This is an excerpt from Zoe Taylor’s Story: Confessions of a Cigarette Addict
I’m in the park by the rose garden sitting on the brick stairs at the end of the brick walk, just enjoying the warm sunniness of the day and the smell of cut grass and roses. I’m wearing an embroidered Indian white on white top of lightweight cotton and my khaki carpenter jeans with the little loop for a hammer. My white Dr. Scholl’s sandals are thrust out in front of me. I’m resting on my elbows, catching a few rays. I turn and open my eyes and I see Jane Austen walking towards me down the garden path drenched in dappled summer sun and shadows filtered through the old maples and oaks that line the path. She doesn’t see me yet. She seems to float down the brick walk in her long skirted dress, head high, back perfectly straight. She has slipper-type shoes with low heels. They are off-white with a bow on the front. Her dress is in the Greek style, empire waist, loose skirts flowing softly to the tips of her shoes. It looks like an everyday dress, cream background, small floral design, maybe roses, in pinks and greens, perhaps a chintz. The dress has a V-neck with a wide creamy cotton collar, spotless, and sleeves just above the elbow with a crisp creamy lace edge. She has the handles of a woven handbag twined around her gloved right hand. It’s one of those small pouch-type bags, pulling on the handles closes the top of the bag. Her hair is brown, piled atop her head, no loose ends. She has a summer straw picture hat on her head, pink and green ribbons around the brim, trailing down her back. A puzzled expression crosses her delicate features. She doesn’t recognize her surroundings.
She sees me and her puzzlement increases momentarily before she takes control of her expression. In spite of her control, I can see that she is scandalized. I remember I am braless. Perhaps, though, that is the least conspicuous of my transgressions.
“Good morning, Ms. Austen,” I say.
“Where am I she says?” forgetting her usually excellent manners.
“You’re not really here,” I say, “you’re just a figment of my imagination.”
“Oh, thank goodness. I was somewhere that made me very happy,” she says, “I wouldn’t want to get lost.”
“Where were you? Was it heaven? What was it like?” I ask.
“Oh we’re not allowed to talk about that,” she says.
“Please sit down. Sit down here on the steps with me.” I say, moving down a few steps to make room for her big dress. Maybe we could have a conversation.”
She is not overly fastidious. She sinks gracefully to perch on the top step. She looks me over.
“My dear,” she says, “what are you wearing. I have never seen such clothing. Pants on a women! Where are your undergarments?”
“Call me Zoe, Ms Austen”, I say, “This is the year 1969, and my friends all dress like this. We’re members of a large social movement called ‘hippies’.”
“1969?” she repeated astounded, “America? Hippies?”
Her eyes started to glaze over.
“We have a commercial for cigarettes that says ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.’ We are also in the middle of a social revolution called the “Women’s Liberation Movement’,” I say, “I got you here to see what you think of our new freedoms.”
“Cigarettes? Commercial? Baby?” she echoes, still not focusing as I would have liked.
“Cigarettes are tobacco rolled in paper,” I tell her, “a commercial is an advertisement and, since women can smoke cigarettes openly now and they once could not the ad is speaking to women. Baby is modern slang, used to show how cool and hip women are now.”
“Cool?” she says, “Hip?”
“Never mind,” I say, I really just wanted you to notice how free we are. We have a pill. If we take it everyday we don’t get pregnant. We can have as many lovers or as much sexual intercourse as we like because we are protected as long as we remember to take that pill. We don’t have to wear skirts all the time and we don’t need the protection of a man. We can come and go as we like, even have an education and a career.”
She thinks, taking in all I have said.
“My dear Zoe,” she says, “you are not as free as you imagine. Given the nature of some men, who can be as evil as the Devil, I think you will find that total freedom for women is a myth. And while the idea of an education for women is wondrously marvelous, and even having projects that occupy the mind is a concept I can grasp, a woman’s reputation will always be important and must be guarded at all times. Women, like men, will never be totally free. Free to do what? To be low and depraved. Sexuality, free of love is an abomination leading to the basest kinds of behavior.”
I didn’t argue, although this encounter had not gone quite as I expected. Apparently Jane did not envy my freedom as much as I had hoped she would. I just gave myself a knowing little “I know better” smile and made my politest good-byes. I was satisfied with the contrast between our situations, certain that I was infinitely more sophisticated and that modern women should have knocked the socks off of Ms. Jane Austen. All of her warnings were just anachronistic (excuse me) “bullshit”. (She would have frowned over that vulgarism, but, to underline my point, I was free to say it.)
I stood up, took one last whiff of the roses and walked home, by myself.