Observatory Drive

by Glenn Deutsch



It was supposed to be a chaste cup of coffee at a café, unlike the time a few years earlier when our lunch date ended in fellatio. Fran had changed little since that last rendezvous, except that her hair, which used to reach her waist, was cut in a spiky bob. We were at Steep & Brew on State Street, ordering pourovers. The two of us went back to spring of my junior year at the UW, when I’d recently turned twenty. Eight years older, divorced, Fran was a receptionist at the Campus Assistance Center, where I’d walked in carrying a stack of flyers. She had a curvy body, lovely brown eyes, and an easy laugh. We talked at the front desk for a little over two hours before she invited me home. Six years later, we were sitting across from each other at a little round table near the barista counter, discussing her plans to apply to grad school at the UW in education or social work. I said my wife and I were considering a separation and I’d outgrown my small-time magazine job and wanted to see if I could land a better one in New York. That Ana María had in mind going to law school in Washington, D.C., and if that happened, we might ask my parents on Long Island to help raise our daughter, who’d be a kindergartener before long.

It seemed a far cry from our previous assignation, when after she went down on me, Fran suggested we could be like the couple in a romantic comedy called Same Time, Next Year, about a man and woman, both in their twenties, both married, who meet at dinner, have an affair, and continue to step out of their marriages to have trysts on the same weekend for twenty-six years.

At some point I glanced at my watch and said I needed to pick my daughter up soon from daycare. Steep & Brew was a block from where I had parked my car and Fran had secured her bike, and we walked together. It was a summer-like afternoon in April of 1982. We spoke of the record-breaking cold winter, Belushi’s overdose, Reagan, until we rounded the corner onto Lake Street. Then Fran told me she’d gotten pregnant the night I was still in college and we saw Behind the Green Door in Bascom Hall and had sex in the grass on the other side of Observatory Drive.

As we stood and faced each other in front of the little post office across from the Campus Assistance Center, the parking garage just steps away, I recalled something from that evening of my senior year: when I was on my back on the lawny slope that leads to Muir Woods, our jeans lowered, and Fran straddled me, a fleeting realization that she wasn’t wearing her diaphragm.

“You didn’t have the baby… did you?” I said.

“I had an abortion,” she said.

*   *   *


When I attended the University of Wisconsin, in the mid- to late seventies, the same few popular X-rated films were shown several times a semester by a handful of student film societies. Dirty Ed Productions and the others specialized in titles like Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones, The Opening of Misty Beethoven, and Behind the Green Door. Those engagements were part of bigger scene at the UW, which in cinema circles was known as a major film campus. Eighteen or twenty film societies yearly sponsored hundreds of art and foreign titles, Hollywood classics, and recent releases in 16mm. Upwards of 3,000 of us a week would congregate in classrooms with 200 or more seats: 6210 Social Science, B-10 Commerce, B102 Van Vleck, 2650 and 3650 Humanities, 165 and 272 Bascom. Admission was a buck—$1.50 or $2.00 for the XXXes.

The hardcore flicks we saw were from porn’s golden era, whose dawning in the early seventies happens to be a story line in the HBO series The Deuce. They were actual films, not videos, somewhat artistic, with actors and soundtracks and plots (however ludicrous).

The rooms were rooms, not movie theaters, much less your couch or bed. Common gathering places, where light crept in from corridors and windows. Seeing pornos in rooms where you’d taken notes on a professor’s lectures on One Hundred Years of Solitude or the law of mass communications or the anatomy and physiology of race, being one spectator amongst hundreds of other thrill-seeking male and female filmgoers, almost exclusively fellow students, was a happening, not like putting in a DVD. Or streaming porn. Seeing pornos in lecture halls was also unlike sitting in a porn palace of yore scattered with men in raincoats jerking off furtively or paranoically scanning to make sure no one they knew was aware of their presence.

I saw The Devil in Miss Jones in a stuffy meeting room at the University YMCA on Brooks Street, bunches of us perched on the windowsills because there weren’t enough seats.

The university had a hands-off policy regarding film content but also a tacit agreement with the X-rated film societies that the groups would not advertise beyond campus kiosks and campus newspaper listings. Whatever the rating, the UW captured some of the box office: room rental reportedly started at 35 percent of the first $500 of receipts, and grew as the gross did; projectors also had to be rented.

Only a few years earlier, Madison’s students were preoccupied with anti-war demonstrations. Not that I ever thought of them as such, but communal showings of pornography were a poor substitute.

