Fall 2005 [Issue No. 8]
Queer Ducks (Part 1 of 2) ▪► Julie Marie Wade
“Their courtship starts in the fall, and by the time mid-winter rolls around, their pairs have been formed. The male attracts the female by ruffling his bright feathers. Once together, mated pairs migrate north, heading for the female’s place of origin.”
--Willamette University website
It’s May again. Blue ribbon threading through the clouds. Mushroom-mottled lawns. Fuchsia blossoms. A new dexterity of light. And here they come again—green-winged, web-toed, as elegant as odd in their gentle tufts and curves. Two returning mallards, males, skidding gold heels down into the pond.
The summer of 1989 my parents install a swimming pool. Bulldozers encroaching on the back lawn, fat tires treading, black skid marks through a sluice of green. I watch the concrete split open like a gaping mouth. Our hose snakes and oozes for three and a half days: the brick-lined bathtub, the bottomless pit. Then, a neighbor slashes our tires. Phone calls: This is Bill Erlivich. My wife’s having a garden party, and your fucking bulldozer’s ruined the ambiance. Another set of tires, another slashing. My father and I camp in sleeping bags, guard the machinery. Our cat perches, dark sentinel, on the tip of the steel claw.
No one likes me in school until they discover I have a swimming pool. Can we come over to your house? they plead. I let them because I am lonely. Erica Gregory always holds her nose when she jumps from the concrete stairs. Her breasts are 34Cs; her swimsuit is pink with a zipper in front. “I dare you,” she says, “to pull it down.” I tell her, “No thanks,” a little remorseful since I’ve thought of it before, then reach over and toss her a towel.
The ducks don’t come until later. Rumors ripple out in the Sound: New watering hole, not bad, sometimes a cat stalks from the bushes. A few sea gulls stop by. My father scrapes bird shit with a six-foot broom. Stomach weak, he retches in a garbage can filled with decaying lawn clippings. I dream green. I remember rolling in the grass, my mother scolding in pantomime from the living room window—sometimes she bangs on the glass. Now I sit with the cat, my long legs splashing, a chlorine streak in my hair. There’s green for you. Mittens dips his paw in, twitches at the cold, then drinks it, sip after sip from the cup of his soft, pink pads.
A boy is coming over, and just this morning my grandma has bought me a bathing suit: two-piece, pink, unreliable strings. I stuff the cups with shoulder pads. I want to be impressive. Andrew Pommer, the hyperactive son of my mother’s friend: tall and lean with jet-black hair and cheeks that burn bright auburn. The adults sip iced tea made from concentrate, sift through magazines. Andrew does a cannonball; his swim trunks inflate with the plunge. “Betcha can’t do that,” he hollers, paddling around. Our mothers recline on gold-cushioned chairs. I take a running start, I pull up my knees, my top springs free in the air. Underwater, I search for it. I surface with two foam shells.
“Ducks, goddamn ducks!” My father stands on the deck, embracing his inner cuss. He feels manly at the chance to profane. “Go on, you feather-headed motherfuckers! Get on outta here!” They are not impressed. The two males paddle carelessly, one end of the pool to the other.
Judy Collins appears on Oprah , singing a Bob Dylan song The audience rises in standing ovation. I think it’s sexy. I think it’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. When Austin Rood comes over, I try to seduce him with the same song.
“I thought you wanted to play chess,” he says, skeptical.
“I do—later. First, let’s dance.” I am humming, dangerously close to his ear. He is five inches shorter. My neck gets sore.
“If we’re not gonna play chess, then at least can we swim in the pool?”
“All right, fine”—angrily now—tucking a green-blond curl under my ear.
After he dives in, I tell him, “By the way, those black things on the bottom—they’re duck turds,” and turn up my radio.
Our neighbor Evo from Yugoslavia is a hunter by pleasure and trade. He wears a thick denim jacket with a fur collar and drives a sleek red El Camino. My mother says he made his fortune in the Alaska fisheries and retired here to smoke himself to death.
“What is it you hunt exactly?” my father inquires.
“Pheasant mostly,” Evo replies, tapping his fat cigar.
