Reflections of an Aging Feminist
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
IT’S THEIR TURN NOW
My sophomore year of college I miraculously scored a double dorm room all to myself. The soaring penthouse ceiling met a wall of windows overlooking a courtyard lively with the comings and goings of my fellow students. A narrow loft ran the full length of the room opposite. Best of all, the room was painted a screaming yellow that perfectly matched my joy and the now ever-shining sun.
I loved that room. Late at night, I’d fire up my pot pipe, put on headphones and dance ecstatically to Stevie Wonder. Once the light arrived, I’d lace up my sneakers and run through the dewy, drippy redwoods, thundering across the deserted wooden bridges over the dry creekbeds. By mid-morning my “kitchen” ‒ a Mr. Coffee and a mini-fridge ‒ attracted caffeine seekers from the far ends of the floor. In the evenings my “living room” ‒ a saggy old sofa I’d rescued from a Dumpster ‒ was the place to crack a Coors or fire up a joint.
Towards the end of that glorious first semester, I got a notice I’d be assigned a roommate after the Christmas break. “Please help us select a good match!” the letter said. A checklist and questionnaire followed. Smoking? “None,” I lied. Night owl or early bird? “Both,” I wrote. Favorite activities? Were getting high and dancing “activities?” I put down “Hiking, art, photography and writing.”
When I returned to campus in January of 1977, I’d almost forgotten the whole roommate business. It was inconceivable I’d have to share my happy yellow hideaway. Wasn’t it? I put my duffel down in the hallway and wrestled with the key.
Swinging open the door, I spotted her right away. Hunched on my decrepit couch, knees demurely together, hands folded politely, was a very pretty girl. Huge sultry eyes, dark hair, a model’s high cheekbones. Full, pouty lips.
“Hi” I said, startled.
“Hello?” she breathed. “I’m, uh. Sheila?” Like she wasn’t sure?
“Ah. Roommate. That’s right.” I felt slow. Stupid. “Well, hello. Have you been here long? Where’s your stuff?”
She sprang lightly to her feet and pointed a slender finger to the loft. Her jeans were so tight they looked as if they’d been painted onto her shapely hips and thighs. An enviable pair of breasts strained against the confines of a stretchy top. The girl was a knockout. I was suddenly conscious of my own frumpiness. My scuffed Earth shoes and baggy Ben Davis overalls. My unbecoming self-administered haircut. Worst of all, the soft bulginess of my hips and tummy, the deplorable rolls round my waist. I pretended not to care about appearances, but the truth was I wouldn’t play a game I couldn’t win.
“I put my clothes up there? I, um. Saw it was empty? So I thought I’d stay in the loft?” Was everything a question?
“The loft?” I asked her. “You don’t have to go way up there. We can get a bed for where the sofa is.”
“Oh no! It’s fine, really. I don’t have much.” She gave me a shy, dazzling smile. “And besides, look!” She sprinted up the ladder, lithe as a cat, and peeked back at me from between the railings. “I can hide up here!” She giggled.
I can’t say I ever got to know Sheila because how can you know someone who’s your exact opposite? I’d lived in Africa, England, Europe, back east and the southwest; before Santa Cruz, she’d never left L.A. I’d been drinking, smoking, and drugging since high school; Sheila had never tried mind-altering substances of any kind.
“You smoke, like, marijuana?” she’d said. “Marijuana?” Who even called it that?
I’d reluctantly relinquished my virginity at age fifteen, and subsequently endured meaningless, soul-shriveling sexual encounters, often with virtual strangers. Sheila freely enjoyed the swiveling heads and salivating leers of the opposite sex seemingly without feeling any obligation to satisfy the lusts she stoked.
Her steady boyfriend drove up from L.A. nearly every weekend. Rick was a mild-mannered, unremarkable young man of average height and build, with pleasant, nondescript features. He rushed to open doors for her, leapt up to fetch her a drink, his watchful, worshipping gaze never straying from the sight of his beloved. The first time he came, I assumed I’d need to stay at a friend’s so they could have their privacy.
