Non-Fiction: The Company of Men by Paula Read

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Officially, when we went on a road trip, I got out of the car and walked twenty feet from California to Nevada so he couldn’t be charged with transporting a minor across state lines. We thought this was hilarious.

***

The one good grade I ever got in gym class was for modern dance. My performance to Stevie Wonder’s Superstition prompted the gym teacher to declare, in front of everyone, that I was well on my way to having a terrific career as a go-go dancer. Bearing in mind that this was during the reign of very bouncy girl dancers on American TV variety shows. Being a go-go dancer was a glamorous goal, right up there with the other exotic go-to dreams of late Sixties and early Seventies girls, being a stewardess or a travel guide. If I closed my eyes I could almost picture myself in a flash miniskirt and white patent-leather boots instead of in my striped gym romper and Keds.

I’ve been revisiting this and other moments in the turbulence of the #MeToo movement and the revelations of the Jeffrey Epstein case. Epstein’s death won’t change the fallout of his actions from the standpoint of the girls and women he affected, any more than I can rewrite my own history of being a sexualized pre-teen, nor that of just a couple of years later, entering into a relationship with a much older man.

If girls in cautionary tales like mine are treated as victims, they are just as often portrayed as the engineers of their own demise. Lurid details of how they were seduced to the lair, and what happened there, are rife. The condemnation of the older men is loud and righteous but somehow that doesn’t hinder the prurient pull-asides of the curtain to look at the girls girls girls.

Me, I’m not interested in happened once the girls got to the lair. I know that part already.

I want to know what got them there and how they see themselves now, on the other side. Assuming they made it out.

I was an 11-year-old nerd, the one who tripped over every hurdle, the kid on the outside looking in. I didn’t like my gym teacher, but like a good girl, I tried to impress and learn from her. What she taught me was this: during my two-year sentence under her supervision, moving like a seductive woman was the only activity that ever got me any praise. This lesson stuck.

There’s an idea that people have of themselves when they are young, a time when real awareness of an independent self is just beginning. That early vision is one partially shaped by others and what they tell us. We’re smart, or lazy, or precocious, or selfish. In my case, it was: Bright, sulky, and according to my gym teacher, sexy. Oh, yes, the go-go girl comment was noticed and remembered by my classmates. And what did they do with it? They decided I was cool enough for school. At that point, I hadn’t yet arrived at a later idea of myself, one that was shaped by me rather than by others.

***

Officially, we were just friends, with him taking a philanthropic interest in the daughter of a buddy. No one saw us go into the live sex shows, the hot tub places with beds, the strip joints.

 ***

Up until my early 40s, I had an image of the girl I was at 13. In my mind, the girl that I had been was one who talked back and was difficult. She was justifiably sent away from her mother and stepfather to live with her father. That girl arrived at her father’s house to find that he had a new girlfriend. The arrival of a pubescent daughter got in the way of his romantic undertakings. Being a single parent wasn’t as easy as he had anticipated, especially not with a kid who was becoming less compliant with every passing month, but who was also something else: She was precocious.

That girl I thought I was looked and acted older than her age. Her father liked it that people thought she might be his hot young girlfriend instead of his daughter. He was personally flattered when male friends commented on his daughter’s ass, or said she was built like a brick shithouse (a reference she had to ask her mother about at some point because it sounded like an insult, but she didn’t tell her mother where she’d heard it or who it was in reference to).

That girl’s father liked it less that the girl was around all the damn time, cramping his style. So he took a job that meant he was on the road. A lot. And since they lived in off-grid cabins (he’d built a small one for her in the forest so she wouldn’t be sleeping in the same house where he had his own life), she would be alone in the forest with no electricity or neighbours, for days at a time.

One of her father’s friends who had helped build the little cabin was an easygoing man in his late twenties. He was attentive. He seemed to see her as a person. He seemed stable. He read books and talked about them. A lot of the grown women around her liked him a lot. So that girl that I was decided he would be a good object for her first crush.

After a surprisingly short time of hanging around, going to his home to visit him unannounced, flirting with him with all the elegance of a spotty fawn trying to stand for the first time, she found herself in bed with him. And that girl thought it was a good idea, because she didn’t have any friends her own age. She wasn’t in school because no one made her go. Most of the adults around her tolerated her, even liked her, but they understandably didn’t accept her as one of them. Of course not. She was only 14.

The flirtation turned into a relationship. Even when her parents found out about it, no one stepped forward to put a stop to it. Her mother was too ill to do much about it, her stepfather dismissed her as a slut, and her father was flattered that his daughter had scored a rich boyfriend.

