Kathleen McCormick is Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY. Other work has appeared in Witness, South Carolina Review, and Zone 3, among others. Academic books include The Culture of Reading and the Teaching of English (MLA Mina Shaughnessy Award) and Teaching Italian American Literature, Film, and Popular Culture.

 

McCormick says: "I thought this story was going to be about the tension between my Catholic faith and incipient feminism, but a Beatles’ song on the car radio jarred other memories. I can still taste that gum."

 

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Virginity: The Bible, the Beatles, and Bubblegum

by Kathleen McCormick

 

Ever since we got a Bible on a cheap installment plan from the A&P, I’ve been reading it, and my overall impression, now that I’m ten and a bit of a women’s libber, is that God-the-Father has some pretty sexist attitudes about females. I thought I knew the Adam and Eve story really well, but when you read it directly from the Bible, it’s way worse for girls than what the nuns teach us. God puts most of the blame for the fall on Eve. And His plan is to keep punishing married women throughout the ages and for all eternity: “To the woman he said, ‘I will make great your distress in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children; for your husband shall be your longing, though he have dominion over you.’”

Why should it be painful to have children? I know the Catholic Church believes in big families because every year in school I meet a new nun who can’t believe that I’m an only child. Sometimes they ask if I’m looking forward to a new little brother or sister. And one even assumed that my mother was dead. Well, maybe my parents only have me because childbirth and even pregnancy was so painful for my poor mother. She’s told me so many times that she threw up every single day for the whole nine months she was pregnant with me. Then she was in excruciating labor for over twenty-four hours before I finally arrived. I used to think it was my fault she was so sick, and I felt really guilty for causing her pain before I was born. But now I know it was all God-the-Father. Having dominion over her. Just because she was a married woman trying to continue the human race.

And then He decided that husbands should always have the upper hand. How does that even make sense? They’re at work all day and usually don’t have a clue about what’s going on at home. So why should they always rule the roost? Why is God so mean to women when Adam ate those apples too?

While my mother’s ironing my father’s shirts, I wonder whether I should talk to her about God’s sexism. She moves away from the ironing board and switches the dial on the kitchen radio. Every station seems to be playing a Beatles’ song. “Damn it!” she says under her breath and turns the radio off. I grab my transistor and plug in the earpiece so my mother can’t hear it and catch the last half of “She Loves You.” I tap my foot to the music. My mother glares at me, then hangs up the third of my father’s shirts on a clothesline that she sometimes puts up in the kitchen. It looks like she has about a thousand more shirts to go. She sprinkles the next one with that special starch she mixes—no spray starch for her—stares at the ironing pile and sighs. I think the ironing pile has dominion over my mother. This isn’t the right time to ask her about God’s feelings toward women.

I’m at the kitchen table finishing a pop art poster in bright orange and yellow with a giant LOVE in the middle. I have another one just like it in blue and turquoise, except that it says PEACE. Since I turned ten, I’ve babysat for the British family across the street, the Ellises. Whenever the little girl doesn’t get her own way, she runs up to the attic to scratch her mosquito bites and comes down bleeding all over her incredibly translucent skin, which is too stigmata-like to be believed. And she’s not even Catholic. I don’t like babysitting for her, but her brother is okay, and the mother’s totally cool. Mrs. Ellis is the one who taught me about sexism. She’s a pop artist and makes posters for local events, like if someone is giving a speech in Harvard Square against the war. She also loves my artwork. “You make the best fat and curly pop art letters I’ve ever seen, Kathy,” she told me a few weeks ago. Maybe I can ask Mrs. Ellis about God. She’s having me create some pages with this special geometric shaping and coloring that’s her “signature style,” and she’s adding my pages to her portfolio because when she gets her next job, she might use something of mine. Then I could get paid for my art.

My mother’s finished ironing another shirt. I’m coloring in the V. Mrs. Ellis says my mother shouldn’t iron because it’s against women’s lib. Mrs. Ellis is a real women’s libber, which means that her husband has wrinkled shirts and their apartment is a total mess unless I do some housework while I’m babysitting. It just about drove my mother through the roof when she found out that I was cleaning for the Ellises. “She hardly pays you anything as it is, Kathy, and if you wash her dirty bathtub one more time, you can kiss that babysitting job good-bye and come home and do household chores here.” I told Mrs. Ellis that we had to lay off the cleaning because I definitely want to keep working for her, and she said that it was okay and that I “deserved a little liberation too.” She then asked me to work for them all day on Sunday, but when I told her I had to go to church first, she rolled her eyes. I probably shouldn’t ask Mrs. Ellis about God either.

