My friend Lilah said, “Check it out.” We were walking across campus in upstate New York when she pointed out a flyer. A well-known female performance artist was looking for women, who would be around this summer, to participate in a piece. “Sounds like something we should do,” said Lilah, standing in clogs, a mini-skirt, and a faded T-shirt. I was interested too, but there was a catch: It required getting totally naked in a cave. Was I up to the task?
Lately, I’d been feeling a mild sense of dread creeping in as college came to an end. I wondered how could I inoculate myself against the expectations of the world and my strict mother, particularly since, in order to launch myself forward, I was going to have to go back (at least temporarily) to my dusty, small hometown Winslow, AZ -- a railroad town with about 9,000 people, a medium-security state prison, and some pretty good Mexican food. Maybe getting naked in a cave was just what I needed?
I’d spent the last four years here at school in New York’s Hudson Valley over 2,000 miles away from home. At first it was hard to believe this place, it was so woodsy and green. The kids here experimented boldly with personal expression. A sociable punk-rock kid, Tim, from San Francisco, who had a white blond Mohawk and refused to wear deodorant, put it to me most bluntly one day freshman year when he said, “You are just... so ... fuck-with-able." Meaning you could fuck with me because I was naïve. I was gullible. Funny thing is, it wasn’t a put-down. It was just an observation, and I tended to agree with him. I was a rube from the country.
The last thing I wanted to be here was a starchy Pollyanna. I worried that my mother’s schoolteacher parenting style might have taken some sort of hold over me, along with her long list of worries. But, as far as I was concerned, this was a place where prudish tendencies could be tested, maybe even discarded.
Despite my late bloomer vibe, it didn’t take long before I found my tribe -- a lovable gang of goofballs drawn to physical comedy. We liked to entertain each other by making up fictitious modern dance moves and performing them for each other. “This one’s called Canned Corn,” someone would say, lunging, then putting both arms above her head, clapping them together in a circle, while the others cracked up.
Along with two friends, I signed up for an experimental theater class taught by Assurbanipal Babilla -- an Iranian director and playwright. During each class, we improvised rituals and ceremonies where it seemed someone in the group always ended up being martyred, carried overhead on the arms of our classmates. This is where I discovered that I was, after all, kind of a prude.
One time, as a warm-up exercise, Bani had us stand in a big circle. As per his instructions we were to go around one-by-one saying, “Penis,” then, “Vagina." So it started: penis, vagina, penis, vagina. Some people were saying it boldly, operatically. Other people cracked under the pressure. One girl squeaked, “Vaaagiiinaaa” as if she had just found a spider in her hair. It was most undignified. She couldn’t get the word out of her mouth without squealing. When it got to be my turn, I knew one thing, prude or not, I wasn’t going to make a fool out of myself. I planted my feet, put some energy behind it: “PENIS!”
When I went home to visit, I felt caught between my new world at school, and my old one at home. When I met my parents at the airport, I knew I better hug my mother first, otherwise the tension in her mouth would reset. Her love was not overly tender. In fact, sometimes it was more like a foundation garment. It gave structure, and a mild, pressurizing definition.
My parents may have named me Sativa, after cannabis sativa, a strain of marijuana, but that was clearly the most outrageous thing they had ever done, and they quickly retreated from such radical hippie behavior. My mom never wanted me to step outside the lines, and I didn’t know how to tell her that sometimes I did. That sometimes I felt more comfortable out there.
One night in my junior year, I got an unexpected phone call from home. This was the 90s and my mom was an unrelenting stickler about long distance charges. She only let me call home on Sundays and Wednesday evenings after 8pm. This was not one of those times. When I answered, she sounded upset.
“Listen, I don’t know how to tell you this, but there are some rumors circulating about you back home.”
What? What had I done?
“Mr. C’s daughter has moved to nearby Flagstaff. She is working as a dancer in a strip club."
“Okay,” I said. I knew who she was talking about, it was a high school classmate of mine, but I still wasn’t sure what this had to do with me.
“Well, the thing is,” said my mom, “She’s using the stage name Sativa. Now, don’t worry, your dad and I are going to try and make her stop. Even though we support her decision to, um...dance, we thought we’d write her a letter.”
OH NO! No, no, no, I think. Not because I’ve just found out my classmate is using my name, but because I’m mortified of what my parents might do.
“Mom, are you sure about this?”
“She’s using your name. People think you are a stripper.”
“Well...who cares? I don’t even know if I mind.”
“Well, I do!”
Far from being horrified, the more the news sunk in, the more enjoyable I found it. Plus, if I acted like it was no big deal, maybe my mother would drop it. “Why should I care if people think it’s me?” I said. “It’s not. You know it’s not. Really mom, this isn’t so bad. I can get all the notoriety of being an exotic dancer with none of the work.”
My mom sighed disgustedly. “First, I think we need to verify that it’s true. So tomorrow afternoon your dad is going to visit the bar.”
“What’s he going to do there?”
