At first I thought it was a project from Home Economics, a subject that you would think had long been phased out of the college curriculum by 1989, but it was still offered at mine. My friend Liesl had once made a formal skirt for her sister Buffy, a puff of plaid taffeta, that she had persuaded me to wear to the winter formal as a test run, so I thought that this was another experiment for class. I never questioned Liesl’s knowledge about these things—she had an Associate’s Degree in Fashion Merchandising from Fisher College already, only having transferred to New Hampshire to be closer to her fiancée. She held out the length of dark green jersey, pulling it this way and that.
“It looks big,” she said. “They’re supposed to be one size fits all.”
I knew that I was not leaving the room without that green fabric on my body—that was how it always was, with the lace wedding gown, or the velvet corset, or the mohair hot pants. I was Liesl’s model and pincushion and sometime project. After I lost thirty pounds chewing gum and drinking coffee all day and eating my one meal of a salad pita at night, Liesl rescued me from a life of smuggling Lucky Charms from the dining hall to my pothead friends so they could stay in bed and watch Pee Wee’s Playhouse and talk to their equally stoned boyfriends on the shared phone. And she did it with a simple question, “What size are you?”
Liesl and her roommate Kathy had a triple room the size of an apartment, with a Japanese changing screen by one wall for modesty or for atmosphere—I never asked. I never saw Liesl go to class, but I did witness her leaving the building, in Ralph Lauren shirtdress and pumps, white-blonde hair in a bun, smoothed flat in an age when bangs were sprayed into tentacles and leapt off your forehead.
“My beautiful friend,” Liesl would smile at me, when something was working, when something fit, but I knew it wasn’t me she meant, but the way the clothes fit on me and the overall look she had created. But still, any kind of beautiful is better than none.
The green jersey outfit was not eliciting that same awed reaction. It was one-piece, with long sleeves and legs, and it bunched up in the ankles and wrists and drooped in the crotch.
“Nice Gumby costume,” said Kathy.
“These,” said Liesl, holding out two packages and pointing to me, “are Multiples. They are latest thing, trust me. Everyone will be wearing them.” The flat packages all held different pieces of unisex modular wardrobe: bands of fabric, not unlike Moby baby carriers in texture and size, all meant to be wrapped and mixed and matched. She pulled out a white band of fabric and pulled it over my head, manipulated it this way and that way until I had a waist again. Somehow, Liesl talked me into wearing the Multiples to a party that weekend, when my cousin was visiting. I have a picture from that night—I’m leaning into my cousin, completely covered in what appears to be a dark onesie pajama with a white sash around the waist. Like my layered wardrobe, every piece of furniture in the room is stacked on every other piece of furniture: desk on top of desk, bed on top of bed, chair on top of chair, for reasons I can’t recall. And my bangs are huge, and I am smiling and I know without even remembering the moment that I am as unhappy as I will ever be.
All the girls at my college loved Jake Jackson. He was kind of a big guy, with a longish mullet and blue eyes, and he, like all the boys we knew at the nearby flight school, was training to be a pilot. What else? He had a pickup truck. The Jake Jackson worship, it got serious. He had just broken up with his girlfriend and we waited to see which one of us he would choose. I was convinced it would be Nancy, a known boyfriend stealer, with her year-round tan and swaying walk.
We were at an off-campus apartment watching an Andrew Dice Clay comedy show. The room was full of loud New Jersey boys and the routine consisted of disgusting jokes about women, like calling his wife a “fat, fucking baboon” and implying that Old Mother Hubbard had sex with her dog.
Later that night, Jake Jackson asked me to go for a ride in his pickup truck, and I said OK, more out of boredom than interest, and I went. I could feel everyone, even Nancy, watching me follow him out the front door, and I won’t lie—I liked that everyone was jealous. That only lasted as far as the door, though.
The HMO Paper
Liesl got me dressed up in a black dress for a date with a rich boy named Brad, whose father owned some kind of meat packing company. Brad wore a cashmere coat, had a bowl haircut and thick lips, and liked always to be impressing someone. Brad was offended that I was a vegetarian and tried to get me to eat some of his pork chop, just one bite, because then I would see not just how good it was but how natural the food chain was.
“We’re meant to eat meat,” said Brad. “Humans are at the top. If we disrupt the way things should be, who knows what can happen?”
Brad hated my political views. “Liberals are weak. They live in a dream world.”
Brad hated my major. “What are you going to do with that? What good did an English major ever do in the world?” It reminded me of the Bell Jar, when Buddy calls Esther’s poems “air,” only to go on to write his own crappy poems, but I was fairly certain that Brad would not only miss the reference, but find something else objectionable in it that I would be asked to answer to. So I just shrugged.
Brad did like one thing about me, very much. By the end of the night, we had a deal. I would write his term paper for Economics, on something called Health Maintenance Organizations, and he would pay me $50.
