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“Getting the Hang of It”

(see Phyllis’ interview on EYE)

From the Ladies Home Journal, 1974


By Phyllis Theroux

Phyllis Theroux | The Journal Keeper | Photo by Duane Berger

Rocking slowly back and forth, pressing the worms in my chest against my hunched-up knees. One little daughter banging for all she’s worth against the front door. The baby, needing to be changed, crying in the backyard. A husband fixing the brakes on his bicycle on the patio. And I am rocking back and forth, not knowing where to place my hands, fix my gaze, or rest my soul.


When the time finally came, I was quite glad to be done with blue jeans and undershirts. One September afternoon my friend Patsy’s mother came to the front door and said that Patsy “wouldn’t be coming out to play today.” I cocked my head toward the second floor and heard radio tunes straining through an open window. I realized Patsy’s time had come. She had dropped out of neighborhood games in favor of curling her hair and pushing back her cuticles with an orange stick. My own participation in ‘Kick the Can grew more desultory. And when my breasts began to hurt from catching hard foot balls, I dropped out, too.

I remember vividly the romance of girlhood when it finally arrived: Merry Widow waist cinchers, crinolines, knowing that I was a rather good dancer. To be perfectly truthful, I didn’t date a lot of boys who measured up to the Big Prize, but they did serve as hooks on which to hang own private visions of marriage.

My tastes lay with the earnest young men who suffered, which brought me into much contact with the short, the acned and the shy. We confessed to thoughts of suicide, fear of breakdowns and worries about Cod. After an evening spent turning over our notions of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness for each other’s inspection, we both felt terribly meaningful. I assumed that this kind of conversation would go on with whomever I married. The little wife would serve up those uniquely feminine insights. I could hardly wait. I had so many stored up.

Always I am trying to communicate. Always he is trying to avoid it. When my soul writhes, I am annoyingly ready to talk about it. Only if I were to take away his children would there be consternation. That is the evil, smelly, never-to-be-played trump card.

In various ways, my family taught me to pity those hot-blooded girls who lent themselves around. It was strongly implied that whereas those thoughtless creatures would marry truck drivers, or worse, I would have my pick of the Ivy League. And so it was that I spent my adolescent passion on the volleyball court, while my peers were getting drunk under their parents’ pianos. I might have been tempted to go astray had I been sought after by the studs of the neighborhood, but they were much more interested in what was going on under the neighborhood pianos.

Here we all are at breakfast. “Starts a man off happy,” mother said. So we get with the orange juice, the frying pan, the buttered toast, the bacon. “Hi, sweetie, here’s the paper.”

Here we all are again at dinner.

Off with the denim skirt, on with a little eyebrow pencil, Simon and Garfunkel. “Hi, sweetie, did you have a good day?” Dinner on the table, fresh corn tonight, clean faces, family together. My bones are singing with fatigue.

“So why aren’t we eating in the kitchen,” he demands. “Look at the crap the kids have dropped on the carpet!

Damn, there it goes—one day’s worth of scenes ruined by the last take, I can’t take another suffocating minute of it.

My parents were very disciplined about keeping their grievances against each other away from us, which made me very good at not taking them into account at all. I graduated from flats to heels, took planes, spent weekends away, and drank steadily of the Hi-C of life.

Once my mother said, with a sigh, that she wished there was a boarding school for grown-ups that she could check into and live the life that I lived every day. But who would gather anything sinister from that?

I am nowhere. Old sources have been blown away. Still there’s that old lust for tenderness, waiting for an arm to gather me in and bury me against a warm chest. Not tonight. With a half-dozen leg twitches, he kicks himself asleep.

Fear freezes anger. Anger apologizes to fear, I am ready to take the pledge again tomorrow. With the orange juice and bacon the Simon and Garfunkel, the positive approach, and time on my side—all in the hopes that there won’t be crap on the carpet or whatever it is that will roll the day back on top of me. One of these days, I’ll get the hang of the slot machine and it’ll come up three cherries. I release the handle and search for sleep.

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