“Oh, no.” Dismay writ large in those big brown eyes. “We aren’t even married? I’m saving myself for my husband.” The girl was a virgin? Rick stayed at a motel.
I was deeply invested in my things – my carefully curated record collection, my books on kitsch and roadside architecture, my artwork. Sheila seemingly cared for nothing but make-up and clothes.
Her ultra tight jeans ‒ there was no stretch denim in those days ‒ necessitated a lady-in-waiting to get on. I became that person. Lying on the floor, my roommate would squirm, wriggle and wrestle them to her hips, suck in her stomach and grasp both ends of the waistband as I struggled to get the zipper up. Both of us laughing so hard we’d lose our grip.
“Stop it!” she’d pant, breathless. “Now we’ll have to start all over!”
Academia was a game I could win; the “A”s I earned compensating for my shortcomings. That spring semester I took The Psychology of Creativity, Studies on the Future, and Ecology and the Environment, so captivated by my coursework I often read past the assigned pages.
I wasn’t sure Sheila even went to class. I never saw her with a book, heard her talk about her professors or adhere to a schedule. I had no idea what she did outside the yellow walls of our room, but within days she attracted a following. I’d return from class and she’d be holding court like a queen, her smitten suitors arrayed like limp petals round the perky head of a daisy.
At first, I didn’t understand I was both invisible and inaudible. “Oh, I read a book about that!” I’d chime in. Or “I’ve been there too!” My commentary wisping away unacknowledged like vapor in the heady pheromone-laced air. There was only one woman in our room, and it wasn’t me.
My friends stopped coming by: there was no room for them, either. I hung out in their places, missing my Mr. Coffee and sofa, a displaced refugee from the one-woman beauty pageant in my former sanctuary.
Nearly every weekend, Rick arrived and the fan club mysteriously vanished in a seamless choreography I never thought to question. How did she do that? Did Rick know? Would he have cared?
The previous summer, my roommate had been invited to a party at Hugh Hefner’s mansion, where she’d caught the eye of the Great Man.
“Hugh told me I’ll be a centerfold. In the, um. April issue?” she said in her oddly halting way.
“A centerfold?” I gasped. I was a Betty Friedan style feminist, and Playboy surely an architect of the patriarchal propaganda machine, the women between its covers mindless puppets. Should I enlighten my poor misguided roomie? Show her the evil hands wielding her gaily dancing strings? I did not.
Partly, I was impressed. And ashamed of it. Partly, I understood her intoxication. And envied it. Maybe Sheila would become famous. Eager reporters knocking on the dorm room door. “I helped her with her pants!” I’d tell them.
My friends – poets and artists, archeology and poli sci majors ‒ were as scandalized as I was.
“Your wacky roommate Sheila?” Ann, who spent summers digging fossils, sneered.
“It figures. That girl’s no Einstein.” Cathy was chapter head of the student Democratic Party.
“Barefoot, pregnant and at the sink. That’s her future,” Exeter preppy Ted said.
But despite my beliefs and ideals, I liked Sheila. She was fun, and silly, and sweet. I couldn’t see her as an enemy of the cause, or even a victim. Maybe she was just different from my friends and me. Could that be okay?
“I was, um. Fat, in high school?” she explained once. “But last summer I, um. Went on a juice cleanse? I lost a lot of weight. And that’s when I met Hugh.”
“Was Rick your boyfriend then?” I knew they’d been together for a long time. “When you were fat? And afterwards, when you got skinny?” I had to ask.
“Oh yes. We’ve been together since eighth grade. He wants to marry me.” I wondered again how Rick would feel if he knew about her admirers. And what he thought of her Playboy plans. And which Sheila he liked best, Fat Sheila or Beautiful Sheila?
