The summer I was seventeen I would climb down from my third floor apartment onto the roof of the neighbouring fruit-and-vegetable store to go dancing. I’d wear my sexiest summer dress, a little black number with a corset in the back, and do a series of flips, spins and cartwheels on the sticky tar.
The roof also happened to be even with the second-floor windows of the fire station across the street. The firemen would gather at the windows to watch me. They lived together at the station in fourteen-day shifts, and the atmosphere there was like a heavily pressurized can of sexual tension, sealed with blue serge. But then again, it was summer in Montreal—everyone was on the make. Or so it seemed.
I was at the stage where I innocently but desperately needed male attention, and the combination attracted all kinds of weirdos. Another one of my neighbours—a fat, hairy welfare bum—liked to spend days stretched out in a ragged La-Z-Boy with a beer in his paw, watching me. One day as I was prancing around on my roof he was expressing his approval the best way he knew how—by standing on his roof in his off-white undershirt and paisley boxer shorts, pumping away at his little dick. I was thrilled, offended, attracted and repelled all at once.
My mother’s reaction was less nuanced. Enraged, she called the police. For my own survival I had to feign horror and a kind of bland innocence. (“What’s he doing, Mom?”) That was the end of rooftop interpretive dancing for a little while.
My mother and I had the misfortune of hitting hormonal milestones at the same time. She was experiencing menopause while I was being rocked by the last contractions of puberty. Other girls I knew had figured out their developing bodies a long time ago. While I had the usual schoolgirl crushes up to then, I hadn’t felt that violent, nameless hunger that is sexual frustration. I only knew I was suddenly, inexorably drawn to the firemen next door, who used to spill out onto the sidewalk on hot summer nights, waiting laconically for tragedy to strike. I used to walk over to read them my depressing poetry, translating it into halting French; I was a sitting duck, waiting to be plucked. If my mother had been able to think of the opposite sex with anything other than fear and horror, I might have been able to talk to her about boys, and she might have been able to talk to me about men. Mom’s “sex talk” consisted of a stilted speech on the pleasures of intercourse, adding for balance that while she herself had never enjoyed it, there were some who said it wasn’t all bad.
Her only other approach to puberty was to hand me books with goofy, well-meaning titles like What Is Happening to Me? Another book (about reproduction) showed a yellow male canary riding a female, wings a-flapping. Very illuminating. But nothing explained why I couldn’t sleep at night; why the heat was driving me nuts; why I was so fascinated with my body. The only book that conceivably could have helped would have been a graphic novel called Why Am I Driven to Dancing on a Roof in a Skimpy Black Flamenco Dress in Broad Daylight and a High Wind?
So there was a wall there but, like in most families, until it showed itself you didn’t notice it. My mother was a baby boomer, born the middle child in a desperately unhappy Jewish family in Missouri. She came of age during the fifties in the American South, watching Joseph McCarthy and Martin Luther King duke it out on black and white television. She had few friends. She was hyperintelligent, socially isolated and utterly smothered by my grandparents’ bitter marriage. She escaped to Canada as a young married woman, but brought her fear of intimacy and her prudery with her. Over time, she channelled both into a kind of political stance, where any form of communication with males was harmful. And then, just when her sexual imperative was ebbing away, her daughter started dancing like a honeybee on the neighbouring roof. If puberty was a drag, I can just imagine menopause. My mother was always examining her face in the mirror, spreading her cheeks back towards her ears until her eyes bulged, and pulling her forehead back towards her scalp so the new lines disappeared—over and over again—while I was in my room trying to entice the cat into licking one of my nipples to see if it would feel good.
My mother was repressed and self-obsessed, but she wasn’t stupid. She could see something was driving me. So she turned to McCarthyism’s old standbys: fearmongering, blackmail and repression. She tried to extract a promise of celibacy from me, frightened me with rape stories, hissed at every man who gave me a sidelong look on the street, bought blinds and thick curtains for every room in the house. She set up a barrier to the outside world and tried to lock me inside. It was totally counterproductive and drove me outside to read even more bad poetry to firemen. Paranoia takes a lot of sustained effort, though, and eventually Mom got tired of it. So she formulated another plan. While I would have happily slept “tuchus aloft” well into the afternoon, my mother was a morning person, and even on weekends woke up inspired to change the world (or at least the curtains) somewhere around six a.m. She would putz around the house until seven and by eight it was time for me to listen to her in all her glorious verbiage. She would pad into my room in her nightgown, sit on the edge of my bed and launch a thousand ships. She would hop from one topic to another with virtually no link between, and I would fitfully sleep on, dreaming of newspaper obituaries, department store sales, rude bus drivers, makeover plans for the house, the bitch landlady downstairs, intended career shifts, the state of the economy, Midwestern childhood memories and breakfast plans. I was helpless to stop her. Mercifully, she would just run out of wind.
