Random House/Villard, 1997
Nineteen fifty-nine: I’m six years old, sitting cross-legged on the rough brown rug in front of the black-and-white television set in my parents’ bedroom, entertaining myself with Queen for a Day, a game show, where powdered and permed housewives in flowered print dresses compete to be crowned. Each contestant pitches a lugubrious tale to the studio audience, detailing why she cannot survive one more day without the grand prize—which is always a large, shiny, new appliance that radiates power and heat from beneath its smooth skin of stainless steel. (Maybe Oprah got her start watching Queen for a Day, too.) At the end of each show an applause meter measures whose sob story is the audience’s favorite and the winner is bedecked with a rhinestone crown and a full-length velvet robe. Most important, she receives the prize she so desperately craves: a dishwasher, a washing machine, an electric stove with four burners and a deep-fry basket.
The contestants lick their lips, jump up and down, clap their hands, squeal with excitement; desire glows across chubby faces. No boredom here. Just pure lust. They don’t seem much different from me and my friends playing Barbies. It’s all fantasyland: everything you always wanted; everything you always wanted to be.
Nineteen seventy-eight: Nineteen years later, I’m lying on my back in a small tent in Acadia National Park, Maine. Sleep slides out of my reach as my boyfriend snores and several thunderstorms collide and crash above our heads. The quantity of rain that sluices down the hillside on which we are camped is astonishing.
My mother toilet-trained me by turning on the tap in the bathroom sink, and every time I hear the tinkling sound of running water I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs after the bell. Now I fervently regret the bottle of wine we had at dinner. I cross my legs, squeeze my thighs, curl my toes. I think of deserts, dry mouths, hot winds.
After a while, I nudge John. “I have to pee,” I whisper.
“So go,” he says sleepily.
“It’s raining,” I hiss, contemplating the logistics and wondering how wet the sleeping bag will be after I tromp out into the swamp of our campsite.
He’s silent, listening. After a minute he says, “I have to go, too.” And with that, he kneels in front of the tent flap, unzips the fly, lifts his penis in his hand, and pisses out into the night, a long majestic stream of relief.
I feel a flash of pure, unadulterated penis envy—envy of such magnitude that Freund would surely applaud. My feminist bones despise John and his extremely useful dick.
Fifteen minutes later I uncross my legs and scramble for the opening.
“I’ll dry you off when you come back,” he calls helpfully as I stumble out into the dark to squat barefoot and bare-assed in the teeming mud. Water pours over my head, shoulders, breasts, back, belly, and thighs, and splashes up onto my bottom.
I return, shivering. John helps towel me down, but my side of the bag is soggy now, my feet are freezing, and I can’t get warm. As his snoring threatens to drown out the sound of rain running against canvas, I ponder the unfairness of anatomy: anatomy is clearly not destiny, I decide, but it’s definitely damned inconvenient.
I imagine what it would be like to have a penis, just for one day: No waiting in the serpentine line running from the ladies’ room back to the entrance of the movie theater. No wrestling pantyhose over your hips while breathing through your mouth in the Portosan. No scrooching over a urine-splashed toilet seat and praying for balance. No pant cuffs wet from the puddle of pee left on the floor of the airplane lav by the guy(s) with bad aim. No frantic search of your pockets and purse when you realize, too late, that the toilet dispenser is empty. No crossed legs on long turnpike treks. Just the side of the road, a bush in the woods, a French pissoir, a quick trip to the urinal. Oh, for a shake instead of a wipe!
When I was a little girl I longed to be the queen with the rhinestone crown, screaming in ecstasy over her new washing machine. Now that I’m grown up I’d pick a dick any day.