Knockers

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The sun melted into my arms and back as I walked into the darkness of The Rose. I sensed the place never closed and the stink of liquor and cigarettes hit me as soon as I entered. My eyes screwed up in a squint. There was another smell too, which I imagined was the afterlife of sticky sex.

Once an Old World Italian neighborhood, the streets of the North Beach section of San Francisco in the mid-1960s were cluttered with tourists, locals, and Beat wannabes. Dried salamis hung in a shop window next door to a book display of Ginsberg’s Howl and life-size cardboard models of barely clad females placed in doorways. Carol Doda had made the strip famous. She wanted to be in show business and the only way, she said, “was to show your business.” I was about to show mine.

Early afternoon, the bar was mostly empty — just the darkness, the guy who ran the joint, and a couple of customers.

I heard Susan’s voice, “We’re here to try out for dancing.”

The owner pointed to the elevated platform at the front of the room. His olive complected face shone. “Go behind the curtains, girls, take your clothes off and come out on to the stage.” He was dressed in brown — wearing rumpled slacks of a not-so-good material and a shirt that looked faded and dusty. I knew about material because my father used to be in the clothing business.

We had been particular about the undies we wore for the audition, choosing the laciest ones we owned. This was before the advent of thongs.

“Susan, do you think he’s going to give us pasties? Maybe little hearts, or twinkling stars?” I looked down at my bare breasts.

“I don’t have a clue. Let’s get this over with. Thank God there’s almost no one here.”

“Girls! Girls! Go back and take your panties off. Come on, let’s get going. And one of you at a time. Whaddya think, you’re going to be going out there together? No.”

Panties too? What was I doing? I started to giggle — like a school girl seated at the back of the bus. It was nerves. Gasping for air, my eyes watered. I sucked in my breath.

Hiding behind the curtain, I watched Susan dance. I had visions of the cannoli I’d eat when we got out of there — the Italian pasticcerias in North Beach served them fattened with chocolate chip studded cream — the last thing I wanted to do was go up on that stage. Only a year earlier, I was wearing Carters cotton underpants — white. I had suffered, breast-less, late into my teen years and now it would take more than breasts for me to feel okay. I was trying to love myself, love the world — love and sex. Painless and easy.

Sex and love at Boston University, where I had been a sophomore, had nothing to do with each other. In May 1967, the lyrics “If you’re going to San Francisco…” gripped me, along with much of the world, and I fantasized about my new life. As I belted out the lyrics accompanying Scott McKenzie, my hands clutched in front of my heart, I knew that the mood, the dream, and the freedom would be mine.

Off I flew to San Francisco — landing in the middle of the Summer of Love — a never-ending Be-In, eager for my conversion to unfold. I slept, smoked, and sexed in the Haight with Gene, a Korean War veteran, who I met before he quit his community college teaching job and moved out to California, grew his hair and a beard, lost what looked like thirty pounds, and began drawling his words — likely the result of a steady infusion of weed, hash, or whatever else was available. Struggling to keep up with Gene, I smoked enough hash to watch a pencil turn into a rose, while lying on the mattress that took up most of the floor space and was my bed. I disappeared into the bathroom one night and pondered my face in the mirror — did I look the same as I did a week ago?

Afternoons, after Gene had slept off the previous night, we’d head out to Golden Gate Park. Watching the girls who were half-naked, dancing — ecstatically, it seemed to me — with their eyes closed, their arms airborne and waving, Gene encouraged me: “Hey, babe, just let go. Let the feelings fill you.” The drums and guitars heightened with enthusiasm as the afternoon whirled on, and his arms wrapped around me, we swayed in rhythm to the pulsing day.

At City Lights Book Store, I hoped I looked native. Reading Diane Di Prima — she let go of everything (beginnings and endings and expectations) — I learned that there was nothing you couldn’t write about, even Oreo cookies: “i remember the winter the january i ate nothing but oreos.” Did that mean I could write about Oreos? Janis Joplin’s wrenching gravelly voice flung me around the Fillmore West, like her strands of beads engaged in a frantic dance. I was after what the song promised — the loving that was carefree. I would also become carefree. Finally.