“Can I ride in the back of your car?” I plead.
“No—but you can wash it,” Evo offers with a generous wave of his hand.
“Of course. There are buckets and sponges inside.”
My dad leans in closer; his eyes moisten in the mushrooming smoke. “Tell me something, off the record—Julie, you run along now—”closer still, with a barely audible whisper—“you ever take out a duck, man?”
In 1993, my parents enroll me at Holy Names Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. I take “World Cultures” first period and announce to my mother I’m becoming a Jain. No more tuna fish sandwiches or spraying the roses for aphids. I am militant. The craze lasts three weeks until I am sorry, but hamburgers at Dick’s are too delicious and aren’t we, just by existing, already causing harm?
In the same class, we watch Barbra Streisand in Yentl and read a book called Sex and the Teenager: Choices and Decisions for Today’s Catholic Youth. In the film, Yentl, a young woman posing as a man, meets and marries Hadass, a woman, who accepts her in her masculine disguise. When they kiss each other, the room erupts in laughter, and my whole body quakes. I study my sex book, highlighter in hand, searching for an explanation. When we do the anonymous Q and A, I write on my note card, “If Yentl had wanted to have sex with that woman, how would she have gone about it?” The teacher, pretty and nervous, blushes but does not answer.
It is spring again. The light, acrobatic, contorts and bends, sliding through the bedroom curtains. My father in the kitchen fussing with his tie—he gestures to the phone as I walk by: “Called Animal Control, and they put me on hold. Can you believe that?”
My mother in her slippers drops her gardening shears, beats at the water with the compost broom. “Don’t shit in there, don’t you shit in there!” she screams as our green guests return for the season. “Bill, where are you?! They’re using this pool like a goddamn toilet bowl!”
I tap quietly on the living room window. She stands bawling in her soggy shoes. “Mom, I need some flowers to take to school today. It’s the Mass of the Reconciliation.”
Sometimes on weekends I walk to the beach with a bag full of stale bread. I feed the birds to feel popular, alluring; they know I have what they need. The birds fly from all over to beg at my feet: sea gulls and buffleheads, a mallard or two, and those greedy, intrepid crows. Often my aunt goes with me, toting binoculars and her Audubon guide, Tips for a Birding Life. She lives in Redmond, an hour away, returning on weekends for my grandma to wash her clothes.
“You know what I love best about birds?” she says. “It’s the way they’re so centered, so focused. It’s like they’re completely in touch with God’s plan for them, and they never seem to lose direction.” I nod absently, peeling the sesame crust.
“They’re not like people,” she sighs, squatting down in the sand till both of her knee joints snap. “Julie, sometimes, I tell you, I don’t know what the world is coming to. My next-door neighbors at the condo, Jack and Michelle—have I told you about them?” I nod again, though I’m not sure she has. “Do you know what I found out just yesterday? They’re not married.”
I look up and find her wide eyes prompting reply. “Really?”
“Really. I tell you, I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. I hardly managed to keep my composure.”
“How did you find out?” I ask.
“It was very innocent on my part,” she assures me. “I saw Michelle in the carport the other morning, and you know, it’s your neighbor, so you try to make polite conversation. I asked her how she was and how her husband was doing—you know, completely benign—”
“And she corrects me and says, ‘Oh, Jack’s not my husband. He’s my boyfriend.’ So cavalier people are these days, living in sin like it’s no big deal. In my day that kind of thing was completely unheard of.”
“Your day—meaning the ‘60s?” I clarify.
“Well, not that there weren’t a few loose girls or some boys who got a little fresh, but by and large, there wasn’t the- the epidemic we see today. What’s so hard to understand? If you’re not married, you shouldn’t have marital relations. It’s as simple as that.”
Aunt Linda always calls sex “marital relations.” She is forty-nine and has never married. I can’t help but wonder what else she has never done.
The first of July, the mallards depart, synchronized and stellar in motion. Without warning or warm-up, they take to the sky, skimming the water with one final stroke of their wings. It is spectacular. I watch from the deck and want to applaud. Perhaps I envy their freedom. Brave birds, I commend them, having watched them dodge dozens of Spaldings, one menacing Nerf, and an untethered tetherball. “Sharp-witted bastards,” my father murmurs under his breath as he fishes each deterrent out with a net.
