Susan Lilley

When We Were Stardust

In the days before you could get your ears pierced at a kiosk in the mall, we had to do it ourselves. The process involved a sleepover; the more experienced girls presided, equipped with needles sterilized with cigarette lighters, liquor stolen from parents for anesthesia, towels, and plenty of ice. It helped if bravery-inducing music was blaring—Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” or “Brown Sugar” by the Stones, anything by Sly and the Family Stone—all good for overcoming fear. I had avoided being home-pierced by always being off in the kitchen making onion dip, mixing Bacardi with Coke, or managing phone communications with the outside world. I was terrified of physical pain and saw no reason to ask for it. The sight of the ritual sent chills up my spine: a cluster of night-gowned girls with hair rolled in orange juice cans all bearing down on their victim, who lay frightened but strangely willing, like an ingénue in a vampire movie, against a bank of pillows, waiting for the exquisite stab.

“Shhhhh, y’all. Listen for the pop,” the high priestess would say as she jammed the needle through the frozen lobe, her left hand holding the ice to the back of the ear with a washcloth. “Post!” she commanded, and one of her minions would hand over the tiny post earring with a small golden ball as its ornament. The first pop sometimes made a girl vomit, but never did anyone chicken out of the second ear. There was no going back.

I longed for pierced ears—for twinkling gems, for sophisticated thick gold hoops, for hippie-chick peacock feathers. I mooned around the jewelry counters at department stores gazing at the various textures and shapes of silver and gold. But there was no avoiding the pain unless your parents were willing to pay for a doctor who could do it with a special gun that just shot the earrings in at bullet speed and you couldn’t even feel it.

One day in biology class, I admitted my fears during a lab practicum on hibiscus dissection. My three lab partners and I lost interest in class easily, and the potentially fun “reproduction” unit had bogged down in the plant world. My best friend Kate and I had landed another set of best friends, Vicki and Debbie, as table partners. As white girls in the early decades of Florida school desegregation, we thought of Vicki and Debbie as our black counterparts; they possessed authoritative good taste in fashion and music, were willing to share gossip and theorize extensively about sex, and they laughed at the obscene parodies of Dionne Warwick songs we wrote during lectures. We kept generally separate worlds outside of school, but we adored Vicki and Debbie and assumed they loved us back. Why wouldn’t they?  Like us, they believed they were better and smarter than most people at school. We led a small but exalted life at our lab table, bubbling effervescently under the sneer of Mr. Grove, our long-suffering science teacher who often remarked that we had the attention span of aphids.

Debbie, a tall and regal beauty whom I had come to respect as wise in biology, as well as many non-academic subjects, offered an alternative to the earring problem. She told me about the virtually pain-free phenomenon of self-piercing earrings, a pair of which she had at home and would lend me.  “Girl,” She said. “Why put yourself through all that mess? This will be easy.” She explained how you put the thin little loops on, and within a couple of weeks they would slowly but surely push their way through your earlobes, and there you are.  Pierced and ready for gold.

I was ecstatic. Why wasn’t everyone using these things? The next day, we sterilized the magical earrings over a class Bunsen burner and attached them to my virgin lobes. Our lab table celebrated by breaking out the bologna-and-cheese sandwiches Debbie’s mother packed every day for lunch. We cut them into fancy canapés with the switchblade Vicki’s boyfriend had attached to her keychain for protection. Mr. Grove had gone into the hallway to have a cigarette, so we spent the rest of the period poring over Vicki’s new copy of True Confessions, a magazine she found fascinating. She asked Kate and me if that was how white people actually lived. That question stumped me. For one, those stories of adultery, divorce, and switched-at-birth babies seemed light-years from high school life, white or otherwise. Also, it never occurred to us that True Confessions was limited to the white world, but we had to admit we had never seen an African-American on the cover the whole school year. Kate proposed that we collaborate on a made-up true confession and submit it to the magazine to find out if the whole thing was a scam. Between the four of us, we could come up with a doozy.

That weekend the earrings really started to pinch. I suffered without complaint until Sunday night; my mother discovered them when she leaned over and stroked my hair behind my ear to kiss me goodnight, a gesture I usually found comforting, even in my most snarly teenage moments. I yelped with sudden pain and she saw the little wiry circles in my puffy, red earlobes.