“Just watch to see if she is using your name. So we can move forward with asking her to reconsider.”
“Mom, we can’t tell someone they can’t use a name.”
The conversation was making me cringe. There was no budging her. I couldn’t wait to get off the phone so I could go say to my friends, "Hey, guess what? You guys are never going to believe this." They, of course, thought the situation was hilarious. Especially when they found out my classmate’s name: Candy.
“What? Candy! But that already sounds like a stripper name,” they howled.
“I know. I know.”
“Do you know her?”
“Of course I know her! We sat next to each other in physics. We were on the pom-pom line together.”
My friends took turns performing impromptu strip routines with pom-pom moves.
Against my wishes, the next day my mom sent my dad to the strip club to verify whether or not this vicious gossip was true. If so, they must take action. Adding to the total awkwardness, my dad got to the club so early in the afternoon the dancers hadn’t even arrived yet. He had to turn around and go sit in his parked car, waiting. Inside, I imagined him sitting quietly in some dark corner while my classmate gyrated.
My parents did write a letter to Candy saying how very distressed they were. Oh, but that’s not all. They also sent a copy to her parents, and another to the bar.
Months passed, and eventually my final spring semester wound down. That’s when we saw the flyer for an open call posted on campus. Lilah called the number. There wasn’t a big vetting process just, “Okay, cool, you’re in.”
On the morning of the shoot, Lilah and I followed the directions. The casting call was for a re-creation of a piece by artist Carolee Schneemann, feminist and pioneer of performance art.
Today, we would be re-enacting her work, "Interior Scroll." Originally performed in 1975, the piece featured a nude Carolee who extracted a paper scroll from her vagina. As it unspooled, she read from it a text that was part poem, part manifesto. For this recreation, she wouldn’t be performing the piece solo, as she had done originally, but with a group of women covered in mud in a cave.
I could hear my mother’s voice, “Why in the HELL would you want do THAT?” She wouldn’t understand this. This felt not just taboo, but mildly dangerous. It felt like the opposite of the life she was then recommending (become a teacher, move down the street from her, start rapidly producing grandchildren).
If I’d been worried about who I was expected to be, then this was my chance to do something about it. I wanted to cast a spell, put some experience out there in the world that I couldn’t take back.
“This is it,” said Lilah. We rolled my car to a stop and found a half-dozen women assembled there. We walked over. There were snacks -- iced tea, graham crackers. Like we were getting ready for a quilting circle. Carolee was there, moving about wearing a floral robe. She passed the scrolls out -- small squares of paper folded up like intricate origami.
A battle cry went out: “Let’s scroll up!” And putting aside our snacks, and reaching for lube, we inserted the paper before walking towards the cave.
There were shallow pools of water. We reached our hands down and smeared ourselves with wet mud. Streaking our arms and legs, helping each other cover our backs like it was sunscreen. We practiced our poses, legs hip-distance apart in a semi-squat. Someone moved all the discarded clothes out of the way.
As the filming began, Carolee cued us to begin extracting the scrolls from our “centers.” With all our voices speaking at slightly different tempos, I remember it was like singing in the round. Row, row, row your boat. Gently down the stream. Pull, pull, pull the scroll. Gently out your seam. During a break, Carolee complimented me on my pacing, and I was deeply flattered.
Afterward, we rinsed ourselves off in the cave water as best we could and signed release forms. She paid each of us $1.00.
Candy wrote back to my parents and apologized for any confusion. The brief letter was written on fish stationary, little round bubbles decorating the margins of the page. My mom had worked so hard to protect my identity from the careless Candy. Safeguard it -- keep my virtue from being despoiled. Meanwhile, I’d been working very hard at something else.
The thing is, I think Candy and I were probably more alike than not. We both wanted so badly to experience the world. If things had gone just a little bit differently, I’m pretty sure it could have been me up on that stage saying my name was “Candy” instead of the other way around.
Lilah and I headed for her mom’s house in New Jersey. The next morning we were driving cross-country. It was time to come home to Arizona. I cut all my hair off. It was the worst haircut of my life. Big deal, who cares? I didn’t. We pulled out of Lilah’s mom’s carport a day later than expected because the air-conditioning didn’t work in my car. Lilah’s mom’s boyfriend took a look and determined the AC just needed more Freon and hooked us up. The word became a mantra “Free On!” We yelled out the rolled-down windows as we took off almost immediately going the wrong way -- ending up on a bridge to Staten Island, laughing, turning around and yelling “Free On” again once we corrected course.
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Sativa Peterson is a writer living in the desert Southwest with her daughter and long-time boyfriend. She has written for xoJane and the Phoenix New Times and has taught several sessions of the creative writing workshop Fems With Pens for young women in grades 7-12. She has a master’s degree in Information and Library Science from Pratt Institute and master’s in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley. Currently, she's working on a collection of stories about being named after cannabis sativa, the Latin words for a strain of marijuana. Find more at sativapeterson.com, Twitter and Instagram.