One morning my mother woke me early and ushered me into our grey, unheated “guest” room. (It goes without saying we never had any guests.) She sat opposite me in a wooden rocking chair that screeched with every movement. She began, inexplicably and without preamble, to detail her sexual failures. She spoke in a singsong, “oh, how painful a topic sex is for me” voice. She traced the beginnings of her battles with depression, then listed with confessional relish every nasty encounter with men and every mistaken therapeutic diagnosis she’d ever had. She trotted out my grandfather and my father and made them dance, like puppets in an unending play about marital misery. Finally, after hammering me into the ground with the weight of all these familial disasters, she got to her point: masturbation. She wanted me to do it. She brought out a dusty white cardboard box and handed me a vibrator that, had it contained all the proper pieces, could conceivably have possessed historical value for the Antiques Road Show. I sat there, mouth agape, wishing I could fold inward like origami and disappear into a crack in the floor.
“I have brought you a vibrator,” Mom said. “I used it a few times, but it hurt me too much. Marta gave it to me a few years ago.”
Marta was a three-hundred-pound German lady and mother of two who lived down the street from us more than seven years prior. So not only was it old, it was third-hand. The vibrator looked like a small pocket hairdryer with an empty nozzle at the top for a rubber head. Two such applicators waited in the case: one looked like a strawberry, the other an octopus. The instruction manual featured sketches of a naked, long-haired and bearded man holding hands with a woman whose hair was parted down the middle. They both had hairy pits.
“I don’t want you to be dependent on a man for sexual pleasure,” my mother said. “You’ve got to learn to pleasure yourself.”
Even if I had wanted to, the electric cord was ridiculously short—about the length of a toaster’s. I would have had to sit right next to the electrical outlet with my legs half up the wall just to use the thing at all. Worst of all, in the case was a long, empty, phallus-shaped cavity. There once was a dildo here; now it was missing. Maybe it was still in Marta. I remember saying “you’re kidding, right?” I even had the presence of mind to laugh a little bit. But Mom pushed me into my room on strict orders not to come out until I had learned how. I did nothing of the kind; I briefly considered jumping out the window. I hid the vibrator under my bed, where it seemed to give off a sickly heat.
But my mother was dogged. I would come home from school to find the vibrator box open on my bed, the hippie couple staring up mutely at me as if begging for release from the sixties. I would shut the box tight and hide it somewhere in our apartment. The next day it would be back, opened on my desk. Once, I hid it in a closet underneath a carpet covered in cat shit. She found it, and left it open on my bed the next day. She seemed to see herself as a wily guerilla fighter on a mission to relieve me from the burden of dependence on men. For months after that morning, a ferocious battle of enforced non-masturbation ensued. I was not going to touch myself, not if my life depended on it. Exactly contrary to my mother’s wishes, I was going to find a man to have sex with. (I broke off my relationship with the cat). I moved out that fall, leaving the vibrator behind, as well-hidden as possible. I made a conscious effort to forget about it. I never wanted to see that dusty box or its tainted contents ever again. And, eventually, I did have sex.
In my mother’s defence, she probably read a book that counselled an open discussion of masturbation with your child as an antidote to teenage pregnancy, STDs and world hunger. But something got lost in translation. Forcing a used, thirty-year-old vibrator with missing parts on me was actually an attack on my sexuality and on my capacity to accept and understand it. There may have been some concern and good intentions in there somewhere, but on their way to outward expression they were consumed by her inner monsters.
A few months later on my eighteenth birthday, my mother dropped off the vibrator at the pizza joint I worked at, which was owned by Iranian immigrants. She cleverly concealed it among a few other presents, and I came within centimetres of opening it in front of my new Muslim boss. But by giving it to me unconditionally, she gave me the opportunity to get rid of it once and for all. I took it home and called the Salvation Army. When the pick up arrived, I blithely handed over my unwanted clothes, a few sticks of furniture…and a dusty white box. The Sally Ann seemed a fitting place for a stray vibrator—perhaps the missing dildo was already there, like a lost pet still waiting to be reunited with its owner.