Discover something new.

Suzanne Somers’s Eggplant Cookbook

“Nobody likes a blonde in a hamster ball. It would just draw attention to me.”

—Veronica Mars

When American Graffiti came out in 1973, my parents were thirty. It was their youth in that movie, and once your youth is packed up and packaged into a film like a volume of Collected Poems, you know you’re old.

But I was ten then and didn’t know that.

American Graffiti was held over for four months at the Michigan Theater in Jackson, and my folks went to see it three times. (That was an indulgence, for babysitters were expensive.) When it moved to the drive-in at the edge of town, they took us with them for a fourth viewing, insisting this was the authentic record of their experience in high school. My two younger brothers, aged seven and four, immediately fell asleep in the way back of the Chevy station wagon and I moved up to the front seat, sitting between my father, who was at the wheel, and my mother, behind the glove compartment.

The two of them guided me through the movie, insisting that everybody had cans of shaving cream in their car for pranks back then, and disc jockeys like Wolfman Jack knit up the world with their radio show calls and romantic dedications. At any moment, the “Most Perfect Dazzling Creature Ever Seen” might pull up next to you and whisper inaudible nothings.

“Watch this,” my father said, meaning: “Shut up, here she comes.”

And there she came. Suzanne Somers, the hot MacGuffin of American Graffiti, says only three little words in the movie and you can’t even hear them, because the windows on her white T-Bird are rolled up.

That ravishing poet of three words published her collection of poems Touch Me the same year I sat between my parents at the drive-in and watched my father watch Suzanne, and watched my mother watch my father watch Suzanne, and realized something was up, and that’s when my mother reached into the glove compartment where she kept a Lincoln Log, a weapon more symbolic than functional, which she would pull out or threaten to pull out when we three boys fought as she drove. She’d wave it behind her wildly and without discrimination, while keeping her eyes glued to the road. It calmed us right down.

That night at the drive-in, the Lincoln Log was for my father, and she playfully pulled it out of the glove compartment and bonked my father on the head just as Suzanne Somers took a right turn, out of the scene and out of our lives.

Suzanne Somers was the first person I understood to be famous, though I didn’t think much about the uses of fame. There’s been only one reason I would like to have the power of a famous person. Not to be chased by a fan for a selfie in a trendy restaurant, nor for money, nor for the love of women—no, or even men—but so I might call my editor (and I’d be so famous the editor would immediately take that call) and say, on a whim but with enthusiasm, “I’m thinking I’d like to write an eggplant cookbook,” and the editor would say, “That’s a great idea, Brian. Can you get us the first draft of your eggplant cookbook in six weeks?” and even though I’d take two years to deliver it, they’d be so happy with it they would rush it out and there’d be stacks of it in your local bookstore, which wouldn’t be able to keep it in stock. I realize only a person like Taylor Swift could pull this off.

Or Richard Dreyfuss.

Other than that, the quest for fame baffles me. At my college, back in the 1980s, you could take a course called “Fame,” and one of the requirements was to do something to make yourself famous. The internet was nothing but a chocolate bar melting in Al Gore’s back pocket, so fame was an uphill climb. My fellow student Steve Albini, now a renowned music producer, came up with an event called “Throw Things at Steve Albini.” He bought a large sheet of bulletproof plexiglass and installed it into a standing frame, then sent out letters to the more douche-bro fraternities and right-wing paramilitary types and apartheid-invested mucky-fucks in the administration. These letters were full of savage insults followed by Albini’s invitation, if they took umbrage, to come to his bulletproof plexiglass frame by the library at noon on Saturday, where they could throw anything they liked at him for one solid hour.

Just minutes before the begrudged arrived, Albini decided to test the setup by throwing a bowling pin; it went through the bulletproof glass like, well, a bowling pin through bulletproof glass. He spent the next hour dodging stones, garbage, and a live chicken. Nothing brings people together like pitchforks and torches, and nothing makes you more famous than infamy. When you are destined for fame, nothing will keep you from it, not success, not even failure. Admittedly, Albini also happens to be astonishingly talented, but still: easy A.

