Works by Catherine Phillips (age 74) and Marise Phillips (age 51)
A paired reading at Books, Inc. in Alameda, California
Catherine: This is a story of my misspent middle age. I burned through the 80s like a comet. It was the early autumn of my life, my kids were in their late teens — one already in college — and I was determined to make the most of my newfound freedom.
Housewife, no more.
When it came time for me to work outside the home again, I chose something befitting. A job that appealed to the grand ideas I had of who I wanted to be. I worked in sales at the local shopping mall, at a store called Impostors Copy Jewels. It was new and sparkling and fake. Perfect for the 80s. And I knew I was made for it.
Marise: This is a story of my misspent youth. Also in the 80s. I attended UC Santa Barbara, and my first year there was one of complete culture shock. In high school, I was part of the goody-two-shoes gang, a Hermione who always raised her hand, always had the right answer.
Freshman year, I lived in Santa Cruz hall, which was considered the very best dormitory because it sat right next to the beach volleyball pits. I saw college as an opportunity to start fresh. At least I looked the part, with my long beach-y, bleach-y hair, aqua contact lenses, and cute figure. But on the inside, I was still very shy and nerdy, so I drank heavily to fit in.
Catherine: The best part of the day came early in the morning when I did my hair and makeup, and selected the outfit I would wear. Off I went to sell jewelry, primarily to men looking for gifts for their wives, girlfriends, and daughters. I didn’t care. I flirted with them all.
There was nothing subtle about the 80s. There was only more. More makeup, bigger hair, sexier clothes. I was enjoying every bit of it. But I was, despite all the fun (or maybe because of it) a really good salesperson. I became expert at what I did, because I loved the job so much.
Marise: My keenest wish was to find a boyfriend. Since I never dated anyone at my own high school, I hadn’t learned the rules of playing the field in a closed, gossip-filled environment like the on-campus dorms. So it didn’t take long for me to start making rookie mistakes. I went to all the parties, set my sights on a tall blond guy down the hall, went back to his room and slept with him. There was no date, and no second time. Soon after that, he hooked up with another girl who lived on our floor, and they ended up dating the rest of the year. So I drank some more.
The guys in room 204, Jake and Tim, were epic hosts. Most weekends were an all-day/all-night open house party in their room, starting about 3pm on Thursday afternoon. They kept the Beastie Boys on repeat, bongos at the ready, and the cheap beer flowing. They convinced us drunker girls to dance topless one time. I never did that again; I felt way too insecure about my flat chest.
Catherine: The best time came when the shop hired a new manager. His name was Paul. We were the only two on duty his first day. Instead of introducing himself to me in the usual way, he simply arched an eyebrow and said, “Let the games begin.” And they did; oh, how they did.
Paul and I both liked to buy things: clothes and shoes and fragrance… and jewelry, especially. There was always more of everything in the stores, more to buy, more to consume. So that’s pretty much where my paycheck went, and Paul’s too. We smoked like steam engines at work, and treated ourselves to champagne and strawberries in the break room. We had brandy in our coffee when we worked late.
Marise: Everyone knew my roommate, Stacey, was a virgin. She studied opera. We had some things in common: She was valedictorian of her senior class in high school, and I had the highest SAT scores at mine. We both loved Depeche Mode and would plink out the song, “Just Can’t Get Enough” on her little electronic keyboard. Every Saturday morning, though, she would wake up at 8am and start practicing her arias. So I started sleeping over at room 204 from time to time.
One morning I woke up naked in Jake’s bed. He wasn’t in it. I scrambled to find my bra, underwear, shorts, and crop top. Reaching down to the floor from his top bunk made my head spin. I took a breath, and the previous night’s events came flooding back.
Catherine: Paul was the 80s for me, and everything that decade implied. We had exciting times together, selling and buying, smoking and drinking, and so many laughs. I’ll never forget the day he announced he was taking a round the world trip. He said he’d be gone for a year. Sally, the store owner, loved him nearly as much as I did, so she let him take a leave of absence. Meanwhile, I stepped into the role of interim store manager.
His trip ended in a record 6 weeks. That’s how long it took to max out his credit cards. His mother had to send him money to get him back home, after being stranded in Egypt. No matter. He shrugged it off, moved in with her, and came back to work with us. There was always more laughter, more cigarettes, more bourbon, more, more, more.
Marise: I’d drunk way too much the night before. The last thing I remember was taking a little nap in the room next door from 204. The guys who lived there were friends of Jake and Tim. People came in and out, smoked pot, chatted, and laughed at me all passed out. At one point, Jake came in and told the guy whose bed I was in, “Make sure she doesn’t leave. She’s mine tonight.”
My reaction to this was very odd. I felt simultaneously terrified and honored. I knew I was in no state to consent; but of course, that concept was not widely discussed in 1987. I honestly just felt like I owed Jake something, for all the kegs he bought and all the times he let me sleep over.
Catherine: The 80s continued in a rush, and Paul and I rushed with it. The amount of debt Paul was in didn’t slow him down much, it just opened his eyes to the untapped possibility of thrift stores. So the days we didn’t work, we shopped. And shopped some more. We found a particularly excellent place in Santa Ana that offered wonderful items at bargain prices.
I still use one of the best things I bought at that shop: a large mirror with an interesting wooden frame. It looks like someone made it from an up-cycled vintage window. It’s painted a mauvey dove gray, a color I’ve loved since the 80s. Today, the mirror sits above my vanity table, where I sit and apply my makeup. It all seems very fitting.
Marise: So although I could have gotten up and walked down the hall back to my own room, I waited obediently. I didn’t tell whoever that guy was, who was watching over me: “No way. I’m not staying here.” So, yeah. I woke up in Jake’s bed the next morning, and thought, “This is all my fault. I’m the slut of Santa Cruz dorm.” My internal narrative echoed in the whispers I heard in the corridors and dining hall, for the rest of the year.
As spring quarter of our freshman year came to a close, the dorm’s social committee organized an impromptu little awards ceremony. Everyone got a song dedicated to them, representing something funny or memorable about them. My roommate Stacey got the “Like A Virgin” award. The one they gave me was, “Just Can’t Get Enough.” I pretended not to be insulted, and held my head high as I carried my award to the edge of the beach, where I sat alone.