*   *   *


Bascom Hill is a drumlin that remains the heart of the UW campus. To reach the peak from North Park Street, you trudge upward almost three hundred yards on a nearly ten percent incline. But then you are rewarded with a view down State Street all the way to the state capitol, about a mile east. Bascom Hall, one of the university’s first three structures, was built in the Renaissance Revival style, crowning the hill in 1857. A bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln sits in front of the building, rising sixteen-and-a-half feet tall.

I remember being surprised that Fran, whose name I have changed here, would call and invite me to a screening of a porn film, since I hadn’t thought we were seeing each other anymore. I met her inside Bascom standing in a long queue to get in. When we arrived at the box office—two guys, cashbox, folding table in the hallway—she paid for my ticket, saying, “My treat.”

The lecture hall seated around 500, and had a proscenium arch and a ceiling with ornate beams and inverted dome chandeliers framed in brass, and skinny radiators hugging the wall beneath tall windows divided into many panes.

I remember I sat to the left of Fran, and Fran had the last seat in a row near the back of the room. They were wooden auditorium seats, with iron-armed desks you would pull up from in between yours and the seat to your right. The kind of seats that would creak all throughout the room, whether the occupants were squirming with boredom or from desire.

While I remember the lights staying up more than they would have at a purpose-built movie theater, that may not really have been the case. I may remember it that way because, however much seeing Behind the Green Door was a campus happening, however much it felt like a communal gathering, I felt more than a little uptight. As a non-exhibitionist, I grew afraid Fran might want to do more than just rest her hand on my thigh and brush her fingers along my erection. Afraid too I might lose enough of my sense of propriety to where I’d want to do more than occasionally feel her wetness through her jeans. Nearby might have been friends, former or current classmates, teaching assistants and professors, even if I didn’t see any. It was a big school.

I also feared we might draw the attention of someone else Fran had slept with. She had been frank in telling me about her sexual history when we started going out. With an aggrieved tone in her voice and look in her eyes, she once told me about a boyfriend, someone she conjured up by surname only, who only wanted her in bed anally and decked out in garters and stockings. I was happily who I was with Fran: not her most experimental lover, but daring all the same in my eagerness to experience the usual ways men and women make love, and just completely naked, thank you. Fran had also told me, again not long after we started dating, that she’d been to bed with thirty people (to my three, including her). So it didn’t seem a far-fetched fear that at Green Door there might have been at least one other person she’d had sex with, someone who was a perhaps better lover than I was. I’m sure I was conscious of a particular summer weekend when I couldn’t reach her on the phone, after which she told me she’d had sex all night long with another guy. We hadn’t pledged monogamy, but still—after she told me that at the bungalow she and a friend shared on East Mifflin Street, I biked furiously on my new ten-speed back to my place on West Mifflin, exhausting myself toward the end of the mile-and-a-half ride by racing up and down the hilliest streets I knew in Madison: the first few blocks of East Mifflin before the Capitol Square. That kid who was me, who had been shown by none other than Fran how to get up on a racing bike, how you stand to the left, hold the handle bars, put the left pedal in the eleven o’clock position and your left foot and all your weight there, push off with your right leg, and throw the leg over the seat once you’ve gotten up a little speed.

*   *   *


The videocassette all but killed off campus film societies, the rise of the religious right and anti-porn feminism hastening the demise of the ones sponsoring hardcore films. Still, Behind the Green Door remains a porn classic, is recommended in DVD by, for instance, Babeland, the venerable woman-owned sex-toy shop.

More than anything else, the film was made famous by the fact that Marilyn Chambers filmed it months after modeling for Ivory Snow laundry detergent as a mom snuggling with her infant. I don’t recall seeing the box with Chambers on the front except in photos. (It’s not like I would have known anyone who washed baby clothes back then.) The filmmakers tipped off the media that Procter & Gamble’s model had become a porn actress; publicity from the scandal caused the company to pull the box from circulation, and turned Green Door into a smash hit.

Film critic Carrie Rickey, in her essay “Behind the Green Door: Deconstructing Gloria,” from The X List: The National Society of Film Critics’ Guide to the Movies That Turn Us On, writes about seeing the movie with a boyfriend at the University of California, San Diego, in 1972, shortly after it opened. Rickey was nineteen, the same age as Chambers, whom she describes as an innocent “Meg Ryan type” playing a character who is abducted and whisked off to a private sex club “where onstage she is stripped, caressed by tender women in black cassocks, suckled by a coven of hippies, and penetrated by male trapeze artists in crotchless tights. Thus pleasured, Gloria becomes an avid pleasure-giver, fellating one trapeze artist as she milks the other two, and whipping partners, club patrons, and movie audiences into Chantilly cream.”