“Why don’t you leave them alone?” I ask. “They’re not really hurting anything.”
“Julie, it’s the principle of the thing. Your mother and I paid a lot of money to have this pool put in, and it’s something that we like to think has brought a lot of enjoyment to our family and friends.” I stare at him. “Well, hasn’t it?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“These ducks were not invited here. They’re not welcome here. They have all of Puget Sound to putter around in, and shit in, which is a whole other matter. They just don’t need our 65- by 12-foot little oasis here to use as their private lagoon.”
I return to reading: Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers—each steamy, Southern page. Their words burning. And even though it’s summer vacation, I still study Sex and the Teenager almost every day.
Each year on the Fourth of July we celebrate Aunt Lindabird’s birthday. In the backyard we picnic with corn-on-the-cob, potato salad, and barbecued franks and beans.
“I’ll tell you why your dad hates birds so much. This is a true story.”
“No, don’t!” My father glares at his sister, though his face soon softens with laughter.
“C’mon, Bill, I’m going to tell them. Julie deserves to know.”
“Anyone for another wiener?” my father inquires, and I cringe at his choice of words.
“Julie, when your father was a little boy—he couldn’t have been more than three years old, and I don’t think I was even born. Mama?” Linda nudges her mother, who has fallen asleep in her chair. “Mama??”
My grandmother startles awake. “Yes, what is it, dear?”
“I’m about to tell the story where Bill first developed his fear of birds.”
“Are you sure nobody wants another wiener?”
“Yes, dad, we’re sure.”
“Now, Mama, how old was Bill when he got locked in that chicken coop?”
“I don’t think I remember Bill getting locked in a chicken coop.”
“Of course you do, Mama! You have to! I wasn’t even born yet, and you’ve told me the story about a hundred times. Remember? It was on Daddy’s parents’ farm, in Oregon??”
My grandma remembers now. The tight lines relax in her face. “Oh, that was back in 1945, I think. I must have been pregnant with you then, Linda. Bill was just three years old. Couldn’t have been much more than that. Such a cute little fellow, and so curious.” She grins at me, front teeth capped in gold. “Your father looked just like Dennis the Menace when he was a boy. They used to call him ‘Billy the Menace.’”
“Very clever,” I sigh.
“And we had gone down to visit Johnny’s family outside of Portland, and they kept chickens, see.”
“Let me tell it, Mama! –So Mama and Daddy were inside with Daddy’s parents and somehow Bill got himself out of the house and wandered into the chicken coop. He figured out how to open the door, but once he was inside, the door closed behind him, and he couldn’t get it open again. And he started crying—I mean, it’s understandable, a little boy all alone in a room with at least a dozen hens.”
I study my father, how he cuts his meat methodically and dips each round slice in ketchup first, then mustard.
“Anyway,” Linda resumes, “Bill is in the chicken coop crying, and the more frazzled he gets, the more frazzled he makes the chickens. They start to balk at him and flap their wings, and poor Bill is covered with feathers, and he’s got chicken poop on his shoes, and he’s miserable. He’s hated birds ever since,” she sums up triumphantly.
“I don’t hate them,” my father sighs. “I’m just not partial to them.”
“You hate them,” she sneers. “I can tell by the way you tense up when a sea gull lands on your car.”
“I tense up because they always use my car as a Handi-can, and right after I’ve finished washing it,” he says, reaching again for the tongs.
“No, it’s no use, Bill. You’re just going to have to admit that you harbor fear and dread for some of God’s finest creatures.”
“Fear and dread, huh?” My father has stopped using utensils and picks up the franks with his hands. “I may not like birds all that much, but let’s set the record straight here. Julie, when your aunt was a child, it wasn’t good enough for her just to like birds. No, she had to own birds. They had to live in the house with us, chirping all the time, making that tweet-tweet noise morning, noon, and night.”
“Bill, you’re exaggerating!” Linda scrapes uneasily at her plate with a spoon.
