Christine Sneed

Objects of Desire

1.

The women who remained free of notable roman­tic entan­gle­ments  — the Simone Weils and Mother Teresas — might have died with their vir­gin­i­ty intact, but it seems safe to assume that most famous women have giv­en in to appetite and hap­pen­stance, the two prin­ci­pal deter­mi­nants of human mis­ery and delight.  Unlike the vir­gin­i­ty of famous men, the vir­gin­i­ty of famous women implies a stricter vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in the moment of its loss.  Before or after her face or work became famous, the woman had to give her­self to some­one, some­where, pos­si­bly unex­pect­ed­ly, and it is often her nature, unfor­tu­nate or no, to say that she was for­ev­er changed by it. 

Whereas Mae West made a career of trum­pet­ing her lim­it­less hunger for male flesh, oth­er stars take a more demur approach and choose instead to show their fans that they have trav­eled far from their vir­ginal days by mar­ry­ing a suc­ces­sion of unsuit­able men, some of the lat­er ones fad­ing play­boys or else much younger than their famous brides.  Sex and the famous woman are always close asso­ciates, but many female stars do not dis­cuss such mat­ters with jour­nal­ists or talk show hosts — if they decide to divulge any­thing, they save their secrets for the mem­oirs which also fre­quent­ly fea­ture con­fes­sions relat­ed to abu­sive par­ents or par­ent­ing, crash diet­ing, drug abuse, unbri­dled spend­ing and sub­se­quent bank­rupt­cy, an obses­sion with a charis­mat­ic old­er man, a depen­den­cy on psy­chics or gurus.  The smartest famous women, the anthro­pol­o­gists or politi­cians or doc­tors or writ­ers, how­ev­er, usu­al­ly stick to the sub­jects that have defined their lives — the years in the Orient or Africa or Washington, the famous friend­ships — their vir­gin­i­ty nev­er men­tioned, only implied in the appear­ance of a hus­band or a spe­cial friend; in their case, the mind always, seem­ing­ly, pre­empt­ing the body with its vora­cious intel­lec­tu­al or polit­i­cal imper­a­tives.

 

2.

But what of the famous women whose vir­gin­i­ty is made much of by the stars them­selves?  The young pop singers who proud­ly announce that they will wait until mar­riage to bestow this gift upon some very lucky man, their pho­to­genic faces and sun­tanned, long-legged bod­ies fea­tured on the cov­ers of count­less glossy mag­a­zines — their suc­cess, implic­it­ly, due in part to their vir­gin­i­ty, despite their bor­del­lo wardrobe, despite the unend­ing queue of libidi­nous suit­ors.  Their absti­nence serves as both rep­ri­mand and encour­age­ment to all of the ador­ing fans who find them­selves lac­er­at­ed by hor­mon­al dri­ves, many per­pet­u­at­ed by the young beau­ty her­self.  Yet these fans, most hav­ing nei­ther the com­fort of wealth or fame, have no clear idea how to sup­press their desires — it being much eas­i­er to try to sat­is­fy them, despite the prob­a­ble eccle­si­as­ti­cal damna­tion or humil­i­at­ing preg­nan­cy.

Thus, the vir­ginal famous woman is alter­nate­ly a paragon and the most extreme agent of sex­u­al frus­tra­tion.  She is the girl that innu­mer­able strangers take into their beds at night, no mat­ter who already lies next to them; she is the wink­ing accom­plice of the des­per­ate mas­tur­ba­tor, the would-be femme fatale who, if only her most wor­ship­ful fan had one chance to meet her, would imme­di­ate­ly fall for­ev­er into this pas­sion­ate stranger’s strong embrace.  She is at once mor­tal and immor­tal — Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake — for­ev­er dead but intense­ly present in the innu­mer­able pho­tographs and films that remain, reminders that these beau­ties once lived to be observed and adored, whether or not they ulti­mate­ly were destroyed by this ado­ra­tion.

 

3.

Marilyn’s vir­gin­i­ty: we might assume that she was still Norma Jean, pre-blind­ing blondness, cer­tain­ly pre-Joe and Jack and Arthur, pre-Tinseltown force of nature, pre-Diamonds, pre-Misfits, pre-tran­quil­iz­ers, but not, we hope, pre-teen.  With the aid of her Hollywood han­dlers, Marilyn became the eter­nal woman’s woman as well as the defin­i­tive man’s woman.  She wore the dress while also try­ing, but appar­ent­ly fail­ing, to wear the pants.  Dead at thir­ty-six, a young woman thrust unhap­pi­ly into obliv­ion, yet dis­ori­ent­ing­ly, at any giv­en moment, her image is alive and glow­ing on thou­sands of tele­vi­sion and com­put­er screens — vivid, infi­nite memo­ri­als to her girl­ish­ness and wit and myth­ic fem­i­nin­i­ty.