*   *   *


I remember Fran taking my hand as we exited Bascom Hall and telling me what she had most liked about the film. Even more than the center-stage action, the way everyone in the crowd got so turned on they had to have sex. I was still thrumming with the image of Marilyn Chambers on a trapeze taking on several men. I don’t remember if we crossed Observatory Drive a little to the west and hustled into the grass from near the Carillon Tower and Social Sciences, or crossed directly northward and descended the several rows of torso-sized boulders that slope down toward the lawn. Then, I was on my back, the doors to Bascom Hall no more than seventy yards behind my head. Muir Woods loomed immediate and dense as a wall beyond the thick leather soles and stacked leather heels of my banana-tan, square-toed boots, which Fran sheathed in my bluejeans. Scattered saplings grow today on that apron of grass we chose for a bed, including a pair of black locusts a few feet from each other; maybe we hit the ground in between them. Not that a tree or two would have provided privacy if someone had passed by on the sidewalk a few feet above us, or a campus bus had turned the bend and shone its lights just so.

It was late autumn, and fallen leaves dotted the cool ground beneath me. The semi-secluded, leaf-strewn expanse of lawn where Fran had claimed a spot for us by throwing down her Levi jacket could easily have accommodated the couplings of a dozen or more of our fellow filmgoers. Even so, no one else came down and found a place on either side of us.

My eyes were full of Fran and the forsaken treetops behind her; of her long brown hair, redolent as always of coconut, wondrously tropical in the chill air, and which she now and then gathered in a twist and flung behind her; of the ampleness held within her bra, a lace-topped white one, which I saw when she lifted her soft rag sweater over her breasts, an action that also seemed to fill the air with her signature perfume, and of her nakedness below. I watched her eyes as they darted from mine to whatever she fixed on beyond the crest of the short, steep grade that made it seem as though I were propped up in an enormous outdoor sleigh bed. Her eyes flickered with light cast by a globular street lamp that stood just beyond the sidewalk and illuminated a fork in walking paths. Her eyes were light brown with amber flecks and dark lashes, and seemed almost too pretty in her face, since her lips were somewhat thin and narrow. “Tell me what you see,” I said at some point, and Fran closed her eyes and said, “People fucking. Watching.” Intermittently I was bathed in Fran and pleasurably shocked by the brisk air.

*   *   *


I have often wondered why Fran waited five-and-a-half years to tell me she’d gotten pregnant and had an abortion. Possibly she thought she might never see me again, and needed finally to share something serious from the casual relationship we once enjoyed. In any case, when she did tell me, we were standing across from the place where we first met, the Campus Assistance Center.

The UW information and referral service for students and faculty still exists, but no longer on the first floor of an old house the university owned for many years on Lake Street. Various student-run organizations had offices upstairs. Presumably when I walked in the front door carrying my flyers that afternoon of my junior year, Fran asked from behind her desk what thing I was promoting. (I’ve long since forgotten.) I do remember she pulled a chair over for me, to be near hers, and we talked as other staff members and students now and then drifted by, until the center closed for the evening. I’m sure she told me among other things that she was an only child and had grown up in a small town some fifteen miles outside of Madison. Mother was from the Greenbush, the largely Italian neighborhood in Madison that’d been razed for urban renewal. Father was a former postmaster in her hometown—perhaps she told me this later—who was caught embezzling. That she was nearly thirty and divorced seemed a sexy combination, suggested she was experienced. She also seemed very unlike my former college girlfriend, a fashion and textile design major from Tucson who was tall and angular and reserved. Fran said her father called her Karmann Ghia, after the VW sports car, because she had “the body of an Italian made by a German.” (Maybe she didn’t tell me that until later that evening.) Sitting close to her, I probably commented on the scent she wore, Diorissimo, declared it sweeter than Chanel No. 5 and even more alluring. Fran manifested her sense of humor every so often by striking twitchy-ironic faces like Chevy Chase when he played the news anchor on Saturday Night Live. I’m sure I also tried impressing her with my serious side. How I was going to chair the Wisconsin Union Directorate Ideas & Issues committee as a senior largely on the strength of my bringing Margo St. James, the “chairmadam” of COYOTE, the San Francisco-based prostitutes rights organization, to campus earlier that spring. She’d drawn the first SRO crowd at Great Hall since the Vietnam era. I imagine I also told Fran about my senior thesis idea. It was going to be about how the born-again presidential nominee Jimmy Carter was redefining civil religion by so openly invoking the God of the New Testament in his campaign speeches: a calculated corrective, my theory went, for our post-Vietnam, post-Nixon era. Fran told me later she had liked how business-like I seemed that afternoon. Anyway, coming up on closing time, she called for a cab to take us to her place. It was past twilight when we left. I remember a coworker, a woman, following us and standing beneath the porch light as we were stepping down to the street, our white and red Badger cab waiting. With a hint of a smile (or without; I wish I could recall), she called out to Fran, “Are you okay?”