Six months later, the Summer of Love was over. Twenty-two years old, I was an uncommitted student at the University of California, Berkeley, with tits and ass — most days, not bothering to wear a bra. And now I was behind a curtain auditioning to dance — naked. Really? No one was making me do this. Would this mean I was as sexually free as men? If topless dancing was all about sexual freedom, what was the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — because I was self-conscious about my body being seen by strangers? Or because the idea of dancing for men sickened me? I didn’t know which would be worse, to be or not to be chosen. Outside, the neon lights of Broadway flashed on and off, on and off, a technicolor spasm.

Susan, dancing, looked like one big vibration. She was more square than round, and she had no hips. Her breasts were fuller than normal because she was pregnant, but her belly was barely swollen, the secret well hidden. She’d arrived in California pregnant, after visiting her boyfriend before leaving the east coast.

“How are you going to take care of a baby?”

“I’ll figure it out, Nancy. I’m not having an abortion.”

She can’t even take care of a dog, I thought. We had each gotten puppies and her’s, “free” to run outside, was hit by a car and killed.

Imagining life with Susan and her baby, I pictured being seated three rows in front of a screaming infant on an airplane, with no end to the flight. I hadn’t spent much time with babies — they weren’t part of my life plan, not then.

The song, Wilson Pickett singing Mustang Sally, which seemed to throb through Susan’s arms and legs, was ending. You can’t back down now.

I stepped onto the stage, flashing to when I was a freshman in college, nights spent dancing to the same music — the voices of Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett, The Temptations. Those days, I was even more awkward with my body. Now, I tried to forget that anyone was watching, including myself. That was the problem — I was always there. The smell of cigarettes and alcohol sank into my skin. And male sweat. That stench of aftershave turned acrid when mixed with perspiration and polyester — the patrons of The Rose wore polyester. I was relieved that there were only two men out there other than the owner. Through the dim lighting, they looked pasty and their stomachs folded over their beltlines. Their eyes followed me and I swallowed a grimace. I wondered if these men ever ogled their daughters’ breasts that way. I wondered if my father had ever been in one of these places.

***

I was sixteen years old, in the kitchen talking to my mother. A typical New York City apartment kitchen: the appliances lined up along one wall, and opposite that wall were cabinets and a counter that ran the length of the room, which could be traversed in less than five steps. There was room for only one person to stand between the two walls at any point. My mother was cooking dinner. She was in the clothes she wore to work — the straight skirt that reached mid-calf, nylon stockings and clunky oxfords — not because they were stylish but because she said she had lousy feet. Her dowager’s hump was becoming more pronounced, I noticed. From the open window, you could hear sounds from other kitchens across the way — pots clanking against each other, water running, and occasionally, muffled voices.

“Nan, dear, why don’t you set the table, so we’ll be ready to eat when your father gets home.”

“Move over.” She was standing in front of the drawer that held the everyday flatware. We never used the real stuff, silver, which my mother kept in a purple, velvet lined wooden box she had inherited from her mother. “So it won’t tarnish,” she had told me.

I heard the elevator stop on our floor. My father was home. The apartment door opened and I knew he was taking off his fedora and placing it on one of the hat stands in the foyer closet. Next, he would come into the kitchen and pour himself a drink.

It had been years since I rushed to meet him, to be swooped into his arms. When I was five and six and seven, we were in love, each of us perfect in the other’s eyes. My father, the sabra. I read the book Exodus five times and I saw the movie three times. My father and Paul Newman were inseparable. In eighth grade, my friends gave me a birthday present of Israeli/Paul Newman findings. Hebrew newspapers, articles about Paul as Ari Ben Canaan. Son of a Lion. I ached to be the brave woman, the sabra, by his side. By my father’s side. I became a Zionist, holding onto my father for as long as I could, believing in him, believing in the boy who was smart enough not to be killed by his enemies growing up in Palestine, who was brave enough to come cross the Atlantic by himself when he was sixteen years old to start his new life. My father the sabra. My father, whose hands were powerful and gentle, whose touch was firm and soothing, and whose hug lifted me off my feet, capturing me in the draft of cool air he brought in from the street, his face warm and his lips against my cheek. My father who laughed a big laugh, who loved whole heartedly, who angered rarely but fiercely, and who drank his bourbon neat – the same as I do.

