–this is a revision I’ve been working on in my writing group. please excuse if you’ve already seen it–
When I saw the painting for the first time I thought it must be a fake. It hung on a small wall at the entrance to a cavernous formal dining room where you could almost miss it: an alleged 1954 painting by Salvador Dalí entitled Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity.
It can’t be real, I thought. After all, the painting hung just around the corner from a canvas that was too drippy to be a real Pollock, in a room that must have been decorated by someone who had visited Hearst Castle and come away with a checklist: Persian-looking rugs? Check. Mahogany-like walls? Check. Dizzifying ceilings, furniture made for only the eyes to rest on, and art objects whose price and provenance is instantly recognizable? Check, check, check. The whole shebang was way too over-the-top to be believed and so I stood there smirking and winking at the canvas. Oh, sure, I said to myself. A Salvador Dalí, how perfect.
Then I took a closer look. Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity is a small 12 by 16 inch oil of a lovely naked woman standing with her elbows propped upon a parapet and her back turned to the viewer. I thought she was lovely because she has the body of an ideal pin-up girl, not because I could see her face, obscured by golden curls. She gazes innocently off at the bland horizon while behind her, by some surreal sleight of hand, her legs have been simultaneously splayed and chopped into phallic chunks which hang in the air like fleshy torpedoes aimed at her ass.
Boy, was she in for a surprise, I thought. This was 1985 and I was a precocious nineteen-year-old who believed I had more than enough experience to know all sorts of things. I thought I could recognize a fake when I saw it, that I was canny enough to get the joke and lucky to be standing there in that fancy room. I imagined my future was as clear and definite as a painted line. I identified with but also scorned that painted girl: I was pretty, too, but I thought myself much more realistic. She was oblivious about what she was wishing for and, in a moment or two, her wish-fulfillment might push her over the edge. But I knew that would never happen to me. I could take care of myself.
Is Dalí’s painting cerebral porn? High low art? Whatever it is, I felt a jolt of erotic violence when I discovered the Virgin hanging in the dining room and when I read the title, it felt like an omen. I turned slowly to survey the room behind me and imagined that somewhere close by an invisible man—or men—had me in the crosshairs, because this was the Playboy mansion in Beverly Hills and I, like Dalí’s clueless dreamer, had no realistic concept of what I was doing there or what I wanted other than a vague notion that I was in L.A. to do some test shots to see if they wanted to put me in their magazine.
Certainly, I was far from chaste, but I was also certainly naïve. It is possible to be exposed and sheltered at the same time. I grew up in Marin County, an exclusive cultural enclave in Northern California, back when the dreams of the 60’s were still alive. I knew atheists, agnostics, hippies, Sufis, Muslims, millionaires, Buddhists, pagans, Jews, and even a couple Christians, but didn’t understand that in the outside world these people weren’t always cozy neighbors. In my town, kids felt safe enough to try everything or anyone they could get their hands on. I had tried it all and, although I was much more expert with the substances than with the sex, I dressed like Madonna so no one would mistake me for a virgin.
When I saw that painting hanging at the mansion, I knew more about Dalí’s oeuvre than Playboy’s. I had seen a magazine or two over the years but I was more familiar with the dog-eared copy of The Joy of Sex on my mother’s bookshelf and my father’s vintage underground comix collection. I didn’t know that men bought Playboy to jerk off. I had some misty notion that they worshipped and admired those glossy girls—okay, maybe there was an orgasm involved but afterwards, they always fell in love, just a little. Like everyone I knew, I had at least a tenuous understanding of what a “playmate” was. After all, this was the 1980’s and by then a Playmate was a well-defined brand of woman, an icon of our popular culture just as cola is Coke (since cocaine has no label), Trojans are rubbers, and ZigZags are for rolling the weed you pinched from the plant hanging in the pantry and dried in the toaster oven. I thought the world was a giant amusement park and I wanted to try it all.
My boyfriend Hugo had taken pictures of me naked to send in to the magazine as an introduction but I don’t think it was his idea; I think it was mine. The conversation might have gone something like this:
(I lean over his shoulder while he’s studying a centerfold): Hey, do you think I could do that?
Would you like to see me in a magazine? (I try to insert myself between him and the page.) You know… naked?
(He tilts his head and shrugs with one shoulder.)
Me: I bet they pay a lot of money…
He: Yeah… (staring soulfully into my eyes). I wonder how much?
