Every morning in seventh grade math class, I opened my blue Trapper Keeper and sat the tip of my pencil to a fresh sheet of paper. When the teacher began the class, I mentally checked out, returning to the novel I was writing in my head.
It was good stuff, too, all about two southern bell sisters trying to keep the plantation from falling apart. These poor girls had a lot on their plate. Between dodging deserters and remaking old ball gowns, it was pretty amazing they still had time to fall in love with sturdy bucks like tight-lipped, sun-bronzed Rafe Hyatt. And don’t get me started on their older, wicked lady neighbor, the raven-haired Rebecca de Chastaine. Pretending to be their friend even as she plotted to ensnare their lovers, make no mistake, she was nothing but trouble. With this heady stuff to tend to between 9:55 and 10:55 each school day, it is no wonder I had to repeat math in summer school that year.
Writing this novel in math class was the highlight of my day and what helped me not to miss quite as much school that year. Never mind the occasional humiliation of being called on by our teacher, Mr. Shaylock, and having no clue where we were in class. With his short sleeve button ups and messy 70s weatherman hair, he was a gentle nerd who barely maintained his class, so perhaps he didn’t mind the plump daydreamer doodling Marie Antoinette wigs on the margins of his notebook. At least I wasn’t one of the trouble-makers, pinching girls’ asses through the cutouts in the orange plastic chairs. That man put up with a lot, but I doubt he went home and poured himself a Scotch on my account.
I was a committed craftsman back then, never missing a date on my inkless writing. I got good at winding up a chapter an hour and I got excited on the bus each morning, deciding where I’d begin again. I also did the hard research, checking out books on historic costume from the library and faithfully teaching myself to draw them. I could tell the era of a redingote at a glance, and was not above sniffing in disapproval when a movie of the week placed a ball gown on Jane Seymour when clearly she would have worn a modest day dress. Returning those much loved volumes of renderings to the library again and again that year, I’m sure the one clearly homosexual volunteer behind the desk was smirking knowingly under his handlebar mustache. Yet all my work could not save me from my report cards. I blame it on the Reagan era that I wasn’t tested on the anatomy of pantaloons instead of converting fractions. The arts must always suffer.
At that time my biggest writing influences were Gone With the Wind and my sister’s library of smutty historic novels. I always saw the past through a misty red veil, never stopping to think about all the pots of shit-water under the beds. Instead, I was taken with the clothes, see above, and by the time I got to middle-school I liked the sex scenes, too. The women who wrote novels such as ‘Destiny’s Seduction’ or ‘Island Rapture’ were giants in their field. As with all great literature, I was taken with the power of even their simplest phrases. Describe our hero’s thighs as both hot and strong and I was right there with him in the crashing waves, deflowered but defiant as over his gleaming shoulders my ancestral mansion was burned by pirates. Oh, the places you will go in a really fine work of fiction.
By mid-year I was bold enough to tinker with the sexual foibles of my own characters. I knew before I knew that I was not a fit for the hetero world of those novels. Neither a swarthy English hunk raised by Arabs nor a voluptuous preacher’s daughter sold into sex slavery on the high seas, I hewed my burgeoning sexuality to the wicked, older lady neighbor. With her as my proxy, I could place myself in that world – and experience the catty thrill of being the only woman in the county still rich enough to nail my dress at the Christmas ball. Dove grey silk with cherry red piping – don’t get me started.
Of course, I abhor violence and any form of chicanery, but through this towering beauty, Rebecca de Chastaine, I wielded a terrible power. When we set our cap for the rugged Yankee captain the McClure sisters were hiding in their smoke house, it took only a snap of her fingers to have him brought to us. Of course, the problem was that once she’d tied him down and laid out her plans for him in a flowery monologue, it was me who had to stand up with a boner when the bell rang. Thank heaven for that Trapper Keeper.