Fran’s was the first boudoir I made love in. It was aromatic always with Diorissimo’s green, fleshy lily of the valley effect and more carnal notes of jasmine and custardy ylang-ylang. She kept heavy fabric across the windows, candles and jewelry and more on a couple of bureaus. Her bed was a lofted double, everything about it soft—she had many covers and pillows (and two cats).

So, that was late spring of 1976. We dated that summer and began drifting apart early the following fall semester. And then later that semester, we had our Behind the Green Door tryst.

*   *   *


A few weeks later, I started going out with my future (and eventual ex-) wife. I’m sure I managed to tell Fran about Ana María fairly soon after we started seeing each other.

Ana and I more or less consciously failed to use birth control, and I became a husband and father before turning twenty-two.

I’ve come to know a thousand college students over the last decade-plus as a teacher, and have been unable to imagine any as parents at their age. But the truth for me is that I had been in love and wanted to be a father then with Ana.

One afternoon in the spring of 1978, I was holding our infant daughter on the front porch of the house on East Johnson Street where we had a tiny apartment, and I saw Fran on her bike gliding to a stop on the sidewalk and smiling up at me. We waved to each other at that distance. East Johnson is a busy street, and she was passing by and curious what I was up to, I remember thinking as she rode off.

If Fran had continued on with her pregnancy, her due date would have fallen somewhere in June or July of 1977, and my daughter would have had a half-sibling not even a year older.

*   *   *


Fran and I stood momentarily in front of the little post office on Lake Street, which later was turned into a McDonald’s. Her bike was chained on the other side of the street, in a rack on the UW Bookstore side of the Campus Assistance Center, and so we crossed. I was aware enough to know uttering, “You didn’t have the baby… did you?” wasn’t the nicest response to learning she had gotten pregnant. Now what was I to say to finding out she had terminated the pregnancy?

It seemed too late to offer a platonic hug to show I was supportive. I remember also feeling she had told me those things that were important and final as part of saying goodbye, the news meant someway to be punishing, and I was seconds away from reckoning with it on my own.

The one thing I was positive of was that I had never imagined being in a permanent relationship with her. Certainly not as parents.

Before I said anything else, I tried imagining myself in college learning I had made her pregnant. And that she’d had an abortion. In that moment I had the luxury of imagining myself going with her to a clinic or at least helping to pay—a fantasy, so detached.

On another level, realistic and lasting, the knowing transformed a wild sexual encounter in college into a leaden thing. It added consequence. It transformed my memory from fun tryst into an incident that should have altered everything for me but, thanks to Fran’s decision to terminate the pregnancy, did not.

In supporting a woman’s right to choose, I think of Fran. And of me.

Even so, in the seconds it took us to cross the street that afternoon, I experienced a conflicting emotion. I’d had a vasectomy not long after my daughter was born, had convinced a urologist who claimed a better than seventy percent reversal rate to do one on me even though I was only twenty-three. I was that persuasive. Why? Because Ana and I didn’t care for any normal method of birth control, for health, reliability, pleasure reasons; she was Catholic and abortion would have been anathema; and I thought of my sterilization as impermanent. And so it struck me as Fran and I crossed the street—how else to say it?—that might have been the only other child I would’ve ever had. It turned out not to be so; I underwent a successful vasectomy reversal in New York less than eight years after the original procedure, anticipating I would eventually meet someone with whom I’d want to start another family, as in fact I did. But that selfish thought I had had that summer-like afternoon in Madison, that Fran’s pregnancy had been my only chance of having another child in the world, that was before I could’ve known.

Sex is complicated. That’s the most and least obvious thing to impress itself on me as a result of knowing Fran had an abortion after that night we saw Behind the Green Door in Bascom Hall and got off afterward in the grass on other side of Observatory Drive.

But all I could think to say as Fran retrieved her bike that afternoon outside the Campus Assistance Center was, “I wish you’d told me.” She had already bent down and thumbed open the combination lock, and stood, and was wrapping the plastic-coated chain around her waist, where in the middle she squeezed the lock once again shut. “We wouldn’t have had it anyway,” she said.


Glenn Deutsch has published essays and short stories in Post Road, Confrontation, Gargoyle, and The Literary Review, among other journals. He’s also written for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Men’s Health, and Poets & Writers, and for metro daily and alternative newspapers. A former editor of Third Coast, he lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with his wife and son. He recently completed his first novel.

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