As a teenager, I just wanted to be looked at. I was not alone in the belief that if people look at you then you must be worth attention and the longer they looked, the more important or interesting you must be. I wanted to attract as much fascination, surprise, admiration, awe, and/or longing as possible. I wanted someone to fall in love with me. Of course I had daddy issues and deeper forces were at work but for now, let’s just say I wanted attention and could definitely use the money so someone picked me up at LAX and conveyed me through the flashy city, past the guard, through the gates, up the winding driveway to the grandiose gothic-tudor façade of the mansion where a butler showed me to my room and, voila, there I was.
Besides a cadre of silent butlers, the place seemed deserted. People may have been negotiating deals or having snacks or reading books or watching old movies or telling jokes or filing their fingernails somewhere but those doors were closed to me. I was permitted to wander the grounds and the longer I walked, the surrealer my situation appeared. The rooms of the various buildings were redolent of cocaine-fueled orgies and echoing with a disco beat. Upstairs in the main house the hallways were crammed with framed photographs of all sorts of famous people who had come to “party” and I imagined their naked bodies rolling over every nook and cranny of the underground grotto filled with chlorine fumes into which one might swim from the swimming pool. I saw their famous ghostly shadows flopping around the tomblike underground gym and on the giant tanning bed that looked like a prop from Barbarella or Woody Allen’s Sleeper. I was possessed by the spirits of all the young women who had stood there dazzled by the sights, filled with hope for the future. Near the edge of the property, a cage full of small green monkeys stared at me while peacocks screamed in the distance.
This is all starting to sound like some narrative classic rock song (think of The House of the Rising Sun or the Eagle’s Hotel California). When I was there I always had the feeling I was being watched, by mirrors, windows, butlers, ghosts, peepholes, telescopic lenses, suspicious fixtures, or potted plants. I walked around posing for the hidden cameras, feeling like it was all some weird allegorical test, an anti-hero’s journey. Anyway, I’m fairly certain the Eagles were on the jukebox in the game room, right next to the Playboy pinball game depicting Hef wearing his satin robe, sandwiched between a blonde and a brunette. At some point I finally met the man himself and he looked just like his picture on the pinball machine—a smile stretched between the marionette lines and eyes shifting from the blonde to the brunette. He uttered some unctuous one-liner, barked a laugh, then skipped woodenly out of the room, as if on strings.
Over the course of my on-and-off stay at the mansion, during the various rounds of photo shoots, most of the time I was alone but the place came to life when Hef screened a not-yet-released movie and suddenly the place filled with girls-pretending-to-be-grown and women-acting-like-girls and men playing rich and powerful and they crammed into the huge foyer with their perfume and their puffed-up chests and their brash noise like a yard full of clucking, crowing poultry. If there was a hidden camera, I wish I could see the images it captured. I want to know if I had anything to add to that conversation, if I appeared to fit in and if there were any candid moments. If there were a hidden camera, it could explain so much.
The play of posing blended into the work of posing when someone came to pick me up for my test shoot. They took me to a big house on a hill behind the Chateau Marmont, a house rumored to be the real Hotel California and owned by an older woman with tangled gray hair who lurked behind windows or ornamental shrubbery, keeping an eye on us. The makeup artist primped me and painted me with so much makeup I almost didn’t feel naked then sprayed me with oil and water to make it look like I’d been swimming and propped me by the pool wearing nothing but a pair of pink heart-shaped sunglasses and afterwards someone delivered me back to Hef’s mansion where I cleaned myself up and went to the dining room where leering butlers who were forbidden to get too friendly would serve me anything I wanted.
The test shots took about four days. On the last day, in a big white van headed back to the mansion the photographer drove and his assistant sat in the passenger seat while I perched on the plastic storage cabinet between them. The photographer was handsome, if you like them sleazy: blond hair, tight jaw, sharp cheekbones, and a sour aura of ennui. When he wasn’t smoking a cigarette he’d hold his fingers under his nose as if some nicotine lingered there. He hadn’t said much to me for the last couple days except instructions– suck in your stomach, smile a little–no not so much, show me what you’ve got— but on that final car ride, the imminent conclusion of our work together must have loosened him up a bit. In his northern European accent he told me that he worked freelance for several different magazines and it was his job to test the model to see how far she would go. If he could get something really salacious (“porno” was the word he used) he would nudge that model towards one of the more hard-core magazines. He was like a human sexual litmus test, a porn jockey. He turned to his assistant and said, “She is perfect for Playboy, huh? Just what they’re looking for.”
I leaned forward between them. “Why?”
He looked at the assistant and grinned. “Because you don’t know what you’re doing.” They both laughed.