“I am not exaggerating. Julie, I kid you not. Your aunt must have had four canaries—”
“Then, as if that wasn’t enough, she finds this little duckling one day, down there at Lincoln Park, and what does she do? She brings it home with her! Can you believe that?!”
“And what was I supposed to do? Leave that orphaned little duckling there all by itself? It didn’t have a mother. It was going to die if I didn’t save it.”
“Yeah, yeah, and this duck grows up to be a huge bird, like one of those mallards we have in our pool. She kept it in a box in the basement until it was flying around like a goddamn ghost down there!”
“Bill, your language! Think about mother!” Grandma has dozed off in her chair.
“Julie,” my aunt says, “when the duck was fully grown, we took him to my friend’s house in the country and let him live with her. He was never really well-adjusted, never really able to take care of himself, but she took care of him.”
“He was pampered is why!” My father spears the last of the hot dogs and spins it around in the air. “That duck never had to work a day in its life because everyone was always feeding it and preening it and cleaning up after it! How was it supposed to learn how to live according to Nature’s plan? You people killed its instincts!”
My mother pushes through the screen door with a flaming cake in hand. Haltingly, we start to sing Happy Birthday.
I fall in love with my college roommate. She doesn’t know. She is long, lithe, golden-haired—a swimmer. She wears green sweaters and Birkenstocks and, almost always, the same pair of boot-cut boy jeans. I learn to love at last the stench of chlorine. I follow her, lap after lap, down the beaded lanes. We are swimming in the center of a necklace. And afterwards in the locker room, with a flick of my eye, I drink her in quickly, each gentle tuft and curve.
Sex and the Teenager cannot help me now. I play Bob Dylan, smoke cigarettes, study foreign films for their frank gratuity. In Seattle on a Saturday night, I watch the premiere screening of Romance. “No one admitted without proper ID,” but I have mine, and I am pleased with myself since I only turned eighteen the month before. Some people have sex in the theater. I chew my nails, pretend to be inured. But when the French porn star moves toward the young nymphomaniac, his ten-inch cock exposed, I flinch far worse than all my classmates did at Yentil.
In addition, my literary tastes are changing. I browse the brochure section at the campus health center: “Getting What You Want From Your Body Image,” “Getting What You Want From Relationships,” “Getting What You Want From Sex.” I make my selection, a slender pamphlet from the corner—“How Do I Know If I’m A Lesbian? A Brochure For Young Women” — stuff it quickly in my pocket, run away.
I bring Becky to my parents’ house for the weekend. She is excited when I show her the pool. “How come you never told me you had one before?”
“No reason,” I say. “I guess I was saving it for a surprise.”
We sip iced tea made from concentrate and lounge in the gold-cushioned chairs. We impress each other with imitations of our mothers. Then she is off, she is running; her body arcs in the air, curls swiftly down; she glides under water to the other side.
“This is fabulous!” Becky shouts, surfacing. “Come in, come in! The temperature’s perfect.”
I walk to the edge—feet burning, skin burning, everything suddenly burning. I drop to the deep like a stone.
“Becky, have I got a story for you,” my father begins.
We are sitting in the backyard at the picnic table. My mother is armed with wasp spray. The umbrella tilts in the breeze.
“What’s that, Mr. Wade?”
“Every year about this time, just as it starts to get warm, these two ducks show up and take over our swimming pool.”
I roll my eyes; Becky catches my scowl and smiles. “So they just swim around in it?”
“No—no, no. They live in it. They go off and get their grubs and their leaves and whatever it is ducks eat, but they always come back. They’re here, I don’t know, a good sixteen hours a day—splashing around, preening themselves—you know—”
“Just basic duck stuff,” she offers.
I make subtle stabbing motions with my knife.
“And the damnedest thing is, they’re both males—big ones—these great big green-headed mallards. What we’ve got on our hands is a couple of feather-faced queers!”
“Bill, they are not!” my mother exclaims, embarrassed. “I’ve told you before they’re just bachelors.”
“Or could they be widowers?” Becky suggests, a helpless look in her eye. “You know, maybe they’ve lost mates and ended up traveling together?”