In high school, as the son of the town quarterback and head cheerleader and in the pupal stage of my homosexuality, I tried to distance myself from the wallflower set by purchasing a loud dashiki pullover from a souvenir booth at the county fair. This may or may not have been cultural appropriation, but it doesn’t really matter because I only wore it once, on the first day of school, thinking I could reinvent myself with a bold sartorial choice. Immediately, Bob Shipley, who would one day be elected Class Clown but for now coasted on his fame as the kid who took out the power in an entire wing of the elementary school by jamming a pair of blunt art scissors into an electric outlet, took one look at me and snorted, “Cool shirt, Bouldrey!” I ran home and wore brown corduroy until I turned eighteen. That was the day I realized that a person can barely change, can only become more and more themself; the great Jell-O of your character inexorably sets.

And my character was setting quite differently than everybody else’s. All my ideas about success were out of line with the culture. When I bought music by my favorite bands, my least favorite song on the album always became the hit single. I was puzzled by popular taste in television, Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, full of other people’s nostalgia and other people’s memories, neither of which did my scrawny body harbor. My parents would quote The Fonz as if he were a real person they had known, and sigh over endless malt shop love affairs and fighty-fights. Suzanne Somers, though silent in American Graffiti, spoke to them, spoke to the nation, but baffled me.

Suzanne Somers was not only someone else’s nostalgia and memory—she was also somebody else’s desire. Everybody desired things I did not, and isn’t that the very definition of a villain: somebody who desires mysterious things that are not what most others want? The particular things for me: books, music, people, all different, all strange.

For example, those books everybody snapped up on arrival, while I had to wait two weeks after special ordering The Worm Ouroboros… these special orders identified me to the Waldenbooks staff as “that weird kid who special ordered The Worm Ouroboros.” True desire, for books or men or the muse of poetry, is something I learned to experience alone, like going through customs, or childbirth, or dreaming, or dying, or (loneliest of all) dating.

Nowadays, it’s when I am presented with the “TRENDING” category on Netflix that I most recall the loneliness of dating.

Suzanne Somers didn’t have any of these lonely feelings, as far as I could tell. Everybody wanted to be around, or to be, Suzanne Somers. I may have had to special order The Worm Ouroboros, but her collection of poetry, Touch Me, was right there in a big pile, next to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Judith Krantz’s Princess Daisy. Bookstores were the first place I understood the concept of villainy—I wanted certain books nobody else wanted. While thousands of frat boys, investment bankers, and paramilitaries were Throwing Things at Steve Albini, I was inside that library behind him, writing poetry, meanwhile.

I wanted to be a famous poet, but when I told people that, I learned what an oxymoron was: jumbo shrimp, marital bliss, pretty ugly, famous poet. I knew the names of all the trees. I had made some very sensitive shadow boxes with my own and other people’s baby teeth, trilobite fossils, shards of a willow pattern teacup, and funeral prayer cards. I wanted high school students to resent me because they had to memorize one of my poems. I wanted some smitten boy to crib lines from me in a love note to some unavailable girl or boy, the way I might or might not have cribbed the more super-soft lines from Simon and Garfunkel. I wanted my New and Selected to be available, even if only one or two copies in the back of the more open-minded Waldenbooks in college towns. And writing my poetry, I tried my best to produce what I loved most in the poems of others: to force the reader to let out a tiny sound at the end of a good one. I planted a few words that would cause a little glottal gasp that signifies both elation and discovery, the noise a gerbil might make when having an orgasm—that little gasp.

This was my path to publishing that famous eggplant cookbook.