At that point, I probably brandished all my bad-girl props—tousled my striped hair, ripped another hole in my stockings and stuck out my bright red lips—before I asked, in a churlish voice, “Whaddaya mean?”
He shrugged but kept his eyes on the road. “You’re the girl next door.” He took a deep suck of his cigarette and exhaled slowly. “You’re a good girl. Aren’t you.”
It was one of those statements that hangs in the air like a challenge, like a bodiless penis aimed straight at you.
I didn’t ask what he meant. I guess I was either smart or stupid enough not to argue.
Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity is a portrait of a good girl and a projection of what some people would like to do to her. In 1958, Dalí wrote, “Paradoxically, this painting, which has an erotic appearance, is the most chaste of all.” For the moment she is untouched, but her chastity is a wild bull charging headfirst, prime for the gore. As observers, we are encouraged to enjoy the spectacle because she did it to herself—Dalí’s title tells us so, insists that her only adversary is her own manifest desire. So in rooting for the bull, we applaud her fulfillment. (“She asked for it.”) Her imminent rape will be self-induced, autonomous, and immaculate (never mind the artist who paints or the bystanders who look).
If the painting (which turned out to be a genuine Salvador Dalí, after all) had included the image of a man standing behind her with his beret cocked to one side, nicotine-stained fingers, a curling mustache, and buggy eyes, then it wouldn’t be okay anymore, that would just be wrong. But she’s alone, all alone. And look—she’s still a virgin. What happens next is all in your own (dirty) mind. And it’s not real, anyway; it’s fantastic. Dreamers are allowed to do all sorts of things they wouldn’t do in real life.
I suppose for many onlookers, the excitement of this spectacle hinges on the girl’s naiveté. If she knows what’s coming, it won’t be quite so fun. Her lack of knowledge and control is like watching a child pick up a jack-in-the-box and turn the crank for the first time. What will she do when the clown explodes from the box? Will she squeal with excitement or burst into tears? It doesn’t matter, either way will be gratifying for some. So in order to fully appreciate this painting, one must possess a modicum of experience, one must be slightly jaded, because it was painted for those who have turned that crank before, who know what’s going to happen and have tired of the game. For them, her innocence revitalizes the thrill and vicarious surprise.
I didn’t know what was going to happen, either. They asked me to come back to shoot a centerfold and again to do the rest of the layout and eventually, the pictures were published. By then I was traveling around the world by myself and the term “playmate” seemed such an unsuitable word for that huge, bizarre, ignorant, and courageous thing I had done. Hugo and I broke up, my father didn’t know me any better, and I’d learned nothing about myself. I can’t say those photographs ever inspired love, at least not the kind I was hoping for and for awhile I was really lost: I faced a tsunami of callous sexual energy that threatened to wash away everything else. I tried to be the girl in those photos, I tried to represent. I posed, flirted, went to parties and wore sexy costumes, but small talk with predatory men and reapplying lipstick quickly got old. I had turned that crank and nothing great had come from it.
But the Playboy money was significant: enough to buy a different uniform, tattered Levis and Doc Martens, and transfer to UC Berkeley, enough that I could work only one part-time job as an undergrad and had just enough saved to take on the debt of a graduate degree with confidence. Later, because I taught high school English, for years I was afraid someone would find out about the Playboy thing and I’d lose the life I’d made for myself. I was afraid if anyone knew, those glossy, airbrushed photos would replace me– The Picture of Dorian Gray in reverse– and I even wrote the magazine to ask if I could buy those photos back (they said no). But no one found out and eventually, I stopped thinking about that surreal episode in my youth until one day when my husband and I were cleaning out our garage, he motioned me over to a mildewed cardboard box.
He asked, “What do you want to do with this?”
I glanced over to where our little girls were squabbling over a box of toys before I picked up the magazine and slid it under my sweatshirt.
That evening, after the girls were asleep, I sat down with a cup of tea. When I found the fold-out picture in the middle, I felt a violent jolt of recognition but also a sense of objectivity. The girl stands at the edge of a swimming pool wearing only a silly yellow bathing cap and a see-through net, ostensibly about to jump in. She gazes into the camera lens as though it’s a distant horizon. I think she is lovely, not because she’s naked but because of her innocent, doe-eyed expression. She is me but not me, more innocent than I ever felt, the girl I could have been if I fell for that fantasy, a girl who looks just like my daughters. She’s just a kid who clearly has absolutely no idea what’s happening and I want to throw my arms around her shoulders and squeeze, hard. I want to hold her close and warn her, “Girl, are you in for a surprise.”