His hand was like a glove over mine when we took walks on the weekend, neither of us in a hurry, because we had the morning and the shop windows to explore. He’d take me to Hebrew school on Sundays and I’d complain about having to carry my books, especially if it was a winter morning, and he’d tell me the story of two brothers, one who refused to carry his books and the other who carried the books for both of them. They walked in the bitter cold and the lazy brother died, because he didn’t have his books to keep him warm. All these years, and I remember that story. “How do you know about this, Daddy?” He never answered me, and it didn’t matter. Those moments were surprising in their permanence in my memory.

Now he made a drink and kissed my mother hello, then turned to me, and stopped. “Mim, would you look at her knockers.”

“Sol!” My mother’s voice was sharp. She didn’t have knockers and I had always been afraid I’d look like her — cursed. But I had breasts. My father just said so. Breasts he noticed. I didn’t flush but I felt myself getting warm. And inside me, I was smiling — I felt happy. How could I feel good about what he said? As much as possible in the narrow space of the kitchen, I stepped back, avoiding his gaze. Looking down at the floor, I studied the squiggles in the linoleum. A man who noticed breasts — my knockers — I never thought about my father that way.

***

Five years later, I was going into show business with my knockers. The music was loud and insistent, probably to entice people into The Rose from the street. I wanted to forget the men who were there. I wanted to let go, let myself shimmy to the sounds of The Temptations crooning The Way You Do the Things You Do. To dance like I was liquid and smooth. To love myself in front of whoever was watching, my hands sliding, snakelike along my body, keeping easy time to the music. I wanted to do “…the way you do the things you do… ah baby…,” luring and alluring.

The stage floor was polished dark brown wood, and scarred with cigarette burns. The overhead lights focused on me, spotting me no matter where I turned. My arms and legs moved too deliberately. Dancing shouldn’t be deliberate. I tried doing a left-step, right-step, and then a three-step shuffle. I relied on my sixth grade dancing lessons — I was good at the cha cha — nothing else. There was a green taffeta dress that rustled like leaves when I moved, which I wore to dance parties — that was the year of green. Along with the white anklets and the black patent leather shoes. Cha cha Cha cha cha. How long I was up there? As long as the song lasted I guess. What I was doing really didn’t matter in the scheme of things, did it? Like having sex with someone I didn’t love.

There were evenings I’d hang out at bars, drinking into the early morning. The best part of these bar nights was the prelude — anticipating the unknown, and the boy would be good to me because he wanted to fuck. It was all about what would happen later. I knew that. When it was casual I didn’t worry so much about whether my body was good enough. Good enough for who? I began keeping count of how many men I slept with — and I tried to remember each of their names.

Then the lumberjack came along. With him, feelings got in the way of casual sex.

One night, I had headed over to my favorite bar, because I didn’t want to sleep alone. I was in search of an artist-type or a biker. The Hells Angels would roar down Market Street and I imagined being on the back of one of their bikes. I imagined being overpowered, taken — even though I wanted it, I would be forced — lying on my back, my eyes shut, and my arms pinned above my head.

I saw him, standing by a table toward the rear of the bar. He was tall and broad, with a scruff of dirty blonde hair not quite shoulder-length, and a beard. I was tall and I wanted a man who covered me, whose weight I could feel settle in. What I noticed most of all though, were his hands. Large but slender, the fingers were long and tapered. Not a biker’s hands. I got up to go to the bathroom, knowing I’d have to brush past him. “Excuse me” I said, touching his arm, as I walked by.