No mat­ter whom she was des­tined to become, on one extra­or­di­nary day, she was embraced and caressed by some­one for the first time, was made to feel the pecu­liar, urgent weight of his desire for her.  This man might still exist some­where, recip­i­ent of and par­tic­i­pant in the only first time there would ever be for her.  It is hard not to won­der how he felt about this event after she became who she was des­tined to be — this first lover of Marilyn undoubt­ed­ly aware that no oth­er lover would be as momen­tous for him, no mat­ter how dull or bum­bling or botched this ini­tial cou­pling might have been.

 

4.

Deflowered — the word implies shame, rank ugli­ness, a for­bid­ding absence where pre­sum­ably some­thing once flour­ished.  The famous woman might nev­er speak frankly of her deflow­er­ing or her sex­u­al­i­ty for these very rea­sons, but even­tu­al­ly, after a long des­per­ate patch of noth­ing but com­mer­cials, she might con­sent to film­ing sex scenes in an art-film-gone-ter­ri­bly-awry that are fat­ed to become her hall­mark.

What of the famous women who admit to hav­ing spent an after­noon or two on the cast­ing agent’s couch?  Many of us will for­give them, if we care at all, but some of us will be cen­so­ri­ous.  These famous women might insist they had no choice, that they had to make these painful sac­ri­fices in order for their work to enter our lives and add mean­ing to them.  They sub­mit­ted to these amorous preda­tors because they knew it would be over fast and the rest of their lives could then begin.  Sex one of the most desired cur­ren­cies, though para­dox­i­cal­ly so eas­i­ly had in a land of beau­ti­ful hope­fuls who can’t help but wor­ry this indus­try man might be their only chance.

And what of the porn stars who have retired from the busi­ness but have some­how man­aged to make their old work seem glam­orous?  Some porn star­lets have gone on to write books, some to mar­ry famous artists, some to offer sex advice on radio shows, their male co-hosts often fail­ing to hide their erec­tions and proud­ly say­ing as much.  The vir­gin­i­ty of the famous porn star is per­haps the far­thest shore, so dis­tant and fog­gy that it’s almost pos­si­ble this state nev­er exist­ed or else is so pre­pos­ter­ous to con­sid­er that the star­let feels more shame for hav­ing once been a vir­gin than the fear­less sex­pot she was fat­ed to become.

 

5.

For many, it is more unset­tling to con­sid­er Eleanor Roosevelt’s or Margaret Thatcher’s first time than Elizabeth Taylor’s or Catherine Deneuve’s.  With the for­mer, the sound of tubas might come to mind; with the lat­ter, vio­lins or maybe harps.  The idea of the loveli­est women plun­dered — in this resides our most las­civ­i­ous sub­lime.  We hope for their plea­sure and will it in those rooms of many years ago where the lights were off or the sun was sti­fled by heavy cur­tains.

Nevertheless, the Eleanors and Margarets deserve as much pruri­ent bliss as the Elizabeths and Catherines — it is only that the more ungain­ly the woman, the more like­ly we are to turn our eyes or thoughts away from the spec­ta­cle of some­one lov­ing them.  Our roman­tic or sala­cious imag­in­ings depend on our sub­jects’ grace and beau­ty, these twin attrib­ut­es so often absent in our own sex­u­al rela­tions where our options are almost always lim­it­ed to the province of mere mor­tals.  Those we have made famous bear the bur­den of our desire for the inef­fa­ble, for near-galac­tic effu­sions of sex­u­al joy.

 

6.

I real­ly do love every one of my fans,” said one famous woman at a press con­fer­ence for her new movie.