It took me three days to write that paper. I actually did the research, studied up on HMOs and then wrote a fairly standard cut-and-paste research paper that Brad had assured me only had to “look good, not sound good.” And even though he made me wait until he got a grade to pay me, I eventually got my fifty dollars in an envelope with his father’s company logo on the front.
When Brad called me again, I was surprised, because not only had it been a terrible date, we clearly had no attraction to each other. But instead, he had business proposition. He would be my “manager” he said, and would arrange for me to write papers for all his friends. The logic was persuasive: As pilots in training, did they really need to write well? When you’re 10,000 feet up and something goes wrong, what are you going to do, write your way out of it?”
“And we—you—could stand to make a lot of cash. If you don’t say anything and we don’t get caught,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
That is how Brad became my pimp.
Nachdenken über Christa T.
It was at this time, when I was wearing the multiples, occasionally making out—to my friends’ continued envy—with Jake Jackson in his truck, writing papers for other people on environmental regulations or Thoreau’s politics or Reagan’s foreign policy, I was assigned to read The Quest for Christa T for my women’s literature class.
I was obsessed with this book, published in what was then East Germany in 1977, which tells the story of a woman recollecting a friend from her school days, Christa T., who has just died of leukemia. She is given a box by Christa T.’s husband containing her journals and other writings and uses this to piece her friends’ life together. I read every word, and then I tried to read it in German, even though I knew exactly three words in German, because I worried that something had been lost in the translation. Reading it now, I do see why it compelled me so; the very first page speaks in bold of the attempt to be oneself, and the rest of the book reads like a mystery novel, an uncovering or recovering of the narrator’s dead friend through the writings she has left behind, but little is revealed in the end. “In making a search though a person’s writing a quest to recover the person herself, to bring her back from the dead,” I wrote in a paper for senior seminar, “Christa Wolf is saying that our words construct us; we are what we write.”
I became convinced that the book held an important lesson, back when I believed that literature was coded, held secret messages that would tell me why I was not happy even though I had everything I was supposed to want. The best I could find was this: “What more can we want than to experience the joys and struggles of our time?” The only problem was that I had no idea what they were.
By the end of the term the green multiple onesie became pajamas and Liesl had moved onto skirts with built-in bicycle shorts and suspenders that made me look like a marionette.
It did not last long, this business of writing papers, paying Brad his cut, and then pocketing my own. I wrote papers about air traffic control, Richard III, and some other issue of the day (Gun control? The death penalty? Senate term limits?), and then one of the boys got caught, was called out in class or asked a question. Brad blamed me.
“You can’t make these papers sound too smart,’ he said. “Maybe you used too many big words.”
He could at least have read it, I protested. If he had only read it, maybe he wouldn’t have been caught.
But it was beside the point, Brad’s silence told me. The idea was to make their lives easier. If you have to actually read something, why pay to have it written?
“Look,” said Brad. “I don’t want you to get in trouble, either. We should stop.”
The last time I wore a Multiple was when Liesl pulled the belt piece over my head and twisted it into a fortune teller’s head scarf. She secured into it a jeweled pin in the shape of a spider that had once been my mother’s, and I put on sunglasses, because they just seemed to go with headscarves.
The dining hall tables had been pushed to the periphery, and we took our places at our own tables. It was our college’s annual giving day, where we raised money for various charities by either selling items or food we had made or providing services, like French braiding or manicures. I was reading fortunes for $1 each—an idea suggested by my women’s literature professor. After spending the weekend studying the cards and memorizing a book I had taken out of the city library (my Catholic college had no books on the occult in its collection,) I felt ready for my first reading.
My first customer was a senior girl named Rena, who stood in the middle of a group of friends, nervously giggling. I fumbled my way through the reading, but she and her friends were eager to help fill in details, to jump at every suggestion.
“Oh my God, this is unreal,” Rena responded. “How did you know that? This is crazy.”
Everyone leaned forward, waiting to hear what else I would say. The dollars kept coming in, and word spread that my readings were uncannily accurate. At one point, I had a line across the dining hall, a queue of college girls all waiting for me to give them the answers, to hand over their futures.
“Oh, the High Priestess,” I would say, no longer hesitant. “That’s a really good card. It means you have a situation that can’t be solved by intellect and reason alone, but by intuition. What is your gut telling you? Go with that.”
“Thank you,” they would say, sometimes with tears in their eyes. “This helps so much. How do you see so much in these cards? You are amazing.”
And I felt amazing, as I plucked a pile of dollar bills from the cup for a brownie, a coffee, and maybe a manicure. Liesl looked up at me from her table and smiled.
Kirsti Anne Sandy teaches creative nonfiction and memoir at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, so she is understandably dreading the moment her students find this piece and learn about her illicit past. Her most recent work has also appeared in The Boiler, A Prick of the Spindle, Under the Gum Tree, Anthem, and Split Lip Magazine. She is currently finishing a book-length memoir, If I am to Have so Much, about growing up in the Boston suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s.