One day I came home to find my roommate alone, for once, in our room, cross-legged on the floor, cradling a bright silver machine between her long legs. Her expressive brown eyes shining.
“It’s a juicer!” she exclaimed in response to my raised eyebrow. “My check came, so I, um. Got this juicer? It’s top of the line.”
“Oh, you know. My scholarship check.”
Sheila had a scholarship? I’d never known anyone less scholarly. Was this why she had so few things? She was a scholarship student?
“But Sheila, don’t you have to use that money for school? For books and things?”
She looked at me blankly. Then at the shiny machine.
“Oh, it’ll be okay,” she said cheerfully. “Watch this!”
She flicked a switch, brandishing a stalk of celery, and the device whined hungrily. As she fed it a sickly green concoction frothed into a waiting bowl.
I’d never seen a juicer, except the manual kind. Sheila’s appliance reduced whole vegetables into fibrous slurries within seconds. After the gentle hiss and gurgle of my Mr. Coffee was replaced by the whir and whine of her juicer, our room was atom-bomb-meets-produce-aisle, walls flecked orange with carrot fragments, carpet stained purple from beet sludge. The girl was wild for that juicer. I realized I’d never seen her in the dining hall. What had she eaten, before?
One afternoon I noticed an older man among the herd paying homage to my gorgeous roommate. Was he a professor? Someone she’d met in town? Sheila didn’t normally introduce me to her admirers ‒ did she even know their names? ‒ but this time she made an exception.
“Katie, this is Shel. He writes children’s books?” How many Shel-who-writes-children’s-books could there be?
“Are you…Shel Silverstein? Uncle Shelby?”
It was. I couldn’t believe it. Other kids had Mary Poppins, Christopher Robin and Stuart Little. I had Uncle Shelby’s Zoo. The Slithergadee, Glub-toothed Sline, and One-legged Zantz were like members of my own family.
Balding Uncle Shelby glanced my direction, distracted. It was just a fraction of a glance, really. I was suddenly self-conscious of my cruddy jeans and baggy sweatshirt.
“Oh my God, I just loved Uncle Shelby’s Zoo,” I gushed, launching into The Slurm: “The Slavery Slurm at the first sign of trouble will squiver and squimmer and bend himself double and worgle his elbows up into his ear and pull in his ankles and just disappear.” Sheila’s suitor grimaced, annoyed.
“Glad you enjoyed it,” he lied, returning his attentions to his would-be Playmate. I bet Sheila had never even read Uncle Shelby’s Zoo. Sickened with humiliation, feeling like one of Shel Silverstein’s own ugly monsters, I pretended to straighten my bedspread. If I could have pulled up my own ankles and disappeared, I would have. Uncle Shelby had ruined his Zoo for me, and with it, a part of my childhood.
In February I noticed a big mesh bag of avocados next to the juicer.
“You can’t just eat an avocado straight?”
“Oh, no. It’s a juice fast, you see. You don’t just, um. Eat vegetables? You have to juice them. Otherwise it’s not a fast.”
That made no sense. Calories were neither created nor destroyed by altering their form. Right? But what did I know? Sheila was thin, and I was fat.
My girl liked avocados. A lot. Soon, the bags of broccoli and beets, turnips and carrots were replaced by piles of the oily black fruit. The girl who never ate now seemed to be eating – or rather, drinking – all the time. It was avocados, avocados, and more avocados.
After a few weeks, her once-high cheekbones began to recede into her newly ample cheeks. A pillowy double chin emerged. The seams of her already tight pants threatened to mutiny.
“Sheila, I can’t get the zipper up,” I protested one morning.
“Please!” she implored. “Don’t quit.”
But though the spirit was willing, the flesh was no longer sleek. “I can’t! I gotta go to class.” I didn’t want to be late for my Futures seminar.
By the end of March, my roomie was no longer the hottest girl on campus. She was still pretty, but no more so than half the women there. The crowd in our room thinned to a few diehards, and then disappeared altogether.