My father puts down his fork, hot dog drowning in ketchup. “No, no,” he laughs, shaking his head. “I’ve studied these birds, studied them hard. Believe me, I know a queer when I see one.”
My aunt sends me letters at college. Each one sports extra postage and a hand-written Handle with Care.
I stop when I get to Mallard
I watch a special on ostrich mating—an accidental sighting. Between channel switch and fork lift, my eyes are caught, suspended. Two of them, tall, graceful, tutu-ed at the waist and running hard. Stunned, I am stunned, I forget to swallow. The deep and preened announcer’s voice descends: “Note how the male pursues the female at breakneck pace.” Frame narrows for a close-up. “An amazingly swift bird, the ostrich can exceed more than 50 miles per hour.” She is screaming, screaming—a wild and terrified fanfare. “Soon the female tires and succumbs.” He overtakes her with a violent plunge. Feathers rise up from their squawking bodies, hang in the humid air. She seems to be suffocating. “One can only marvel at nature’s elaborate game of hard-to-get.” I sit back in my chair, shaking. Both long, curved heads engorge with blood.
Email from my father
I date Brian Kleppers. He is short, slight of build, allergic to shellfish, afraid of large bodies of water. I like him, grow intellectually enamored, though I hope, secretly, never to see him without his clothes. We play chess. We try to impress each other with our swift and sophisticated moves: knights to queens and castles. A number of dorm mates ask me if my boyfriend is gay. “No, he’s just—sensitive,” I say. The situation continues to feel extreme and out of control.
Brian comes to the door, his tap tentative, his tendency to hang back in the hall. “How are you?” he asks, clearing his throat and shifting one foot to the other.
I shrug. “All right.”
“And you’re sure your roommate doesn’t mind me being here—”
“Brian, she’s gone for the weekend, remember?” He nods cautiously, and I motion for him to step inside.
We lean awkwardly against the bedposts for a while, surveying each other with curious, speculative eyes. Brian takes his shoes off. I take off mine. Socks next, then sweaters. We mirror each other undressing without discussing our vanishing clothes.
“Should I turn off the light?” Brian asks.
“If you want to.”
In the dark, we fumble with each other. Kissing. Kissing and touching through clothes. Kissing, unbuttoning. Kissing, unzipping. Finally, we arrive at underwear: our layers immense, our anticipation clearly untoward.
Brian interrupts the procedure: “In case we do—you know—follow through with this, do you have the—”
“Oh, yes. Right in the drawer. Plenty.”
“Phew. That’s a relief. I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to bring them.”
“No, no. I’m prepared. Should we try one on you?”
I reach down the way women do in movies, to the place the camera never shows. His hand intercepts mine.
“Not yet. Let’s kiss some more.”
He puts my hand on his shoulder, and it occurs to me I’ve never touched his skin before. Not the soft, white flesh of his shoulder. I kiss him there. I kiss him down the long line of his chest, smooth and hairless as the boys I used to baby-sit. A momentary terror passes through me.
“Brian, how old are you?”
“Twenty.” He is touching my breasts, squeezing the nipples between his index and middle fingers. I feel odd and oddly not aroused, but I can offer no better suggestions. “Why?”
“No reason really. I just was thinking about how you’re really smart and sometimes really smart people go to college early is all. You hear about that kind of thing sometimes…prodigies who are sixteen or fifteen or, you know, nine—going to college at a very young age.”
His body, what I can discern from the porch light seeping through the blinds, reminds me so much of a crab. I try not to think about it, keep kissing, touching, but the image always returns: soft-shelled, Dungeness, with their white ribbed flesh, tight bodies packed beneath claws. I remember the dead ones washing up on the shore, the helpless way they folded in their skins.
“Are you ready?” I ask. He is holding my breasts with his slender and pincer-like hands.
“I don’t know,” he stammers. “Maybe we could just—”
I reach down. I touch him. I slide my hand inside his fly, feeling for the warm lump of skin.
“I’m small,” Brian sighs, “too small. I don’t think I can do this.”
“Sure you can. Everything feels good to me, really good.” In my mind I see dismantled crabs—legs, pincers, carapace— a large family’s Sunday meal.
