onto her desk and hung out the top of our window, just over the front doors.
“What is it?” I asked Scotty Frazier, a sophomore who lived across the hall. Her hair was still bleached from a summer’s sailing.
“Mitzi’s pinned,” she said, pulling me nearer the window with a big-sisterly arm. “Shhh. The boys are going to sing. It’s a Theta pinning. They’re the best; you’re lucky this is your first.”
Down on the cool grass, young men in chinos and loafers drifted towards the steps, crew cuts glinting in the floodlights. They were undeniably pretty, those college boys, and Scotty was right, they could sing. Their songs, golden and husky with longing, rose to the window, pleading for gentle girls who would worship them all their days. On this night I heard for the first time the solo that moved every bosom at Aubrey College to aspiration or despair: “I love a quiet girl … Warm as sunlight, soft as snow.” A comforting girl, a clairvoyant girl – “She sees, she knows.”
“Those are not quiet girls,” I said to Carrie afterwards. “Those are girls who have already taught us 37 synonyms for throwing up.”
“I don’t care,” Carrie said with sudden fierceness. “I can be like them. I’ll get pinned before I’m twenty, you wait and see, and I’m getting a rich man.”
“Whether you love him or not?” I asked.
“I’ll love him,” she said between her teeth. “Mitzi’s house has six bathrooms.” Narrowing her green eyes she hitched up her skirt and danced around the room singing, “Jesus keeps his money in the Chase Manhattan Bank, Jesus saves Jesus saves Jesus saves!”
I was halfway scandalized and halfway amused, but mostly embarrassed that Carrie had heard of the Chase Manhattan Bank and I hadn’t. “Where’d you learn that?” I asked.
“Oh, everybody knows that,” she said, tilting her chin up like Mitzi.
If I had supposed Carrie’s vow to be a passing impulse, I was wrong. Inside our closet door, she taped a chart of eligible men subdivided by fraternities, little boxes waiting for scores in such categories as wealth, looks, manners, humor, brains. A check in the last box, “beast,” meant that a candidate was better dropped unless very rich indeed. She went about dating and chart keeping with cold-blooded intensity, her calendar cross-hatched with engagements. I soon looked forward to her coming in and grading the latest date, and would put aside Milton or Mill to watch her entrance. “Beast!” she might cry, tearing off her clothes as she raced around the room looking for her pen. Or she might stroll in like a bored debutante, to report, “Amusing, but lacks polish,” or she might come in as the Carrie I knew, thumbs up and grinning at a hot prospect.
We both understood that this shopping of hers was risky, ramping up the perils of the courtship games we’d been coached to play. Those shining, melodious boys didn’t just want a quiet girl, they wanted snatch, they wanted pussy, they wanted to run through the night and howl at the moon. In the spring the Sigmas got out their big fishing net and immobilized girls in front of the Men’s Union, rolling them until they were hysterical and stained with grasses. Walking down fraternity row to the bookstore was hazardous as both the Alphas and the Epsilons threw water by the bucketful out of their upper windows onto passing females. The falling water struck a blow surprising in its weight; the cling of wet fabric violated the privacy of our bodies.
There were less metaphoric dangers as well. One girl on our floor went home pregnant, and the terrified whisper was that he hadn’t even had it in her: the fierce, ambitious, high-jumping sperm had undone her. Hard not to be superstitious in the face of news like that, hard not to imagine sperm as tiny frat boys, jocular but ruthless; or, conversely, frat boys as wily, crew-cut sperm past whom we dashed, hiding our eggs as well as we could.
Carrie was braving the dangers, though. And if she wasn’t quite like those tanned girls from six-bathroom houses, she was working so hard to pass that they forgave her. Their friendliness was not a ruse; life had nurtured them in kindness. She would be offered, and take, a second-semester bid from a sorority, though she had once laughed with me about the foolishness at the rushing teas.
As for me, I spent the fall waffling between lives. Couldn’t I, like Carrie, aspire to be someone’s Quiet Girl? I too had friends among the clean and knitting. The position they occupied in college I had, on a more humble plane, occupied in high school. I might muster the energy to catch up and start again. My clothes were okay. The silliness, though, would be hard to manage.
But I was lured at the same time by the songs of bohemia; I had signed up to learn backstage skills with the drama club. There boys and girls hunkered down together and plunged their hands into rusty buckets of set paint, rubbing it between their fingers to assess glue content with the casual skill of my grandmother tapping bread for doneness. They made witty allusions without smiling and wore work shirts smeared with grease paint (Fair Female, Sallow Old Man). They feigned inscrutability.
A black-haired senior called Lot spent his idle moments sitting on a stack of risers with a guitar, practicing, singing under his breath. The mysterious image of his first line, which I heard as “Like a rose upon the shore, Hallelujah,” got into my head and seemed to me, after a while, to be about these people and yes, about me. Wasn’t I like a rose upon the shore myself? Transplanted? Out of place? On the edge of the unknown? Sometimes the others would join in. This song was as familiar to all of them as knitting patterns to Carrie’s new friends. “The River Jordan is muddy and wide,” they harmonized. “Milk and honey on the other side.” Better this promise, surely, than Jesus handing in his deposit slip at the Chase Manhattan Bank. I had supposed that I must be a Quiet Girl, well or ill, not dreaming of an end run around the whole field.