Before, she’d strutted across campus with a bounce in her step and a joyous (if unhinged) grin on her beautiful face. Now she skulked, eyes downcast and shoulders slumped, afraid to draw attention to herself. Was this what she’d been like before she lost weight, I wondered? Ashamed of her very existence?
For spring break that April, I made plans to see my dad in Bakersfield. As I left our room, duffel over my shoulder, Rick grappled with an armload of Sheila’s clothes. I wondered why she was taking so many. It was only a couple of weeks.
“Are you going home to L.A.?” I asked her.
“Um, yes? I’m going home?”
Did that mean “yes,” or “maybe” or “I don’t know?” I’d never find out.
Entering our room a fortnight later, I sensed something was missing. I cast my gaze around the cheerful yellow room. The juicer! Had Sheila taken it with her? That made sense, I supposed. The girl needed to eat.
Sheila didn’t return that night, or the one after. Classes started, and still no sound of her key in the door, no tread on the ladder to the loft, no shriek of the juicer. By Thursday, I was concerned enough to ascend to her lair. The space was devoid of a single trace of its occupant, as clean and empty as it had been before her arrival. Where was she?
I’d never gotten her address or home phone number. I went to the Student Affairs office.
“My roommate’s gone,” I told the lady at the desk. “Sheila Rivera, room 308?”
The woman ‒ a generic, been-here-too-long-to- care, soon-to-be-retiree ‒ scrunched her trifocals up her nose and squinted at a purple mimeographed sheet in a manila file folder.
“Mm-hmm. Incoming freshman. Looks like she withdrew. Aren’t you lucky? You’ll have the place to yourself the rest of the semester.”
It didn’t take long to reestablish my domain. Mr. Coffee regained pride of place atop the mini-fridge and slowly, like disturbed birds returning to the feeder, my friends flocked back. Within weeks, Sheila was a story instead of a person, an almost mythological presence who’d existed to teach us – what? That we were better and smarter than she? That we had higher values, were deeper thinkers, were more worthy than a vain bimbo from L.A.?
“What do you think happened to her?” Cathy wondered. “She never went to any classes, did she?”
“Maybe she was on academic probation,” Ted offered.
“She spent her scholarship money on that juicer,” I reminded them. “Maybe she got busted for that, somehow.”
“Do you think she freaked out because she got fat again? That she didn’t want people who’d only known her as thin to see her like that?” Ann asked.
“Maybe. But her boyfriend still loved her.” I remembered Rick’s adoring puppy-dog eyes seeking Sheila’s approbation as he’d wrestled her coat hangers and shoe boxes that last time I’d seen them. What did he think about what had happened? Would he remain faithful through thick and thin, and then thick again? And what about Playboy? Surely Hugh Hefner would drop her, now she was no longer svelte. Would Shel Silverstein dismiss her now, too?
In April, my three friends and I parked outside a seedy liquor store in downtown Santa Cruz.
“You go!” I told Ted. “You’re a guy, at least.”
“Yeah, it’d be too weird for one of us,” Cathy and Ann agreed.
“No way,” he said. “You three go together.”
So Ann, Cathy and I, not yet old enough to buy alcohol, purchased the latest edition of Playboy along with three packets of peanut M and Ms and a bag of Fritos.
Afterwards, we gathered in Ted’s room, locking the door before removing the brown paper wrapper off our prize. Cathy ceremoniously opening the magazine to the center, where Sheila should be. But who was this? Instead of our brown-haired beauty, a voluptuous big-haired blonde with cantaloupe breasts lolled coyly on a bearskin rug. Ted scrutinized her with academic interest, but he did not, would not, could not ogle her. Most shocking to me was her yellow pubic hair. I’d always assumed it only came in one color. Brown, like mine.
