Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls

By Cris Mazza

Emergency Press
January 2011
282 pages


Reviewed by Melanie Page


Cris Mazza's Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls invites the reader into the mind of 40-something Hester. Hester is writing about having been a 23-year-old virgin engulfed by wanting and angst. Twenty-five years later, she finds her entire existence unjustifiable.

She wants to write a journalistic piece exposing a prostitution ring in southern Mexico, but belittles herself until she quits: "And which one of Hester Smith's broken parts would be the one to do it: the failed journalist, failed high school teacher, failed wife, failed lover…." Hester's descriptions force the reader to endure her self-loathing, the deprecating word "failed" repeating as though she is trying to stop the blood that rises while picking the scabs that cover it.

Hester reflects on two teens making out:

Forget how uncomfortable my mother would've been, I can't even conceive of how distressing it would've been for me, at 13 or 14, to even contemplate my butt nestled in a boy's lap and his hands clasped around my hips so low his wrist rested on my pubis. And still would've been unnerved by 18, 20, even 23, maybe even more so—by that time the anxiety compounded because, besides a few sweaty skirmishes in car seats, I still never had done most of the common acts of petting.

Mazza's words neuter the sexual nature of the passage, putting "pubis" and "skirmishes" in the mouth of an adult woman. I wondered how Hester could be so awkward that "petting" hadn't entered and exited her vocabulary by the time she was 18. I half-expected a more frequent use of the phrase "down there."

Hester gets drunk in her boss's office after a grand gesture that could have led to her losing her virginity doesn't work. She dresses as Ophelia, taking her anger out on a glass mug that challenges, "I-BET-U-CAN'T." The scene is both pathetic and amusing: "And seated, slumped, in his desk chair, his work-study student in dazed whiteface, dressed in a bizarre piece of dirty wardrobe." Poor Hester has "failed" again, this time in costume and grease paint. She quotes Shakespeare to explain her heartache—"He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me. Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind. And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, that suck'd the honey of his music vows"—and wins the reader's empathy.

The society that created Hester's self-centered universe retaliates when she tries to create romance: "Upon failure, they told me, in a variety of ways, that I was abnormal, frigid, needed help, or might be a lesbian (they said dyke)." The story will incite rage in readers who, like Hester, struggle to balance sexual abandon with personal comfort.

Hester points out that virginity was never an issue until it was learned: "all the hoopla before I was even curious, all the 'you're-going-to-love-this,' the movie-and-music-and-TV hype that made it out to be something sort of ambrosiatic manna I would spend my adult life ravenously pursuing." Mazza's finger points at a media that pushes women to set expectations for sexual experience, and the message cuts even deeper in a hyper-connected 2011. The result of outside pressures: "After a solid year of marital celibacy, I'd writhed in a sex therapist's office trying to explain that I was afraid, not any longer, except that it still just about always hurt, and maybe I was afraid of that, which, I realized, made the unlikelihood that it would hurt almost a certainty…." I never knew a woman could become physically unable to have sex as a result of emotional trauma until a recent episode of The Tyra Show, which, of course, reinforces Mazza's insinuation that our sexual knowledge comes from the box.

After her chaste marriage ends, Hester heals her physical issues when she gives in to a married man. Comparing the patient husband she has divorced and the confident sexual visitor, Hester writes, "The 'pig,' the man who unabashedly took hold of what he wanted, who just assumed any woman he chose would dissolve into delirium, was rewarded with exactly that, while the sensitive man only knew her rigid phobia." Mazza carefully complicates black and white concepts that ask women to stand by their physical boundaries; Hester is helped by the machismo, and so readers are forced to ask what right we have to deny such women happiness.