I don’t fully understand what women’s lib is, and at first I thought it was just something British. But now I know from things my father says when he’s reading the Globe that there’s a women’s lib movement starting in our country too. Last night he really exploded. “The next thing you know, they’ll be having men wearing aprons and doing the cooking like that fairy, John, from the beauty parlor.” When I said that Mr. Ellis made a lot of their dinners and that I thought it was a good idea for husbands to cook, my father got really mean. “Listen, missy, don’t hold your breath about getting paid for one of those posters you’re always making. Mrs. Ellis would do well to cook more and get her head out of her artsy clouds. I’m sure she isn’t paid for most of her jobs. Which is why you only get seventy-five cents an hour to watch her kids while everyone else in the whole of Cambridge earns a dollar an hour.” When I looked shocked that my father knew about my posters and the going rate for babysitting, he snapped at me again. “Yeah, I’ve heard all about the cleaning too. We’re trying to protect you from spongers like them. She’s paying you in dreams.” I’m definitely not going to ask my father.

Women’s lib makes me kind of nervous because from what I do understand, it definitely isn’t for Catholics. I really paid attention this year when we did Adam and Eve and the Fall from Paradise again. If you think about women’s lib, you notice that God’s attitudes toward women, which are kind of like my father’s, were there from the beginning of time. He made Adam first and then created Eve out of Adam’s rib. So right away, she looks so second-rate. He didn’t have to make Eve that way. He could have spun her out of thin air. Because He’s God. He can do anything. So he must have wanted Eve to look inferior. I never thought like this before I knew Mrs. Ellis.

Our religion textbook says that Adam wasn’t deceived by Satan, that Eve is the only one who’s sinful. But there’s no way that’s true. Adam knew those apples weren’t supposed to be eaten, so why didn’t he say something? It seems to me that Adam is what Mrs. Ellis terms a “spineless git,” which she called her husband the other day when he didn’t want to talk to their landlord about something. So while poor Eve was being driven crazy by that talking snake and decided to ask Adam about the apples, she probably wanted a healthy debate. But no. Not from pathetic git Adam. Mr. Ellis is an important doctor, so I don’t suppose he really is a spineless git like Adam at all. But ever since he said he should examine my breasts to check if I needed a bra, I feel a little uncomfortable with him. Especially since Mrs. Ellis says that women’s libbers aren’t supposed to wear bras. There’s no way I can ask Mr. Ellis.

My only choice is my best friend, Agnes. We can talk about anything, even though she’s not that into religion. When I go over to her place, Agnes is in her bedroom reading a book that she quickly shoves behind her bed when she sees me.

“Well, do you know what a virgin is?”

“Yes, Ag, I most certainly do,” I say, trying to sound like I’ve always known, even though virginity isn’t what I want to be talking about.

She narrows her eyes. “How’d you find out?”

I’m definitely not telling. The priest said something in one of the sermons that made me realize that Mary isn’t so special just because she’s a virgin, but because she’s a virgin mother. Once I knew that virginity was linked to having babies, I just had to go to the library. It turns out that every female starts out as a virgin. Guys too. As a Catholic and someone in class with so many smelly boys, I find that pretty hard to believe.

“I’ll bet it was a book,” says Agnes. “But never mind. Just describe it to me, so I can see if you really know.”

So I tell her. Her eyes grow wide at parts of my explanation, and she nods at others. We both agree that “it” seems totally disgusting. I decide not to mention God-the-Father’s attitude right at the moment because even if Agnes thinks I got my information from a book, I don’t want her to find out that the Bible and church had anything to do with it.

Agnes opens her top dresser drawer and takes out one of those big turquoise bubble gum cigars we both love. She puts a bunch of Beatles singles on her record player with that special drop-down adaptor for 45s. She’s so lucky to have a record player in her room. She peels the cellophane off the cigar, and we each bite off a chunk. We stop talking for a few moments to get the gum mashed down in our mouths and start chewing in rhythm to “Love Me Do.” My mother never lets me have this kind of gum because she says it will rot your teeth.