She did not mean this lit­er­al­ly, of course, though a few fans had no grasp of the nuances, and even­tu­al­ly she was forced to hire extra body­guards and request restrain­ing orders.  The famous woman is some­times like a fortress with crum­bling walls.  She is vul­ner­a­ble to the mania of her fans in a way that the more-sound fortress­es of famous men rarely ever are.  The famous are always at risk, espe­cial­ly the sex­i­est ones, there being no lack of lovelorn, some­times dan­ger­ous obses­sives in the world, but the famous woman, more so than the famous man, often sens­es that she lives a hair’s breadth away from sex­u­al vio­lence.  The pub­lic woman is afflict­ed by the dire need to pro­tect the pri­vate self, but she also knows that to do so is to risk los­ing her pow­er over those who have bought the brands she endors­es, the tick­ets to her movies or con­certs, or those who have read her books.  The slight­est hint of irri­ta­tion wit­nessed by the watch­ful eye of her mer­cu­r­ial, greedy pub­lic could mean that the next big project will end up an embar­rass­ing flop.

The real ques­tion is how the famous woman man­ages to keep her­self from exclaim­ing, “I can’t imag­ine ever want­i­ng to know any of you peo­ple.”

 

7.

You know that we can take our pick,” one famous woman was over­heard say­ing to anoth­er famous woman who had to agree.

But what to do with all of the ones who nev­er are sum­moned to the gild­ed cham­bers where the famous woman lets down her silken hair?  Each week the big star or else her sur­ro­gates must face the piles of fan let­ters, some includ­ing pic­tures of quite a bit more than their senders’ faces, some with mea­sure­ments and mir­a­cle claims and fierce­ly earnest pro­fes­sions of undy­ing love to match the lust.  As the famous woman ages, these let­ters become more impor­tant, her advanc­ing age borne like a shame­ful social dis­ease — it almost seems her fault that she is no longer as fair as she used to be.  Only oth­er famous women know pre­cise­ly how painful it is to be con­front­ed, some­times dai­ly, by all of your for­mer selves — the pho­tos and the work from much-younger years sur­viv­ing in the pub­lic mem­o­ry, almost like a trans­gres­sion that can nev­er be for­giv­en.

Though far worse is the fact she might be for­got­ten, that oth­er younger, gen­uine­ly tal­ent­ed and love­ly women will replace her, that her best self and best turns will some­day mean noth­ing to any­one but her­self and a few of her sad­dest fans.  It might be best to die young like Marilyn who was so excru­ci­at­ing­ly desir­able up until her death that she was all but assured her leg­endary sta­tus.

It might be best, con­cludes the famous woman, to sleep with whomev­er I want to right now.  She has to face this chilly fact:  unlike cer­tain famous men who keep the motors run­ning long past dis­be­lief, she won’t always have the fuel.

 

8.

She remem­bers most, if not all, of them.  There aren’t as many as the skep­tics have spec­u­lat­ed, but there are more than she imag­ined for her­self when still a teenag­er with bad skin and dis­grace­ful­ly shiny braces on her top teeth, long before fame and exclu­sive hair­styl­ists and a minor flir­ta­tion with a plas­tic surgery.  Certainly there have been more men than she would ever con­fess to her moth­er or priest or new ther­a­pist.  Some of her lovers, inevitably, have been her lead­ing men.  All of those skilled, for­eign hands on her body for count­less takes, all of those beau­ti­ful male mouths — not to men­tion the thrill of the burn­ing lights, the mon­ey to be made, the dozen pairs of tech­ni­cians’ eyes; the vast machin­ery of celebri­ty did even­tu­al­ly inure her to the shy­ness that had assault­ed her with her first few lovers.  Whatever prud­ish­ness still over­takes her from time to time she knows to be spe­cious, but like the pre­cise num­ber of men she has tak­en to her bed, she will nev­er con­fess — above all else, she wants to be adored.  Every sin­gle day, she wants to be reached for, to be the name on the red­dest, plumpest lips, to be the dream with­in the dream that a mil­lion admir­ers awake to remem­ber in the mid­dle of the night.  There has seemed no nobler ambi­tion.

Despite the string of dis­ap­point­ing hus­bands, she finds that she can­not give up.  It has been her life’s work to make the rest of the world believe in the myth of the per­fect lover:  she has dis­cov­ered that the most seri­ous haz­ard of the pro­fes­sion is that she has fall­en for it her­self.

~

Christine Sneed’s sto­ries have appeared or are forth­com­ing in PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2012, Best American Short Stories 2008, Ploughshares, New England Review, Southern Review, and a num­ber of oth­er jour­nalsHer first book, a short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won the 2009 AWP/Grace Paley Prize, Ploughshares’ Zacharis Award for a first book, and was a final­ist for the Los Angeles Times book prize.  Bloomsbury will pub­lish her sec­ond book, a nov­el titled Little Known Facts, in February 2013.