The gerbil orgasm was developed for gasping at the ends of poems I liked in high school, the sort that closed with lines such as: “And then I saw / The falling world” or “they is, they is, they is” or “your one wild and precious life.” But really, it is everywhere, you know, that little gasp, the sound we make when an ungrateful child, that serpent’s tooth, bites with back talk or after being dunked into a freshwater forgiving baptismal river; the electric eel acid sugar taste of a decent Riesling; the first long suck at a lemon drop; the inferno towering; the zeppelin, incinerating; the pirate Israel Hands in Treasure Island underwater and dead twice, being both shot and drowned; your grandfather’s cheap aftershave—slapped!; Romeo gasping over dead Juliet, O true apothecary. Gah! This is the sound I made when sitting in the school cafeteria alone, theatrically reading lines from Revelations that I didn’t understand (oh, like you do). This is the sound my father made at the drive-in when Suzanne Somers lipped “I love you” from her T-Bird.

I think of that John Berger chestnut: “A woman must continually watch herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping.” Men, at least those without the saving vice of vanity (which is to say: so many of them), never see themselves as being seen walking or weeping. They think of themselves—I thought of myself—as invisible. That’s how we get white collar crime, or all crime, really: You can’t see me, says the embezzler with his hand in the till. You can’t see me, says the cop with his boot at your neck. Then, there are those who, like me, wish they could be seen as somebody walking across the room, who get what is called the “Actor’s Disease”—Look at me, look at me, look at me, why are you looking at me? This is also called the disease of the addict. But Suzanne did not have that disease—she never turned on you accusingly with “Why aren’t you looking at me?” She struck a pose. When comedians made fun of her, she laughed too. When scriptwriters handed her dumb blonde joke piled on dumb blonde joke, she delivered them, happily. Touch me.

Instead of my eggplant cookbook at Waldenbooks, it was Suzanne Somers and her poems Touch Me, stacks and stacks of them. She was famous, and so was her book. Resentment roiled in my head—I would sit in front of Three’s Company and watch Chrissy, Janet, and Jack fight over money and sex and Mr. Roper, and take no pleasure in it, my lungs full of noxious fumes. Nothing makes you feel more alone than not laughing while everybody else laughs. The definition of promiscuity is anybody having more sex than me. Fame, being a dirty word, had a similar definition. And none of her poems elicited from me a gerbil orgasm.

It wouldn’t be for another decade that I would start receiving small “fallow field” checks from the Academy of American Poets in the amount of $25, annually, with a note thanking me for not publishing any poetry for yet another year. When Touch Me came out, I was experimenting with challenging my Catholicism, having fun with the lyric wordplay of “Fruit of thy womb,” “Fruit of the Loom,” and “Fruit of the Loon,” thinking I was a minor, startling genius.

Sometimes when I laugh at somebody, it’s a way of glossing over at least four other feelings, too hot to handle, requiring mental oven mitts. Do you have your own mental oven mitts for things that are too hot, emotionally, to handle? All the poets do. The way to understand a poet is to ask, as you would a philosopher, “What the hell are you afraid of?” So if I’m laughing at Fruit of the Womb/Loom/Loon, Microsoft Outlook, Air Supply (the band), art fairs, my dear blonde friends, the opposing team praying during time-outs, strategic board games, Donald Trump, Parisian bedbugs, or the pants that no longer fit me although I keep them in my closet anyway, you must understand there are many weapons. Other poets have their own: archaic formalism, sentimentality, car chases, withering irony, adverbs substituting for lame-ass verbs because oh no what if you had a verb in your sensitive poem? And then Suzanne negates all my fears and oven mitts with the simple title: Touch Me.

I laughed when Suzanne Somers published a book of poetry, because why? Because I had not. I went up to the Waldenbooks booksellers who had taken my special The Worm Ouroboros order and bought her book from them, to mock it.

Touch Me, when I opened it, didn’t look like poetry. I had given myself rigid rules about what poetry is, and they relied on lines, meter, rhyme, form, astonishing language, gerbil orgasms. A failed poem was a failure of the imagination, and a failure of the imagination was pretty much a moral failure. But Suzanne was a performer, and she demanded that her audience bring something to the page the way we brought laughs to Three’s Company, the way she always assumed something was asked of her as she walked across a room, a street, a hospital lobby.