Oh, the older man was wealthy and came from a prominent family. The relationship was kept secret from the rich family.

That girl who I thought I was chose to move out at 15 when her father came home with another new girlfriend, this one only 18. It was clear that while there might not be a place for the girl I used to be in either parental home, there was room in the older man’s house and heart. And the older man wasn’t really ‘old.’ He was 28, which was at least under 30. He was a good catch. It was the real deal.

***

Officially, I earned my own money and paid rent. I had a loving, attentive older boyfriend who wanted the best for me, made sure I got birth control, taught me which fork to use, bought me decent rags, and incidentally filled my cocaine flask right up to the twist-top every morning. If anything, I wished he had less money and experience because it seemed like I was always being taught a lesson.

I didn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary.

I thought I was the one driving the car.

***

For decades, I looked back on this time and saw myself as someone who took care of herself, who made her way. The older boyfriend was supportive and helpful. He insisted I get my high school equivalency certificate, which I did at 14. He insisted that a college education was imperative, so I enrolled in the nearest junior college, a 45-minute drive away. He bought a $200 car so I could make the journey, once I turned 16, which was a relief because public transportation was almost non-existent where we lived, and I was tired of being groped while hitching. (Officially, I thought was just the way things were. Getting groped was the price of the ride when you didn’t have alternatives.)

During this time, I was treated like an adult woman by almost everyone I knew. At the JC, of course, I was lying about my age and told everyone I was 18. The only people who still talked to me like I was a kid were parental friends who had known me since I was a little girl, or as a baby. For the most part, they expressed concern, and asked whether my mother was on board with my life, or whether she even knew.

My mother knew. She thought the boyfriend was a better caretaker than my father. Better than herself, for that matter.

***

Officially, when I met his wealthy parents and siblings, I was the gifted but disadvantaged daughter of a difficult home. His siblings quickly figured it out; his parents didn’t.

***

I worked two jobs to support my car, my education, paying part of the rent. I liked the gifts and the travel and the going out, but I didn’t like charity.

That girl I thought I was felt like a grown-up. She did what needed to be done. She was a survivor.

That girl was flattered that men liked her and felt confident rejecting the ones she didn’t like. Boys her own age were uninteresting, immature, spotty. Men expressed admiration, talked with her about the things that interested her, and took her seriously. That’s the story that girl told herself. That’s the story I told myself about that girl.

At one point back then, my phone rang at 7 am the morning after a large party at a mansion. The caller was the girlfriend of the party’s host, a guy I knew from junior college. I don’t remember her name but let’s call her Amy. Amy been requested to call and summon me to the home of a man who had been at the party the night before, a man who had trailed me through the luxurious house that overlooked San Francisco Bay. He wanted to see me again, and was insistent enough that he must have roused Amy just a couple of hours after I’d left the party.

When I read the stories about Jeffrey Epstein, his Lolita Express, the older men obsessed with girls and young women, I think about the people who helped them recruit the girls. I think about people like Amy, the young woman on the phone that day.

I had moved out of the older boyfriend’s house a short time before and rented a room near the college because the long daily commute was getting me down. He’d initially been supportive of my independence, but then I’d broken up with him. He had been angry with me, but had accepted it. So I was in my new room at this point, age 17, single, on my own, and feeling more grown-up than ever.

“Wait,” I said, not even bothering to sit up in bed. “Isn’t that guy your sister’s boyfriend?” He’d been in his late 40s, a big deal music producer sporting the unbuttoned shirt, hairy chest, and aviator glasses that were common in the mid-1970s. Ditto the vial of coke hanging on a gold chain around his neck. I was confused as to why Amy was calling, and I wasn’t fully awake.

“Yeah, he is. And he wants to see you today. This morning. Believe me, it’s totally worth it. My sister’s been dating him for three months and he already bought her a Ferrari. It is so worth your while.”

“I just turned 17.” Reminding men who were hitting on me that I was underage was generally 100 percent effective in getting them to stop. I didn’t like revealing my real age, but this seemed like a good time to do it. I didn’t want to offend, but I didn’t want to participate, either.

“That’s cool. He likes younger girls.”

***

Officially, that time the older boyfriend and I went to southern Mexico with another couple in their late twenties while I was 16, one of them claimed guardianship of me. So we were like a family. No one questioned that at the border, or at any of the hotels.

 ***

            When it comes to Jeffrey Epstein and his associates, I know from experience that there will be people who outwardly express horror at the stories of girls trading sex and complicity with much older men, and inwardly, or not on public record, will admire the men for being virile and wealthy enough to ‘seduce’ girls. They’ll judge the girls who took part. It’ll be called prostitution or at least something akin to it, even if the girls were vulnerable and at risk.