He joined me at the bar and I learned he was a sculptor from Maine, here visiting friends. His right hand reached up and brushed back a haphazard curl that had fallen onto my forehead. Flushing, I ordered another Remy — my standard bar drink those days. He spoke carefully, his voice low and deep, his words unhurried — about his art, about his life in Maine, about his unhappiness in his marriage. While talking, his eyes never left my face. Blue, I thought to myself. So blue. I lived around a fifteen-minute walk from the bar. “Why don’t you come over for a glass of wine?”

Out on the street, away from the protective cover of the dark barroom, it was as if we were meeting for the first time. The streets were quiet, and there was nothing to distract me from the man walking by my side. He’s built like a lumber jack, I thought. Shyness crept over me, which happened when I was attracted to someone, when my heart got involved.

On the stairs to my flat, he reached for me, and pulling me close, his beard brushed my cheek. “Almost there,” I laughed, catching my breath. Before he returned to Maine and to his wife, he drew a portrait of me — and he captured that maverick curl which had fallen over my forehead, the one he fingered that first night in the bar.

Although marriage wasn’t a given anymore for me, there was no roadmap to show me how to do things another way. My heart still needed warming. What I was doing at The Rose had nothing to do with the heart — I knew that. Taking a last glance at the two men seated at tables in the darkened room, both of whom could have been fathers, I rushed off the stage and found my clothes. Susan and I walked over to where the owner was sitting. “All right, girls. You be here tomorrow. Two o’clock.” No employee applications to complete — we had jobs at The Rose.

Back on the street, I turned and looked at Susan. “You don’t think it’s different than sitting at a reception desk? Or bringing coffee to the boss-man?”

“Not really. And I’d rather be doing this, Nance.”

I shook my head. “It seems like prostitution to me.” We were selling ourselves, weren’t we? Susan was the last person who would have been voted most likely to become a prostitute. We didn’t talk about what it might be doing to her—or to me—or to any person naked dancing. This wasn’t the New York City Ballet; this was cheap, even demeaning.

I needed my cannoli.

***

Susan Brady and I had met when freshman at Boston University. She came from coal mining country and her Catholic upbringing was strict and unquestioning — and unforgiving. Her parents had confused Boston University, a large liberal arts school, with Boston College, a Jesuit institution, and life was never the same after that for her family. Two years later, when I decided that I was heading out to San Francisco, Susan informed her mother and father that she was also going. They made a visit up to New York City to tell my parents I was a terrible person — I had ruined their daughter.

They were all in the living room: her mother, whose face was classic Irish like Susan’s, her father with a thicket of white hair; and, my parents. Standing in the entryway, I remained silent, watching and listening. It was hard to believe that I had spent Christmas with them a year ago, that her mother had a present for me—Susan’s Jewish friend—underneath the artificial tree, and I had called them Ma and Pa Brady.

Every so often, after one of Susan’s parents said something nasty about me, my father would jump up from where he was sitting, come over and kiss me.

“My beautiful daughter.” Kiss. “I love you.” Kiss. Or words to that effect. He forgot I was a bad girl. He forgot about when I was sixteen years old, and he chased me down three flights of back stairs of the apartment building where we lived, my mother screaming in the background — I was escaping to Greenwich Village to meet a no-good friend at the café, The Other End. My father jumped into the cab with me.

“MacDougal and West Third Street,” I told the cabby.

“Do you know how lucky you are not to have a daughter like this?” My father was yelling at the driver. “She’s crazy. She belongs in a mental institution.”

“Be careful — your blood pressure. You don’t want to have a heart attack.”

At a red light, I jumped out of the cab and raced toward West Third Street.

“You’re coming home with me right now, young lady.” My father caught up with me and grabbed my arm. I was embarrassed. It wasn’t cool to be chased by your father down MacDougal Street.

“No I’m not. I’m staying here.” I jerked away from him.