After the collective shock of our first exposure to pornography, we leafed eagerly through the rest of the magazine, past the vulgar cartoons and smutty jokes, searching for our girl. Finally, towards the back, we spied a small head shot of Sheila, the photograph no larger than an inch square, but definitely her. “Sheila Rivera, a student at UC Santa Cruz, is June’s upcoming centerfold.”
“Wow,” Ann said. “Not April.”
“She must have gone home to starve herself,” I said.
“That’s gotta be tough. To get so close, then so far, from her dream.” Cathy sounded thoughtful.
“We’ll have to buy another Playboy in June,” Ted said hopefully. But we didn’t. By then our lives had shifted course, as they will at that age, as I dropped out, Ann transferred, Cathy took a year off and Ted graduated. Years later, when we reconnected, we’d forgotten about our wanna-be centerfold.
As the decades passed, I’ve occasionally marveled at the roommate matching strategy that paired me with a Sheila Rivera. I’ve told the story of the Icarus girl who flew too close to the sun, her waxen wings melting in the whir of a juicer. Sheila became a stand-in for an archetype, a one-dimensional Barbie doll to illustrate my feminist cautionary tale. With each year she crossed my mind less frequently until last week, when she arrived in a dream. There we were, back in that happy yellow room with its soaring ceilings and wall of windows, laughing together like little kids.
Now Sheila, like me, would be sixty, or nearly so. I wondered how life had treated her.
My friend Sarah once said, “I just took it for granted, when I was young, that men would notice me. And for many years they did. But now I’m invisible, and I won’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. But then I’ll see a pretty young girl, the center of all attention, having the time of her life, and I think to myself, ‘Well, it’s her turn, now.’”
I wondered if Sheila had made peace with getting old, as we all must. I’d noticed the process seems harder for women with a certain type of beauty, with more to lose.
I typed “Sheila Rivera” in my browser. Immediately, Google helpfully supplied “Playboy model.” She’d done it! I was pleased she’d succeeded in what had seemed to be her only goal. Further investigation revealed I could purchase a vintage copy of the magazine in which she’d appeared, but I decided one Playboy purchase was enough for a lifetime. Still and ever the feminist in my own, now archaic way.
I hit the back button and there was another helpful prompt. Sheila Rivera, Auralyft Facelift testimonial. The thumbnail-sized image on my computer screen looked nothing like the girl I remembered. I wasn’t sure I was ready for this. The Internet being such a Pandora’s box. You lift that lid, you’ll never get the pestilence back in. But the video beckoned and sang like the sirens in Homer’s Oddyssey. On impulse, I clicked the link.
I wouldn’t have recognized Sheila if I’d encountered her on the street. Or even if we’d been introduced. Had she always had such duck-like lips? Her once lustrous dark hair was now a dull, dead brownish-blonde. Only her speech rang true. Still so hesitant.
“At forty-seven I was, um? My most beautiful?” The camera showed her forty-seven year old self. It was the Sheila I remembered, her girlish loveliness now morphed into a womanly glamor.
“Then in my fifties it was like the roof caved in?” A photo even more awful than the first, duck-faced one showed Sheila pre-facelift. She resembled one of Uncle Shelby’s monsters, disfigured almost beyond recognition. Her roof had caved in. Even I’d have considered going under the knife, if I’d looked that bad. Betty Friedan be damned.
“So if your roof fell, you’d, um. Get it fixed, right?” I studied the Facelift Sheila. Like all women who get work done, she looked more like an extraterrestrial impostor than a human female. An oddly elongated upper lip seemed frozen in place, immobile, while an overly fat lower lip wagged too hard, as if to compensate.
“So, after my facelift I was, um? At the bank? Admiring a child? And, um, the teller asked me if I was planning on having more children! Like, um. She thought I still could? So, she must have thought I was, like, um, in my late thirties?” She seemed so pleased to have been mistaken for a younger woman. Even one who was no longer beautiful.
Oh Sheila, I thought. It’s their turn now.