“Those people are weird and grungy,” warned Carrie. “You won’t get anywhere hanging around with the likes of them.”
I knew they were weird – it was part of their attraction. As for getting anywhere, I thought if I could navigate that wide river I would probably like the other side better than Scarsdale.
“They’re okay,” I said. “You just don’t know them”
“None of the girls are even pretty,” Carrie objected, painting her nails a second coat of Tidewater Rose.
“Felicity Hale is very pretty,” I said. “She’s been engaged twice.”
“Felicity Hale is just an actress,” said Carrie, though I couldn’t see how that disqualified her. “Cute, at best, if you don’t mind freckles.”
We didn’t mind freckles – I was now thinking “we” – and found Felicity’s charm and piquancy far more alluring than the soft nursery pinkness extolled in pinning songs. I adored this new, free life and bought a black jersey and some tight purple pants with little green Egyptians, suitable for cast parties, where everyone necked in a spirit of glad democracy.
One day, of course, I made out the real words to Lot’s song, not a mysterious rose upon the shore after all, only “Michael, row the boat ashore.” By then it didn’t matter. I was already on the other side, replete with milk and honey, crying Hallelujah every day of my life for my deliverance. I hadn’t understood before how convention could slap you flat with its weight, like a bucket of water thrown from fraternity row.
Once the sorting was over and we’d settled into our right places, Carrie and I stopped being edgy. Only the choosing had seemed adversarial. Girls in dorms, after all, kept the same hours, washed in the same basins, laughed at the same jokes. And there were other bridges across the divide. Many of us longed for, indeed lusted after, our male professors. They had already solidified; their features had definition. With them there would be no suspense, no changing of life course, no surprise at what faces would emerge from the matrix of undergraduate flesh. Moreover, they didn‘t seem to want quiet girls. They preferred us to say things: critical thinking, wit, even a bit of cheekiness was desirable. From the safe distance of their podiums, waggling their eyebrows, flirting, they cried to us, “Come, Madam, come! All rest my powers defie! Until I labour, I in labour lie!” And we understood the nuances of that image, for they had tutored us in six centuries of bawdry. We rose to it chirping. “Intellectual orgasms,” said Felicity. At their direction we pursued phallic images through the ages, so much more civilized than being pursued through parking lots by the organs of our peers, which after all were only dicks, not phalluses. Did we believe on some level that our professors had metaphors in their own trousers? Possibly. “Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee!” they vowed. “Think of me, Sweet, when alone!” they begged. And indeed we did. They were our Mr. Rochesters, seasoned men and powerful. Were they perhaps attractively vulnerable as well? Could there come a day when they would need us? How Jane Eyre’s line resonated! – “Reader, I married him.”
There were annual occasions, too, like Winter Carnival, that brought our disparate social worlds together, though not, in fact, socially. Winter Carnival saw the production not only of fraternity and sorority snow sculptures but of some light though worthy piece of drama that often attracted into its cast people people with whom we did not ordinarily mingle and who disarmed us with their talent. Through all the weeks of rehearsal we would work together with a kind of delicate rapprochement like the cautious lifting of the heart that happens when a strange animal comes to be petted. After the play the alliance was over, though we sometimes smiled and waved regretfully when we passed each other on campus.
In the winter of my Junior year, long after Carrie and I had gone our ways, the drama club did Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent, the tale of a Roman widow who decides not to die of grief in her husband’s tomb after all, and Mitzi’s roommate Jodi played the widow’s servant who bursts from the tomb with the grand cry, “Ye gods, what a moon!” The theme of that Carnival was Fairy Tales, and though we made an annual point of ignoring the theme, we liked to think that Phoenix dealt with some of the same material (confinement, awakening, escape) in a less hackneyed way.
Each day as I crossed campus to work on the Roman tomb, I passed the sorority girls building snow sculptures of outsize female figures waiting for their princes – Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty. That was what “fairy tale” had cued for the girls – the prospect of a happy ending, a romantic rescue. They were building themselves.
The boys, too, were building themselves, but not as the Princes Charming for whom the snow girls were waiting. Fraternity row exuded an air of misrule, Carnival with a more authentic flavor. In front of each house stood a stocky, blunt-headed, neckless dwarf, just humanoid enough to get away with it, just Disney enough for irony: their names stood before them in raised snow letters – Humpy, Horny, Cod.
“I think Snow White’s stepmother was overanxious,” I told Felicity as we passed that heroine’s bulbous face. Sleeping Beauty, though, promised to be a triumph. She lay on her high couch with her virginal cheek against an up-flung arm, features clear as a looking glass, while her clothes grew daily more elaborate, iced and layered. We had begun stopping by the lacrosse field to admire her new buttons and ribbons, the classical drape of her skirt. Her makers were pleased and chatty.