“Lord, have mercy! What are those?”

I tried to explain the scientific advantages of the self-piercers, the only humane method available to girls whose parents would not make a simple doctor’s appointment. Although she said I could have the stupid appointment if it meant that much to me and I could pay her back with babysitting money, I declined with a martyr’s sniff and said I would just see the process through. Now my pride was involved. I couldn’t back out when I was surely near the goal and had bragged to everyone that I had found the one way to pierce your own ears “without pain.” I certainly could not look like a quitter in front of Vicki and Debbie.

I started whining privately to Kate when she picked me up for school the next morning. By Wednesday I was openly moaning at the bio lab table. In the distracting daytime, the pain was dull and bearable, but at night it was excruciating. I was losing sleep. Everyone was sick of my carrying on, and Kate hatched a plan to take my mind off my ears. Friday night we were going to pick up Vicki and Debbie and have an extremely big time. It was a full moon, Kate’s mom was going to be out, and we were stocked up on supplies: taco-flavored Doritos, Tab, and whatever alcohol we could lift from my parents’ liquor cabinet and store in aspirin bottles. Our boyfriends shook their heads, said to be careful going to that part of town to pick up our friends. That was just the kind of unenlightened crap that pissed us off, so we were more determined than ever to bring Vicki and Debbie into our world outside of school.

We drove into the unfamiliar neighborhood on the west side of town in Kate’s black Chevy Supersport, singing “I Want to Make it With You” at the top of our lungs along with Bread on the tape deck. It was a gorgeous, exhilarating Florida twilight, the moon rising like a sphere of hammered gold on the horizon. We found Vicki’s house easily, and before we could go up to the door or even honk the horn, they came hurrying down from the front porch, where they had been watching for us.

The plan was to have a few drinks and snacks at Kate’s house, then take Vicki and Debbie to see the movie Woodstock, which Kate and I had already seen and felt that all human beings must see to make their lives complete. We were stardust! We were golden! And we yearned to bring our new girlfriends into the garden of love with us. After giggling through the first round, Kate and I congratulated ourselves in the kitchen for such amazing success in the progress of racial relations in our community. By around nine it was clear that we were not going to make the movie. Apparently unused to the white ritual of underage drinking, Debbie was lying down in Kate’s bedroom while the room spun, and Vicki was vomiting in the hall bathroom. Kate and I fluttered from one to the other like moths, bringing cold washcloths and club soda. We tried to talk to them, but it was as if they were from another planet, their eyes big and frightened in this strange house with these strange girls. They were shaking. There seemed to be no going back, nothing we tried could bring back the evening’s early euphoria. They wanted to go home.

When they finally seemed well enough to travel, we packed them into Kate’s car, Debbie in front with Kate to navigate in the dark, and Vicki in back with me holding a giant Tupperware bowl just in case. When we got to Vicki’s street, we saw two boys we sort of recognized from school pacing under a broken streetlamp, their faces like thunderclouds. Vicki jumped out and began to cry on one boy’s shoulder. Debbie sat still and tall, looking her angry boyfriend up and down before she made a move. She turned toward me in the back seat, and at first I thought she was going to hug me. She put her hands on either side of my head, and with her long, elegant fingers she pinched the wire hoops hard enough that I heard the pop as they pierced on through in a double-dart of blinding pain.

“Thanks,” I said as I climbed, trembling, into the front seat next to Kate. We waved wanly at the two boys, who did not give a single acknowledgement of our existence. Kate drove carefully and slowly back home under the same moon that had smiled luminously on our inebriate joy just a few hours before, but now dangled pale, small, and useless in the vast, impenetrable dark.


Susan Lilley’s work has appeared in Poet Lore, The Southern Review, Drunken Boat, CALYX, Sweet, Slipstream, and other journals. She is the 2009 winner of the Rita Dove Poetry Award, and a recipient of an Individual Artist Grant from the State of Florida. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Night Windows (winner of Yellow Jacket Press Poetry Contest) and Satellite Beach (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her MFA is from University of Southern Maine.