When did my parents figure out I was having sex? There’s no way they guessed I lost my virginity while in high school, not to a village person but to a nice Jewish boy, a Columbia student — someone they believed would be good for me to marry. I was tempted to tell them — especially my father, especially when we were fighting — about their favorite boy. “Hey, you know what Pop, you know Richard. Well he was the first one I did it with.” Having sex was good — I didn’t care what they thought. My mother undressed in the dark closet, hours after my father had fallen asleep. For years I listened for sounds other than my father’s snoring — for groans and moans, maybe sighs — from behind their bedroom door. There was nothing.

And Ma and Pa Brady slept in separate bedrooms. Sitting in the living room, they could barely look at me. So much for religion, I thought.

***

It was only a few months after Susan arrived in California that she came up with the idea of topless dancing — and I was showing my knockers to strangers. If Susan could dance, so could I. “Let go,” I told myself. “Isn’t this why you came to California? To let go. To have adventures. Feel the love.” This could make me a more interesting person. Gone was the fantasy of a wedding ceremony that had me in a white gown, walking down the aisle on my father’s arm.

After a while, I didn’t look like I was having a spasm on the stage. Dancing barefoot, the floor felt cool and soothing beneath my feet. If I stared straight ahead of me, there was no one there, just black space — and I felt anonymous. I told myself: swing your hips, girl, left then right, then in a circle. Maybe a suggestion of thrusting. Look like you care about what you are doing. A little more arms, caress the air, your sides. Afternoons could be pretty quiet at The Rose and there were times when the place was empty, but I had to bump and grind in case someone walked by and looked in. I was offering them happiness. What would my father do if he knew? Bye bye princess.

Dancing in the middle of the day was even sadder than dancing at night, when the darkness was seamless between the street and the interior of The Rose.

I worked two days a week. There was no grand event that triggered my quitting. As much as I hated to admit it, my parents supported me, so I didn’t have to dance, and I proved I could do it. One afternoon, maybe four weeks later, walking out of The Rose, I knew I wasn’t going back. Stepping out onto the stage, I was still embarrassed. I felt worse not better about myself. I felt cheap, not liberated. This kind of dancing had nothing to do with freedom or love.

Several months after I left, Susan stopped working, because her secret pregnancy was coming to an end. She had gained maybe ten pounds, and was admitted to San Francisco General Hospital, a ward patient, for a Caesarean delivery at eight months because she was diabetic.

I visited her once after the delivery. Baby Mark was born and died, all at the same time. The green walls of the room smelled like formaldehyde, the way Intro Biology Lab smelled, and I remembered the jars of pinkish-gray specimens that were lined up along the counter showing the different stages of fetal development. It was a city hospital, where the windows were made of glass and chicken wire. Susan was quiet and pale. I didn’t expect that. This was all new to me — a friend having a baby and a dead one at that. My mother had had a dead baby, or rather, one that died not even three weeks old, but this was different.

Susan’s mother came to be with her. “Nancy, he’s going to be with the angels now. The little peanut. You know he weighed just two pounds. You do believe in angels, don’t you, Nancy?”

I knew nothing about angels.

“My poor Susan. I don’t know how she let herself get into this situation.”

I could have explained to her mother all the details, even the fact that the father was also a good Irish Catholic, who Susan hadn’t heard from in months. She called and told him she was pregnant.

I imagine he might have said, “Hey babe, do what you want. You know, what feels good. Okay babe.”

I never asked her how she felt about the way he disappeared. Just like that. Leaving her with the peanut and the sadness.

Susan returned to dancing. She seemed to feel sorry for those men, which I never did. They were at The Rose in the middle of the afternoon watching me switch my butt back and forth, left to right, and they disgusted me. They were lured to the North Beach, probably hoping for a taste of hippie love — their unions sexless like our parents’ marriages.

***

My dancing career had been over when my father decided to visit me in San Francisco without my mother. This was surprising, since aside from their bedtime habits, my parents rarely did things apart. Oh, after he’d stopped working, he’d go down to Wall Street most afternoons and hang around, but other than running errands my mother directed, he stayed at home in his easy chair, or accompanied her wherever. I’ll show him San Francisco, I thought — we’ll take walks and window shop the way we used to. He’ll offer to buy me something special and I’ll say no, because then I’ll feel like I owe him something — his happiness. We might go back and forth like that for a while. Finally, I’ll accept something that’s not so special and I won’t feel compromised. Maybe we could have a good time, a father-daughter time.