That morning in 1979, I felt the twinge of temptation. I would have been classified, I suppose, as one of those girls at risk.

Most people thought I was over 18 because that’s what I’d been saying since leaving home at 15. I lived in a wealthy county, but I’d also worked cleaning houses, in bakeries, and tutoring chemistry. What doesn’t get talked about much when it comes to Epstein’s prey was why they were vulnerable. No one leaves home at such a young age because it’s the first or best choice.

I’d been lucky to get a rented room in a rambling and decrepit summer home overseen by a pothead hippie, self-dubbed Smoky, and a gently damaged Vietnam War veteran named Richard. They’d given me the room over a dozen other applicants because, as they told me much later, they’d been worried what would become of me if I landed somewhere else.

They didn’t bug me about late utility bill payments, and they eyed any potential boyfriends with the caustic assessment of skeptical uncles. If it hasn’t been made clear already, I was always finding people who would look out for me, even though at the time I thought I was looking out for myself.

The music producer at the party had been different. The only word for him was the one used so often about Epstein: Predatory. He had trailed me around the big house, zeroing in on me in any crowded room like a heat-seeking missile. At one point, he cornered a girlfriend and me in a hallway and asked whether we’d ever tried ‘O’ – opium. It was the 70s and trying drugs was what people did. We didn’t want to seem uncool, so we hot-knifed a bit of opium in an adjacent room, and spent the rest of the party in a daze that rendered me too precariously susceptible for my own comfort. The guy who carried a ball of opium in his pocket sat next to me like I owed him something, at least proximity, for the drugs. My girlfriend and I had decided the party was over once we were able to stand up again.

I’d gotten myself home in my beat-up 1962 Rambler American. And been woken up by Amy, 21-year-old older sister of Opium Guy’s girlfriend. I had to repeat that chain of relationships a few times out loud, asking over and over again why she was calling to try and set me up with her sister’s rich boyfriend.

The way Amy talked about it, it was clear this wasn’t her first time acting as a recruiter. I read now about the small army of Epstein’s enablers and think of that young woman, who must be in her 60s now. All the enticements of money, a car, some sex, for the low price of maybe a threesome with her sister and Opium Guy. There would be more coke and opium, as much as I might want. I had the distinct impression she was speaking from experience. “It’s not so bad, he’s a nice guy, very big in music, he produced (insert the names of big 70s acts I have since forgotten but knew back then). This could change things for you. He wants to send a car for you this morning.”

I said no. It took ten minutes to persuade her I really meant what I said. No amount of money could make up for the sense that if I went along, they’d never find the body afterwards (this was what I used to say to myself when fielding certain ‘offers’). I turned down the possibility of a Ferrari to replace the ’62 Rambler and maybe enough money to have more than cereal and peanut butter on my shelf in the kitchen.

I’d had a rich older boyfriend who was nice, and I’d dumped him because I’d always felt like I was a pet in training. Opium Guy was not nice. In my mind, then and later, this had been an easy differentiation for a mature, street-smart, self-sufficient young woman to discern.

***

Officially, hotel clerks and waitresses and bartenders and poker dealers and maids and family and friends all indicated that there was nothing out of the ordinary when a mature, wealthy man spent his time with a smart young girl of limited means and no supervision. So she thought it was normal. Or even exceptionally lucky.

***

            It’s taken me a long time to revise the story of who I thought I was. Looking back, I now see that all I was at the time—younger than I admitted, more vulnerable than I knew—must have been a bright flashing light to someone like the hairy-chested music producer who was older than my father. Girls like me were the flame that drew in this particular species of night crawler, the kind that could spot us from afar. If he was accustomed to getting what he wanted, he also had help, and plenty of it.

His wasn’t a secret predilection, like air-drying after a shower or only eating M&M’s in odd numbers. This was something that his girlfriend’s sister, and his girlfriend’s sister’s wealthy boyfriend, knew about and actively supported by trying to put me within his reach. Imagine all the people who must have known, approved, enabled, his pursuit of young women and girls for sex and bragging rights in exchange for money and consumer goods.

Then, imagine all the people who knew about my relationship with an older man who wasn’t overtly predatory, and either approved or did nothing about it.

But wait. As so many people say these days, times were different back then. It was the era of 12-year-old Brooke Shields playing the daughter of a prostitute in Pretty Baby (1978), in which her character pursues an older photographer, played by Keith Carradine.