The judges, who gave her, inevitably, first prize, bypassed the priapic dwarfs with little shudders and gave the boys’ prize to the Independents’ Frog Prince. Maybe the dwarf makers were mad about that, or just full of testosterone and the phase of the moon; maybe they were enraged by Sleeping Beauty herself, a quiet girl without warmth, a girl whose snow was not soft at all but shielded with ice; or maybe they would have banged anything that couldn’t get up. Coming back from class the week after Carnival, I saw a dozen girls around her snowy couch, pointing and waving their arms. I edged towards them cautiously. It might be none of my business, now that Carnival was through. But a dorm neighbor trotted over and pulled me back by my sleeve to show me the cracked ice around the hips, the smudge of wool fibers.
“What is it?” I asked. The marks made no sense to me.
“Hump marks!” said Jodi, outraged. “See where he had his knees? Somebody’s been at her!”
“Gosh,” I said, impressed by the no-name sin, “What for?”
“Who the hell knows?” growled one of the girls. “Animals!”
“Beasts,” I agreed, remembering Carrie’s chart.
What could we do? We were locked in at ten; they were creatures of the night. Each morning more girls gathered to observe with rage Sleeping Beauty’s violation. Over the weekend other changes began. Breasts that had once been delicate as her face grew by nightly accruals into vulgar white cannon balls. I saw one girl raise her hand to knock them off, hesitate, and cross her arms over her chest. Beauty’s crotch was changing contour, too, now that the ice had been breached: the flat shield of her clothing was rubbed and molded until her skirt clung to her shape as though she’d been drenched.
Females looked with suspicion at the males beside them in class: What have you done in the dark? There were rumors of break-ups and the handing back of pins, including Carrie’s. When I looked her up and asked her about it, she could only say that she’d changed her mind, she wasn’t ready. One senior English major tried to explain to her boyfriend that she didn’t object to him but had suddenly developed an aversion to the phrase “being pinned.” Our male professors no longer met our eyes or enticed us with imagery.
Sleeping Beauty, the ultimate Quiet Girl, was never long out of our thoughts. She impressed her silence on us too. What the boys did at night we had either to acknowledge aloud during the day, which seemed compromising, or to ignore, which was hard to do and seemed to drive them on. Perhaps there had been some point, earlier, when we could have knocked the sculpture down and been done with it, but that point seemed past. For any of us to break up Sleeping Beauty now would be self-injury.
On Friday morning of that long week Beauty was pinned to her bier by a toilet plunger, handle through the genitals. A sign wired to the cup said “Wake Up, Baby!” The word at lunch was that Screaming Dot, the oldest and most fearsome of the gym teachers, had pulled it out and thrown it into the woods, that she’d been crying when she did it. At any rate it was gone, and someone had been nurturing enough to pack the wound with snow.
Chapelgoers were the first to spread the Sunday morning news. They marched grimly back to the dorms in their church hats and passed among the breakfast eaters like mildew, blighting the eggs with their murmurs of ritual defilement. Coats over pajamas, we crowded out to see, and stood speechless before the final insult: there she lay crisscrossed and arabesqued with an illegible but clearly hostile yellow message about our futures, about what the boys intended in the ever after. Like the Quiet Girls of whom they had sung – and yet not like – we saw, we knew. For this was not the work of some passing thug, a solitary sicko, a random pervert. It had required a dozen bladders, fifteen, twenty – consensus.
That day there was no idle chatter. Girls stalked, cloaked in silent fury, to the library, where they studied fiercely. They averted their eyes from the lacrosse field and tightened their jaws. They moved in packs. When night fell they watched out the windows.
At around two in the morning I felt a restlessness in the corridors and found myself putting on my coat. Though female students were not allowed out at night, not a housemother stirred to stop us when we propped open the outer door. Silent women passed from all their dorms to the lacrosse field. We must have looked like an old film, perhaps fifty dark figures working soundlessly against the shining white ground.
Reader, we buried her. Without discussion we scooped and rolled the snow from Beauty’s field, all of it, laid it higher and wider over that silent sleeper, we who were awake. Long before the sky began to lighten, the winter grass was bare except for one great white heap. Shapeless. Featureless. Grotesque mammaries gone back to their elements, snow to snow, ice to ice. Lost in that tumulus the last yellow scribbles unformed themselves, powerless as dog piss.
“Ye gods,” Mitzi Morris shouted as we raced back to our beds, “What a moon!”
Author's CommentBehind the sexually abused snow sculpture that dramatizes the plight of quiet girls in 1960 lies another snow sculpture, also 1960, even more broadly horrific: while my friends and I were grieving the death by suicide of a fellow student whom we loved, a snow bust of Robert Frost, perhaps eight feet high, was starting to melt beside the path we took to our classes, softening through all the stages of human decay. We too found knocking it down impossible.