“Do you think the others know?” Agnes asks. “We are ten, after all.” She means our friends Donna, Lucy, and Anne.

“I doubt it,” I shrug.

Agnes beams at me. “Well, then, Kathy, aren’t we just so clever?”

“Yup,” I smile, thinking how innocent Agnes is about all God has in store for us when we get married and lose our virginity. This seems to be the best time to ask her. “Agnes, I was wondering what you thought about the Adam and Eve story and why you think God-the-Father is so mean to Eve and, really, to all women?” I play it pretty cool by not mentioning the Bible and by tapping my foot to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

“This gum is making me really thirsty,” says Ag, who goes to the kitchen to get us some grape Kool-Aid, but reminds me not to drink it for a few minutes because it washes away part of the delicious gum taste. I’m waiting for Agnes to say she couldn’t care less about Adam and Eve, but she’s actually interested. The book she’s secretly reading also has an Adam in it and thinking of the two stories together just made a light bulb go off in her head.

“I don’t know if they’ve all totally missed the point of the whole Paradise story,” says Agnes. Then she shakes her head, “Nah, they aren’t telling us because they think we’re too young.”

“Too young for what?”

Agnes rolls her eyes at me. “We were just talking about virginity, Kathy, but it still isn’t really sinking in with you, is it?”

I don’t know what Agnes is getting at, but I disguise it by singing along. “And when you touch me I feel happy…inside.”

“Oh, come on,” says Agnes. “Be real. It’s obviously not apples that upset God so much.”

“Maybe not,” I say. I’m certainly capable of reading symbolically. “I know the apples could’ve been pears or oranges or anything He didn’t want them to do, like not drinking water out of a certain spring. The point is that He said something was forbidden, and they disobeyed Him by doing it anyway.”

“No,” laughs Agnes. “Every kid is told that Adam and Eve’s real sin was disobedience. But it isn’t. They only say that because they’re trying to teach us to obey.”

Agnes gets off the bed to turn up the record player. “I can’t hi-i-i-ide! I can’t hi-i-i-ide!” The Beatles are the most amazing four guys in the universe. I know everyone is in love with Paul, and so am I, of course, but I’d really be happy with just George.

“I mean, face it, it’s all about sex,” Agnes smiles, dancing back to the bed and looking kind of wicked. “And,” she sings to the music, “‘I think you’ll understand,’” then gives a dramatic pause. “Virginity!”

“What are you talking about, Agnes? There’s no sex in the Bible. It’s the most holy book in the world. It’s God’s own words,” I shout over “I wanna hold your ha-a-a-a-and.” Agnes dances back over to turn the volume down. Lately she finds sex in everything.

She laughs as she sings “happy, inside” and starts twirling her thin blond hair. “The Bible writers used ‘apples’ to be polite, but they really meant something else.” Agnes sounds so superior. Even though we’re both ten now, you’d think she was years older.

“Kathy, everyone but kids know what the expulsion from Paradise really means.” Agnes opens a drawer and pulls out her missal. “Here’s a really big hint.” She tries to sound like Ed Sullivan.

Taking a sip of Kool-Aid, Agnes moves to the middle of her room and turns to a page in her missal with a piece of yarn in it. She clears her throat. “O Lord, open my lips and I shall praise your name.” Agnes smiles at me.

I shake my head. I don’t get it.

Agnes runs over and jumps on the bed. She looks into my eyes and sighs. “Prepare yourself. God-the-Father had a thing for Eve. He wanted her to ‘open her lips to Him’ in order to ‘praise his name.’ So to speak,” and Agnes rolls on the bed, laughing. Then we both finally take big swigs of our Kool-Aid.

I’m pretty sure that Agnes isn’t referring to the lips on your face. She means the other ones. The ones that have to do with virginity.

“But Eve wasn’t interested in God-the-Father, was she?” Agnes smiles. “She liked a totally different apple. Adam. And she wanted to be Adam’s apple. That’s what ‘Adam’s apple’ really means, you know.” I thought an Adam’s apple was something in the throat. But I’m not about to interrupt Agnes. “And Satan told her to go for it. So she did! She opened her lips to Adam even though God-the-Father wanted her for Himself.”