This was the heyday of David Hamilton’s soft-focus images of nude pubescent girls that would earn him millions. Hamilton claimed at the time that the people who were critical of his massively popular and foggy come-hither images made a false dichotomy of innocence and sensuality, purity and nudity, where none existed. In 2016, several of his former models accused him of molesting or raping them all those decades ago. He vehemently proclaimed his own innocence, then hung himself a few weeks after the accusations were made public.

You might say that those times are over. Still, the attitude persists: Young girls like the ones targeted by Epstein were old enough to know better, or consented to enter into a transactional relationship and are thus equally to blame. It’s treated like a shameful secret that girls can be both flattered by attention and victimized by that attention at the same time.

The girls I’m talking about, the girls I’ve only recently come to realize were like me, were still privileged by comparison to many girls targeted by older men. I was white, educated, middle-class by upbringing and mainly at risk by reason of a dysfunctional family. The way other girls are treated, the girls of color who are seen as more precocious and thus even more culpable, the indigenous girls who disappear, the poor girls who are trafficked, the girls in societies that marry them off to men older than their fathers: all this takes on dimensions that fold over one another like bad origami until the girls themselves are lost inside.

Back then, I broke up with my older lover after I moved out. I didn’t want to always be the junior partner in the romance, and there was no way that could change given its configuration. I know I have felt shame for decades over my own involvement in such a lopsided relationship.

Every time I read about Jeffrey Epstein, I think about the people who protected him and about the legal system that all but looked the other way. I think about his friends who joked about how he liked ‘younger women’ and did nothing about it.

Show me a man who thinks it’s acceptable for a friend to solicit young girls for sex and I’ll show you a man who either wants to do it himself, or who already has.

After that post-party phone call, I sat for a long time after I hung up the phone, looking at the world that had just revealed itself to me. I’d thought of myself as tough, jaded, self-sufficient. But an acquaintance who pimped underage girls for her sister’s rich older boyfriend had revealed to me an abyss that was right there, inviting me to fall in.

When I think of Jeffrey Epstein and all his famous, wealthy associates, I think of how little the girls themselves, the girls like me, ever mattered in that equation of providing powerful men with what they wanted.

The older boyfriend wanted to keep me and help me grow as if we were equals, which we weren’t. The older creep wanted to use me for sex and discard me, throwing some money and things at me to assuage his conscience, to tell himself that the relationship was a transaction between equals, which we weren’t.

They were both older white men of considerable means and privilege. Everyone around them knew they courted girl(s), and no one stopped them. Both treated girl(s) as if they were women, able to give adult consent to relationships that were wildly imbalanced.

And that brings me back to that younger me splayed on the gym floor, proud to have been labeled, not a potential dancer, but a budding go-go girl.

Boys my age were being taught to recognize and navigate the world; I was taught to recognize and navigate a world defined by what boys liked and wanted, and to wait for acknowledgement that that how I was being female was correct, which is to say, being attractive and seductive.

I thought I was playing the game like a chess master, but the game was playing me.

I see the long-term impact of this training along the length of my life. The patient, hungry waiting for someone else’s approval or recognition of whatever achievement I’m aiming for, rather than taking it for myself. Still that girl I was, awaiting approval.

***

Officially, I led a normal adolescence that had some unique elements that made me interesting. There was no danger or vulnerability, there was only early maturity.

***

In the film The Tale (2018), Laura Dern plays an adult woman who remembers, bit by bit, the sordid truth of a relationship she’d had as a 13-year-old, with a man in his late twenties. In her mind, it had been a love affair. Her first love. As she uncovers her memories, she reluctantly realizes it was all a set-up, that she was only one of many girls her lover had preyed upon. In a tilted balance of power, her journey into womanhood had been part of someone else’s exploitative fantasy.

The sex scenes were too familiar. The initial kissing and the uncontrollable shaking on the part of the girl brought back sense memories of my own visceral confusion at those first adult encounters. Then the progression to petting, the instruction in oral sex, the sacrifice on the altar of virginity like it was a sacred ritual, then the easy familiarity of this naked little girl next to a mature man. It was an acute cartography of my own experience, right there on screen, performed by strangers. Seeing it from the outside, seeing how it looked from the outside, took me outside my own bubble of nostalgia.

Not nostalgia. Of denial.

It was the reassessment of my identity that has hit hardest. An older female friend of mine back then gave me a copy of the Joy of Sex when I was 13 and told me to read it, learn from it, and enjoy sex when it came along. This was the freewheeling Seventies and sexual liberation, and I thought I had it by the right end of the proverbial stick. I saw myself then, and have always seen myself, as a self-reliant, resourceful individual who can take care of herself. I fended off more thorny approaches than a doe in rutting season; if I was with someone, it was because it was my choice.