“No, I can’t. I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s me.” There is panic in his voice, regret, relief. He dresses in the dark and quickly leaves.
I spread a rainbow’s worth of condoms on my skinny bed—Does any possible pleasure outweigh its potential risk? Can you have an orgasm without actually having sex? What if I die a virgin?—shuffle them, sadly, like cards.
Poetry becomes my release, my revenge, my endless reincarnation. My true life, my successful adventures, I’m convinced must take place on the page. The poems start small—a stanza or two, a dozen haikus hand-crafted on napkins at Denny’s. The secret, I’ve decided, is to simply observe, stop trying to participate.
She has that certain look that makes her
perfect for the job, jet-black hair that’s overdyed
A ring on every finger, silver serpents and a
her wedding band would be
her nose is pierced with a diamond stud, pale skin offset
by lip paint called “black cherry,”
eyebrows plucked and drawn in, uneven,
mocha eyes the color of the coffee that she stirs
I notice a trend emerging in my work. My secret, I’ve decided, is worse than I ever imagined.
On my father’s birthday, the ducks arrive. They are early this year, but April has been mild. I am in the kitchen getting Dixie cups and ice cream when I hear his cry.
“Goddammit, Linda, they’re back!”
My mother, broom in hand, brushes past me on the stairs. “Did you hear what your father said? Those goddamn ducks are out there shitting in our pool, and the bingo girls are coming over on Tuesday!” She is nearly in tears.
My father yells, “Julie, where’s Mittens?! Have you seen Mittens?!”
“I think he’s sleeping on my bed. Why?”
“Why? I’ll tell you why. I’ve been training him,” my father declares proudly.
“What do you mean, exactly?”
“For when those ducks showed up again. I bet you didn’t know this, but cats can swim. And Mittens—” prouder still— “is going to jump in the pool and kill them.”
Now Aunt Linda, rising from her chair, attempts a moral intervention. “Bill, what are you doing with the cat? Bill? Bill? Julie, what’s he doing with the cat?”
I shake my head. “Don’t worry, he won’t succeed.”
We stand at the window. My grandma inquires where the rest of the family has gone.
“Out,” I say matter-of-factly. “They’re trying to scare off a couple of ducks that my dad thinks are gay.”
Aunt Linda puts down her binoculars, disgusted by the sight of my parents slapping the water and screaming at the top of their lungs, my old cat cowering behind the bushes. “This is ridiculous,” she huffs. “Those ducks have every right to be here. It’s probably the only decent place they could find, what with the state of our modern ecology. I’m going right out there and give them a piece of my mind.”
“The ducks or my parents?”
She bangs on the window, waking my grandma again. “Those ducks are victims of circumstance, outcasts from a world of diminishing water resources. They need support,” she protests. “They need love!” and storms outside to the pool.
“Tell me, Julie, why do you want to study abroad? What do you hope to gain from this experience?” Jan Moore, Director of Cultural Exchange, studies me, her plump elbows placed squarely on the table that divides us.
“I want to get away from my crazy family and my emotionally retarded ex-boyfriend,” I say. She frowns, brow furrowing like a dark hedge bent by the wind. “Oh—and I also want to learn more about the world and my place in it.”
“I see.” Still frowning, still regarding me with an easy scorn. For a moment, I contemplate prostrating myself on her desk and pleading for mercy. Let me out of this fucking nightmare!! “Where is it exactly that you wanted to study?”
“Wherever’s fine. I’m not really picky about location. Just as long as it’s overseas and lasts a long time.”
She doesn’t get my sense of humor.
“… And is culturally enriching, of course.”
1/00—New Year (millennium edition)
I am lonely in London. My roommate has a boyfriend at home. He sends her roses from Washington on Valentine’s Day and Florida oranges for Easter. My host mother thinks I am strange, keeps trying to send me away—pubs, plays, museums. Don’t I realize where I am? The whole world at my fingertips, and I’m reading Shakespeare upstairs in my room.
