My first sexual fantasy involved my abduction by a composite character made up of equal parts Danny Zucko from Grease and the weathered carny who had looked me dead in the nine-year-old eye as he pulled the lever of the Tilt-A-Whirl. The post-abduction details were unimportant. What mattered was the moment of being caught; what mattered was the fact that one moment I’d be navigating the root-torn sidewalk of my street and the next an arm would be around my waist and the world would be set into wild motion.
The next fantasy I can remember was a lesbian prison gang rape. I appropriated this fantasy not from the wonders of cable TV but from books. My mother was a voracious reader, if not a discerning one. Lining her shelves were the eighties airport standbys: V. C. Andrews, Danielle Steele, and Sidney Sheldon. Every night I sat on my white wicker bed and read trashy novels by flashlight until I began to understand what sex was in those stories—a plot device. Sex, I learned from my reading, was a function of power and nothing more. If one could just wield it properly, one might figure out a way to win a happy ending, or at least a prison protector.
But it wasn’t until age fourteen that I met Seymour Glass and fell in love. I read Nine Stories and read it again and found that it left me suffering more sleepless, feverish nights than the carny and Danielle Steele combined. I wasn’t even sure why I related to it exactly. I had so little in common with the female characters who populated Salinger’s landscape—slim, Gentile women in camel-hair coats sunk in noble pain while standing on train platforms in New England college towns.
There is nothing literary about the pain of a fat, Jewish Jersey girl wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt and sitting on a bench in the Livingston mall, eating bagels and smoking cigarettes.
And yet, boiled down to the metaphysics of the thing, there was my world, a world of persistent discomfort and inappropriate hunger. A world in which perilous desire trembles just under the surface of the polite world. Seymour kisses the arch of a small foot and moments later puts a bullet into his brain. Eloise, drunk and heartbroken, kills her daughter’s imaginary friend. It was a world of sensual details and dangerous, irreparable moments.
I first read Nine Stories and felt the nakedness of being recognized in my loneliness. Desire wasn’t a narrative device with a neat payoff; rather, it was an ocean of longing that unfolded toward an ever-receding horizon. The book got inside me in a way that changed me irrevocably and, conversely, felt like it had been there all along. And that, I imagined, would be what having a lover would feel like.
Trashy novels encouraged me to employ sex as a strategy. But it was ultimately Salinger who made me want to fuck.
Jillian Lauren is the author of the memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem. Her novel, Pretty, will be published by Plume next summer.
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