What must it be like to always be scrutinized?

“Touch me / not like a cat / or a tree / or even a flower,” she ends the title poem, with grammatical ambiguity. “Touch me / not like you would touch a cat”? Or: “Touch me, not like you are a cat”? She was the first poet I saw who took with her poems. I was used to giving in my poems, giving my all—although I was usually giving things like my opinion, my explanation, my judgment, my bad puns. “For I am more than / all of these,” she wrote. “Yet akin to them: a woman / Touch me / For I was made to be touched / I can never be touched enough.”

For her, the page was a performance space of her own design, on her own terms, and I was somebody who only knew how to be invisible, stageless; my writing was for critics and other strangers while hers suggested we be friends, or more: “Touch Me.” How dare she, I thought, be so public about intimacy? Performance artists like Annie Sprinkle and Tim Miller have implicated audience members in their consumption, objectification, and sexualization, but always in a self-created space for their own community to be in community; Suzanne Somers had no such safety net. If she had worn that dashiki to school on the first day and Bob Shipley had mocked her, she would have made it work. Touch me, anybody.

None of her poems, for the record, draw the gerbil orgasm, but that is my point: nobody owes anybody, in the end, a gerbil orgasm. And besides, everything she did in life elicited a sigh of some sort from somebody, gerbil or otherwise. Imagine the sigh the producers vented when she demanded equal pay for her work on Three’s Company, the sigh before they fired her.

Touch Me was published in 1972, and lest you think I do not know this book, there is a poetry dialectic in it called, “I Like the Gentle Quiet Loneliness of Being Alone.”

Is this the place to bring up her thighs? I am not even a thigh man—I am not even a woman man—but her thighs, you guys, and her poetry? I had neither. I admit now: I will miss wanting to be her. So long, rival mine.

And here we are. Suzanne Somers is gone, nothing left but what she made, and she made poetry. I read some Tacitus, that first-century Roman historian who shed light on the tribes in the Germania; the Daciens, apparently, had a system of law in which a person indicted for a crime was given two trials: the first when all involved were sober, and then a second trial, when everybody—perpetrators, lawyers, judges, and gallery, were justice-is-blind drunk. The truth of your actions could be found somewhere between sobriety and intoxication. Facts are nothing but moods and emotions. Touch me.

“I was made to be touched / I can never be touched enough.” We love to say that love is blind, but what love is, really, is distortion, which is a kind of blindness that reveals. The great writer who shares the same subject matter as Suzanne Somers is, of course, Maggie Nelson, and she embraces distortion in her brilliant essay about love, Bluets: “For no one really knows what color is, where it is, even whether it is … think of a honeybee, for instance, flying into the folds of a poppy: it sees a gaping violet mouth, where we see an orange flower and assume that it’s orange, that we’re normal.”

Touch me. As someone who has been willingly (mostly willingly) deformed by love, who touched as much as got touched, this sentence by Nelson makes me feel less alone in my disfigurement. I am like a child who has never seen a real barn, only one in picture books, and so when I draw a horse and a barn, they are the same size, because my experience is both limited and boundless, and this is the truest thing I can describe. My own writing—this very page—is full of horse-barn distortion—it’s the only way I know how to get away from being a big liar. Another round, barkeep: for there’s a trial going on, and I have yet to make up my mind about Suzanne Somers. While I decide, here’s a toast for a life, well-lived.

Brian Bouldrey is the author of four novels and five works of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays "Good in Bed: A Life in Queer Sex, Politics, and Religion" (ReQueered Tales, 2023). He teaches creative writing and literature at Northwestern University.

Read More

More from Issue 9: Winter/Spring 2024


Gramercy Park is Closed to the Public

by Toni Ann Johnson


Public Enemy

by Boris Dralyuk