In the evenings after school and long before supper, I stay in the house alone. Because it is cold, and because there is no shower, I make tea and brood in the bath. No bubbles, no oils, only the thick steam and the delicate condensation. Even the curtains glimmer with a coating of dew. My feet become restless. I jiggle the faucet with my curious toes. Slowly, with practice, refining the flow. As I slide down to the end of the low, sunken tub, spread out my legs and soften my knees, I begin to feel something foreign. My body quivers; my fingers fasten to the slippery ledge. I challenge myself to hold on. Soon the water concentrates, its forces accumulate, strumming and strumming till I am swollen like fruit, my body to bursting. I think of Becky; I think of Brian; Kara sometimes, in the interim. Sounds rise out of me—such dark, feathered words. Singing and splashing, I come.
I meet a girl on a train. She is American, round-faced with soft, curly hair. Her eyes an astonishing blue. Like me, she travels to school each day in central London, steps out on the platform at King’s Cross station. Sometimes she drops a letter in the tall, red box that reminds me of a fire hydrant.
Almost at once, I am burning.
Breeayn writes songs and strums a gentle guitar. We eat lunch in the park, feed the pigeons—share cigarettes to cut back on our smoking. Her mouth to my mouth and back again: a fire circle, a gold, residual flame. Her fingers move as if conducting music.
And when we travel, we sometimes share a bed: five pounds instead of ten at any hostel. There in the dark I listen to her breath, huddle to the wall, try my very hardest not to touch her.
For our last supper in London, friends from the program meet up on Baker Street. Breeayn and I pose together by the statue.
“I never read Sherlock Holmes, did you?” I ask, already tipsy.
“No. I was never too interested in mysteries. All the suspense and not knowing makes me sick to my stomach.”
I nod, and the cameras flash. At dinner, we drink and tell stories till the fourth bottle is empty. Then, the conversation turns political.
“So, is there gay marriage in England?” someone asks, and Anna responds, given that her mother is English and she has visited London on six separate occasions.
“No, I don’t think legally there is, but queers living together in London don’t attract quite the same attention as queers living together in, say, Boise.” Anna is from Idaho, and somewhat bitter about the fact.
It is the first time I’ve heard the word queer in a context other than my father’s. Anna speaks with authority and pride. I regard her curiously: her small, freckled face and sharp articulations. As the conversation unfolds, I lean forward, full weight of my body bent on listening.
Later in the bathroom, I ask Breeayn: “What did Anna mean when she said ‘people like me’? What kind of person is she?”
“I guess you weren’t there in York when she came out to us,” Breeayn says.
“Came out?” I repeat the phrase awkwardly, and with a certain fear.
“As bisexual. I just assumed you knew.”
I shake my head. “What did she say about it—I mean, did she elaborate at all?”
“No, not really. She did say she’s involved with a queer activist group at her college, though. You should talk to her. You don’t have to be queer to join.”
And suddenly the word was everywhere—the most derogatory of all words, the most defaming. Queer. Queer. Queer. Like a volleyball or boomerang. I sat back at the table in a fog of wine while their easy, knowing language passed around me.
“Why do you want to work for JC Penney’s? What do you think you can bring to the company?” The manager scrutinizes me through mascara-rimmed eyes.
“I’m prompt…I’m efficient…I’ve worked retail since I was seventeen…”
“But do you have any special talents? Any skills?”
I shift nervously in the chair, sweat streaking my new nylons. “No, not really. I mean, I’m a college student.” She clicks her square nails. “But, but, I’ve worked women’s sportswear and lingerie before. I know how to fit bras, dress mannequins, work a cash register.”
“OK. Well. We don’t have any openings in those departments. They’re non-commissioned and pay varies based on years of experience.” Susie hesitates, consults her notebook. “I do have an opening in shoes, however. Minimum wage with a 6 % commission. One week of training at minimum wage. Then, you’re out of my hands and into Carol’s. She’s a bit of an odd bird, and not the kind of lady you want to mess with. If you do well, she’ll keep you on. If you slack, she’ll send you right back where you came from…Lamonts, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. They went bankrupt last year.”
Her eyes shine—a smug pity. “Well, then, it seems in your best interest to do well.”
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