I can’t believe that the whole story about Paradise could actually be about boyfriends and having sex.

“I know because it’s just like what happens in this book I’m reading.”

“Agnes, stop!” I shout. “You’re being sacrilegious, and God’s going to punish you.”

Agnes laughs at me so hard that she suddenly has to pee. “That’s the beauty of reading ‘symbolically,’” she calls out as she runs to the bathroom. Agnes can be so annoying. Reading for hidden meaning is something I’m really good at in school, not her.

“C’mon, just think about it, Kathy,” Agnes says through her chews. I feel like an idiot. “God-the-Father had the hots for Eve. And when he said, ‘Don’t eat the apples,’ He clearly meant ‘Don’t touch the goods,’” Agnes giggles. “That’s the way my book puts it, anyway.” I take another bite of the bubble gum cigar, trying to look blasé.

“But Adam and Eve must have been wild for each other, regardless of what God told them. That’s why Satan could convince her and why Adam jumped at the chance.”

I’m about to say that I always thought Adam was just a spineless git. But Agnes doesn’t give me a chance.

“It’s exactly the way Adam and Nina are in my book.” Agnes beckons for me to hand over the bubble gum cigar so she can bite off another chunk. We’re going to use up the whole thing between the two of us. My jaws are getting tired, but I’m not stopping. I think this is the biggest piece of gum I’ve ever had in my mouth.

Agnes pushes her bed out from the wall and reaches for the book. She hands it to me. My Passion, My Innocence. On the cover, there’s a big-breasted young blond girl in a blue low-cut dress, leaning back into the arms of an older-looking man. “That’s Nina and Adam,” Ag says, like she’s introducing me to real people. “It’s my mother’s book, if you can believe it! I found it hidden in her knitting basket. Turns out she’s got a ton of them in the bottom cupboard of the pantry.” She starts to read the back cover aloud. “A moving story of star-crossed lovers, longing to be together but forced apart by destiny.”

Then Agnes lies back and starts to laugh so hard that she gags on her gum. She sits up, red-faced, and I pat her on the back. She takes the gum out for a second and reaches for her Kool-Aid. She drinks the rest down before sliding the gum back into her mouth. “You know what I didn’t want to tell you, Kathy?” And she starts laughing again. “I learned what virginity is from a book! From this book! Isn’t that so funny?”

I’m certain that the only thing my mother has in her knitting basket is yarn and knitting needles and definitely nothing about virginity. I’m not even sure if my mother knows about virginity. Well, I suppose she must.

“At any rate,” says Ag, leafing through the Adam and Nina book for the page she was reading, “if you can catch on about Adam and Eve, maybe I’ll let you borrow this book. Okay?”

“Okay, thanks Ag, though you know my parents’d die if they found a book with a cover like that in my room.”

Agnes shrugs. “So even though Adam and Nina aren’t meant to be together, they can’t keep their hands off each other. Nina is supposed to marry Ned but falls in love with Adam. And her best friend tells her that loving Adam will be the worst because she’ll be caught in a ‘love triangle.’ She warns her that everybody gets hurt in a love triangle.”

I’ve never even heard of a love triangle, but I get it. Right away.

“It must have been the same with Adam and Eve and God. A love triangle,” Agnes continues. She blows a huge bubble that she pops with her finger.

I can see where Agnes is going with this.

“And He never fully got over it. He became filled with jealousy and spite, just like Ned. That’s why He overreacted to the whole situation.”

Agnes really does have so much flair. I feel pretty upset to think that God could be so jealous. But her ideas do explain a lot of his sexism against women. I can’t wait to tell Mrs. Ellis. A love triangle. How could Agnes be clever enough to come up with all this? It really is a great symbolic reading.

“Yeah, totally,” I say, taking more gum. “Adam was just as sinful as Eve was. But because God was interested in Eve, she’s the one He got furious with. And He’s still angry with women because he lost Eve.”

“Exactly!” Agnes says, as she pats me on the back. “Blaming Eve was a total cop out because, we all know, ‘it takes two to tango.’”

I wonder if my parents and Mr. and Mrs. Ellis know about this and if I’ll ever be able to ask them.

“But He’s all-knowing, Ag, so maybe we’re wrong.”

“Nah,” Agnes shakes her head, “love is blind.”

 

 

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