Consciousness raising, p.1
Consciousness Raising, p.1Lorraine Ray
Copyright 2011 Lorraine Ray
Did I hop up? Did I blurt out “goodness!” in a surprised mousy squeak? Was it really me scrambling ecstatically on my hands and knees across the floor to the battered cardboard box where she kept them? And is that my voice I hear raving on and on, calling them the sweetest, most darling little things, pressing them in pairs against my cheeks?
Somebody should have clobbered me over the head. Somebody should have put me out of my misery. Maureen, as I recall, simply stared. But did I notice the frosty look she fixed on me? Apparently not. I played with them. With her kittens. At a consciousness raising forty years ago I lavishly and tenderly nuzzled teeny meowing kittens.
Raucous were the chuckles that rocked me over and the hearty teary guffaws that I later experienced whenever I remembered that consciousness raising I went to in 1971. Between sips of steaming oolong, with a friend hearing my tale, I would screech: “Comic!” “Misadventure!” Or managed: “Such a boob!” The absurdity of that consciousness raising, of my actions and the actions of my weird host, amused nearly everyone I told. How could I know then what I know now: that the single painful visit of slightly more than an hour’s duration was a portend of worse things to come. After twelve years of torment and a failed marriage, that consciousness raising haunts me, horrifies me now, for had I truly awakened then I would have been spared so much. Those are eerie things, the future consequences, the coincidences, and the pairing of past incidents.
I’ll blame it on youth, for I was scarcely sixteen at the beginning of my story when I sat late one afternoon in my parents' home. As it was an Arizona afternoon in June I spent it indoors with the curtains drawn and the air conditioner on high. In that cool, cavernous environment throughout the long summer months I intended to read the world’s great literary works, though I had been out of school a week and hadn't begun yet, to teach myself Latin and Greek, and to become an expert appraiser of art.
“Do you want anything from the grocery?” my mother asked on her way out the door.
“Oh, nothing in particular. Nothing I can think of,” I said, perching on the piano bench in our living room. What I really needed was a European education, a visit to one decent art museum, thousands of Cliff Notes, and access to a library with more than the collected works of Owen Wister. None of this was available at Food Giant.
“Suit yourself,” Mother said, closing the door. I listened vaguely as her car crunched the fan of turquoise gravel on the drive in front of our small 1950s, ranch-styled tract home. Freedom. The summer of accomplishments could begin. But which of my many challenging tasks should I take up first? I was stymied when the phone rang and I picked it up.
“Je voidrais le parle de femmes importante cette. Quelle?” These extraordinary words, or something like them, greeted me.
My heart began to pump as though a harrow were passing over it again and again. “Huh?” I managed.
“Je pardonnent parle femmes importante y cette?”
Gibberish. I could read the French language, but I was utterly hopeless hearing it spoken by a living person who wasn’t recorded on a cassette in the attitude of an overindulgent uncle speaking to a four-year-old. “I’m sorry, I can’t—”
“Forget it,” said a woman, cutting me off. “Am I speaking to Brenda Bennett?”
“I’m calling on behalf of a group of activist women. We plan to begin an Arizona branch of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. We hope to hold feminist consciousness raising. There are over 100,000 women nationwide participating in consciousness raising meetings. One of our members mentioned your name—possibly—as a new member. Our next meeting is this Saturday at one. Do you think you can attend?”
“Yeah sure. I guess so.”
The caller gave me the address. I hung up and immediately shouted a war whoop. How thrilling! A phone call from a French-speaking intellectual. I wondered what a consciousness raising meant; the term was fairly new then. Would it do me a great deal of good? Needless to say, little was done toward my self-improvement that day; I bounced off the walls instead.
As the week went on and the event approached, however, I began to have real doubts. A consciousness raising sounded a little scary, what was I supposed to do? Who would be there? I wished I had asked the mysterious caller more questions. And when I looked up the address that I’d been given, I saw that I was being sent to a home in the Davidson Addition, a very wealthy subdivision of old adobe mansions. Impressing someone who lived there seemed far-fetched when the most common reaction to me at high school was outright prolonged laughter. Ordinary people thought me stuffy and peculiar, wealthy people thought me poorly educated and goofy. If the invitation wasn’t a mistake, could it be a cruel hoax? The whole thing was vaguely discomforting.
But on the day itself, bravely dismissing my fears, I told my mother I was shopping at Sav-Co and left for the feminist consciousness raising. After a baking trek through scalding cul-de-sacs, there remained a large squalid patch of desert to cross. Past the rusty carcass of a truck and above the prismatic glare of a fine pavement of broken bottles, I finally saw the high ground of the Davidson Addition. Nearing the address, I was amazed to discover that I had been sent to what was unquestionably the largest mansion, one resembling an immense disintegrating wedding cake. The sheer bulk of the white tower on the north end staggered me. Inside the mansion’s outer walls, a black Lincoln straddled the drive. There were no other cars. Though this relieved some of my anxiety, I was still intimidated; the porch light had been left on all night, and a huge moth clung to the screen door quite near the bell. I hated moths and stood watching it, weighing my dread of the soft fat moth body against my concern that someone inside the house might see me acting oddly. At last I crept onto the porch and felt for the bell while holding my body well away from the moth. The chimes reverberated solemnly inside and I was wishing the sound were more muffled in order to reveal any approaching footsteps, when the door opened and a hectic man, a woman, and the moth shot past me without the slightest acknowledgement. “Maureen,” the woman said curtly to someone in the house, “one of your little friends is here. Do try and deal with the mess in the kitchen.” The man and woman slipped into the Lincoln, the solid doors thumping with the finality of a vacuum seal, the tires spinning a stinging barrage of dust at me as the car tore away.
I was stunned. Were these French intellectuals? Surely the woman was a parent speaking to a child. And then the answer came to me. The name Maureen could mean Maureen Maywood, a fellow high school student, a terrifying girl from my fifth period French class the prior school year. Maureen conjugated the French language without error, never mispronounced anything, and received such perfect grades that she’d been exempted from the final exam. Maureen and I traveled in different leagues intellectually. Though only sixteen herself, she exhibited distressing symptoms of a lifetime spent actually knowing things. I, on the other hand, specialized in mnemonic devices. Given her obvious superiority, I was uncertain whether to stay or return home as quickly as possible.
The issue was decided for me. The hazy figure of Maureen materialized behind the screen door. She wore a purple tie-dyed caftan and Fry boots; her long black hair, having just been washed, hung in a frazzled mass, and a squint troubled her goat-like, gray-green eyes.
“Hello Maureen. Is everyone in the backyard?”
“Since you’re here, you may as well stay,” she said, shoving the screen door open in my face.
“I’m sorry,” I said, mincing my way around the screen. “Am I here at the wrong time? Wasn’t the consciousness raising today at one?” I
“I should have realized when I called you that the turnout would be abysmal,” said Maureen. She shut the door. “Of course everyone wanted to hear Plath read at Kachina Hall.”
Not knowing what she referred to, I changed the subject. “How many people are here?” I asked, peering around, groping for a guiding wall.
“You’re the first,” said Maureen. She vanished through a swinging door.
I followed her and found myself in the Maywood kitchen. Under a ceiling of fidgety fluorescence there were piles and piles of dirty plates. I watched Maureen chose a single red
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