As time went by, because I defined that relationship as my choice, it also became my fault. If I had chosen it, then it was my responsibility to own it.

With movies like The Tale, and with the coverage of the Epstein girls, it began to dawn on me that it might not have been entirely either of those things all those years ago. Neither entirely my choice, nor entirely my fault. Call me a late bloomer, I guess.

Why was I there? Back then, I thought I was being mature. People around me when I was an early teen were always telling me to ‘stop acting my age.’ To ‘grow up.’ My home situation featured parents who loved me in their way, but loved themselves a bit more. I had a mother too sick to care for anyone but herself; I had a father who chose girlfriends who were barely older than me. Growing up meant finding someone who cared about me like I needed to be cared about. Someone who made me go to school, wear clean clothes, get things done. To own a pair of matching socks and a decent bra. I just happened to also be sleeping with that person.

If we were in a bar with friends and I got carded, I’d have to leave and go wait outside or in the car or in a café, a loser expelled from the cool kid table. There were places we entered and left separately, like hotels with a vigilant front desk clerk. I would be slipped a key. I accustomed myself to walking in to places like I belonged, but I knew I didn’t. I knew who was safe to tell, and who wasn’t. Like the right positions or how to tip, you learn these things.

I wonder what he learned. I wonder what the friends who knew learned. I wonder how they remember me, if they ever even think about it. I think about it a lot these days.

***

Officially, you don’t know women like me who were girls like me. You laugh at jailbait jokes and think of those girls as young prostitutes or gold diggers. You hold them accountable as much as the older men with whom they were involved.

But you know the girls like me every time you watch a movie or show that sexualizes them, or there’s a countdown to a teen actress turning 18, or a friend leers after a girl walking down the street and you don’t do anything about it.

***

I’m not looking to blame. No one owes me anything. This is the world I grew up in, and while I thought I knew it well, I am only learning to name it now. There were always the long-standing assumptions, the implicit acceptance, the cheerily proffered excuses and arguments, that older men prefer girls for evolutionary reasons. That we can tout scientific progress and equality and birth control, and when it comes to men’s desires, well, it’s just instinct. They just can’t help themselves, and neither can the girls, who are seen as getting what they are all assumed seek from the company of men: Money, protection, status.

For most of my life, I looked at that phase of my life as a series of uncomfortable truths: I had gotten a lot out of a relationship with a rich, older man who wasn’t really so very old. He wasn’t a serial pedophile, I wasn’t trafficked, he loved me, and at least for a time, he wanted to get married. I went to college because of him. At least, partly. I left him; I wasn’t suddenly discarded when I aged out of adolescence.

As someone from a much higher socio-economic class, he and his family introduced me to a way of behaving and living that conferred confidence. He educated me. Would he ever have ventured into a relationship like that with a girl from his own wealthy elite? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Would I ever have achieved that kind of using-the-right-fork confidence on my own? I’ll never know.

No matter how smart I felt, how adult I felt, I knew I was a supplicant. I was tolerated at the pleasure of others; what I had wasn’t mine. Or if it was mine, I couldn’t be sure I’d truly earned it.

All my life, I’ve been blind to the fact that this made me feel small. Small and ashamed. There’s the ghost of that girl and she shadows me all these decades later.

***

Officially, I thought I’d outgrown my youth. As it turns out, I hadn’t.

***

I miss the articles that talk to the girls, now women, in Epstein’s circle. I miss the discussion of what brought them to his door, besides their need and his female handlers. I miss the discussion of the dreams and fears of those girls, the ones who thought they could trust a man of wealth and power, and why they trusted him more than their own families.

I didn’t admit my background to my daughter until she was in her twenties, and then only piecemeal. When I saw her start to reach the age milestones at which I’d had an adult lover, moved out, gotten a job, lied about my age, taken drugs, I couldn’t imagine this wonderful, confident girl feeling like she needed that kind of attention or support from men closer in age to her parents than her own.

But then, no one told her that the best she could hope for was being a back-up dancer to the performance of a leading man.

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Paula Read

Paula is a Californian-born writer, living on the eastern edge of France. Her non-fiction, mostly on environmental and feminist issues, has been published in Undark, Litro, How We Get To Next, The Feminist Wire, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. There’s a lot of fiction, too – Necessary Fiction, Bristol Short Story Anthology, Jersey Devil Press, Rind, and more.

Twitter: @paula_read
URL: champagnewhisky.com

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

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