He was staying at one of the downtown hotels in San Francisco — a Hilton or a Marriott — and I met him there the afternoon he arrived. We walked. He held my hand. Early June, the day was warm for that time of year. We didn’t stray far from the hotel, saving Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square for the next day. I was going back to my flat to meet Susan, and we both would return to have dinner with my father at the hotel — one of those buffets where silver-covered troughs never emptied of meats, vegetables, potatoes, rolls.

Before leaving, I went upstairs with him to use the bathroom. Hotel bathrooms were luxurious — the small soaps, the miniature shampoos and conditioners — sometimes there was a display of Q-tips and cotton balls. This bathroom had everything, and as I was walking out of it, I pocketed one of the bars of soap.

“I’ll see you later, Pop.”

“Why don’t you stay here at the hotel with me tonight?”

My eyes scanned the room. His suitcase lay open on the hotel luggage rack. The middle of the room was taken up by the only bed, with pillows on top of pillows of various shapes against the wall. I looked at him. “That won’t work. Where would I sleep?”

“I’ll sleep on the floor,” he said.

“That’s ridiculous.”

I went over to where he was standing and kissed him good-bye on his cheek, which was as soft as always — like velvet — and still comforting.

Do I remember it right, that he turned and kissed me on the mouth? I remember a sensation of wetness — his lips were wet. It’s doubtful he meant anything by it, but he was lonely, and I couldn’t help him.

“I’ll see you later, Pop.” Damn it. I wanted to get out of there. I didn’t want to feel sorry for him. Our love was mixed up — sometimes it was the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted, and then there were times I wanted to spit it out, get as far away from my father as I could. He couldn’t make the shift from having a little girl to having a daughter almost grown-up. Especially one like me — I wasn’t the daughter he expected. Once we got past the kissing years we didn’t know how to be with each other. When I was young, he used to sing the lyrics from the song Frank Sinatra wrote for his daughter — “Nancy with the Laughing Face” — If I don’t see her each day, I miss her, Gee, what a thrill each time I kiss her…

Over the next four days, my father and I took walks like we used to, and he wore his fedora — to protect himself from the sun he said — when I suggested that California was more casual than back east. I met him at the hotel — and we’d decide on our destination for the afternoon. One day we headed over to the financial district, because that was where the San Francisco brokerage houses were located, and that was where he felt most at home. Always, we looked in food shops like we did so many years ago. He walked more slowly than I remembered, and we didn’t have a lot to talk about.

“Come home,” he said, before leaving.

***

When I was born, my father thought I was the most beautiful baby in the world. As a little girl he held me in his lap, and enveloped me with love and kisses. He had nicknames for me — bubula, monkey, Nancela. I don’t know why but I hated Nancela. Taking me on walks in the big city where we lived, he held my hand tightly in his own. He wanted to make me happy, and if you asked him, he’d say that he would give me the stars in the sky if he could. He wanted to keep me safe. In no time though, I grew up, leaping from his lap, from his hugs, into a world that seemed precarious. And there was nothing he could do about it.

Yet, my father never left me — not really. The softness of his face after shaving is in my fingertips, and his scent will come up and enfold me like an embrace — spicy and clean — without warning.

Free love, however, let me down — left me with a dead heart. Night times, lying in bed, tucked into the darkness, I’d think about finding real love again, a lumberjack kind of love with someone who would stick around. Sometimes I’d hug myself, stroke my breasts, cupping them in my hands — it was time to repossess them. I was moving on, and they were mine.

 


Credit: JJohanna Jainchill
Credit: Johanna Jainchill

Nancy Jainchill is a psychologist residing and working mainly in upstate New York with her husband and two dogs. She returned to writing after many years and agrees with George Eliot that “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

 

 

 

 

 

Nancy Jainchill

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