Insurance. Kansas City. 1978.
In the photo, my father and I sit at the dining room table—a repurposed card table that belonged to crazy Aunt Pearl in her apartment on the Country Club Plaza.
I’m seventeen. My father is sixty-one. We are a long people, and in Aunt Pearl’s low, spindly, card-table chairs, my father’s torso is colossal. It might be the Belvedere Torso, if the Belvedere Torso wore a herringbone sports jacket and had a head.
In our house, everything is out of scale. The palatial, valanced drapes are too heavy for the room. Aunt Pearl’s enormous baroque breakfront occupies nearly an entire wall.
It’s 1978. I’m wearing a long-sleeved black leotard, Lee jeans, and platform sandals with nude knee-high nylons. A suffusion of eerie light, the kind of light spaceships arrive in, softens the edges of my bony frame. It’s possible I’m dematerializing.
On the wall, between the palatial drapes and the enormous breakfront, hangs the sand-cast sculpture my Uncle Harry made of the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai. The crooked tablets pitch forward, eager to be hurled.
Today, I leave this place and fly to New York City, with a suitcase full of leotards and tights, to begin my formal training as a dancer. I’m going to my older sister, an actress, a shattering beauty I barely know, and to Hell’s Kitchen, my new neighborhood, and to the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, and to the men who will teach me how to be a woman.
Across the table, my father instructs me in the ways of health insurance in case I crack my head. He turns the pages of a fat booklet that is my personal policy. Between us, the tall tapers my parents are too anxious to light steady themselves in their miniature holders.
My father looks over his reading glasses, which he calls his half-asses, and says, “Don’t crack your head.”
In the corner, a crushed laundry basket piled high with sheets is ready to erupt.
Egg Salad. New York. 1978.
We decided we’d make egg salad. It required all three of us: Paul and Philip—giants both, with prodigious appetites—and me, a line drawing of a girl with turned-out feet and a bun so taut and so trained that my hairline strained to hold fast to my face. At seventeen, it already receded to my ears. I didn’t know how to roast a chicken, even, nor had I learned, in the sure, sinister style of Betty Crocker, how to make an egg behave. I didn’t cook. I barely ate, less still in the company of men. There was much I didn’t do in the company of men. It didn’t matter how gay they were.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Paul said, “We’ll add a little mustard. A little mustard gives it a flavor.”
“I’d like to try Sister’s version tonight, thank you,” Philip said. He’d had an audition that afternoon for a commercial. Something humiliating. Bodily. Already he guessed he wouldn’t get a callback. Philip was a dear, a great big lovey, but he could turn on a dime, like a husband. What did I know of husbands? I knew this much: they could turn on a dime.
“I prefer to have the egg salad Little Sister’s way.”
Paul shrank with a miniscule grief. He was easy to wound. It was easy to see exactly where, usually at the base of his broad, bony sternum, two fingers above his xiphoid process, where you would sink the heel of your hand to revive him.
Paul was long and lean and attenuated, like a dying note.
“Gawd. I’m suggesting a little mustard for a flavor, merely,” he said. “But if it hurts you, if it causes you some sort of injury, well, banish the thought.” Paul returned the yellow tin of dry mustard to the cupboard. I was rather hoping to get a closer look at it, this mustard that had a life beyond the refrigerator door. Paul was my first Canadian, and I was curious to know what other new shapes his condiments might take. I wanted some time in that spice cabinet.
Paul instructed me: “Philip’s a delicate flower in the flavor department, darling. He’s highly olfactory.”
I took note of this fact re: Philip. I asked Paul to spell olfactory, please, and he did, slowly and distinctly, while I copied it out on the inside of my forearm. I would look it up when I got back to our apartment, my sister’s and mine.
“What’s your secret, hon?” Paul asked. “What do you like to use in your egg salad?”
Probably he sensed I was stricken by the question. Beyond the obvious, egg salad might be comprised of just about anything. It was a head-scratcher, egg salad. Why did they call it that, even? It was no longer an egg, never a salad.
I stood in Paul and Philip’s kitchen noodling this mystery until Paul took my elbow and walked me to the refrigerator. We perused its contents arm in arm.
“Pickles?” I hazarded.
“Splendid,” Paul said.
It was the year my whole life started.
I Do Not Wish to Go into the Volcano. New York. 1978.
The night Paul and I had agreed to have sex, he arrived with a branch of yellow freesia that smelled like Juicy Fruit, a package of Tiparillos, and a Charleston Chew.
“I come in peace,” he said, and smiled.
I plucked the Charleston Chew from his hand. I looked into the hallway— to the right, to the left—and made sure he wasn’t spotted, and I nodded him silently into the apartment, as if it were a speakeasy. I bolted the door behind him. Then chained it.
I appraised the Charleston Chew in my two palms. Who knew you could find them here. Who knew where to look, even. I closed my eyes and turned it around in my fingers, and when the paper wrapper crackled and exhaled its fumes, I thought I might actually faint. I wanted badly to bury my face in it.
“You said you used to like those, back when you ate candy, like a regular person.”
“I love them,” I said.
“Super!” Paul said. “When was that exactly? How old were you then, when you ate the candies?”
I abandoned Paul to the foyer. I guessed he supposed he should ask all these personal questions now that we were going to have sex. It was a courtesy, this line of inquiry, that I knew straight fellows affected, but I wondered where Paul had heard of it. The movies, I guessed. Or maybe Canada.
I retired to my fainting couch with my Tiparillos and my Charleston Chew, and I tried not to weep with the joy of it.
“Can I come in?” Paul asked, still standing in the foyer, holding the branch of freesia.
Mornings on the Upper West Side, the ballerinas, pared down like eels, stretch and bend into the long light. At the barre, their slender arms draw arcs. They reach absently for something far, far away; they don’t much hunger for it. A ballet mistress floats in on tiptoe, a little skirt just concealing her rump. She claps her tiny hands, which flutter around her like a fan, and sings, “People, people,” and they all glide to attention.
On the East Side, at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, we throw a virgin into a volcano to start the day.
I am an affront to Armgard von Bardeleben, who leads our class at Martha Graham. Armgard is a towering, Aryan monster-woman whose name has limbs in it. It is impossible for me to disguise how frightened I am of her. It is there in the mirror for the entire room to see, and from every angle.
She gives us the combination and the pianist begins to play. He is a furious Jamaican with long dreadlocks, and he shakes his head no—no, no, no—when he plays and when he pauses. He resides in a state of refusal. From across the room, Armgard eyes me suspiciously. I’m already off tempo. I am, as a rule, too much in my own head, in my own world. I’m too dependent on the mirror. I don’t listen to the music. I am an adolescent girl given to abstraction, and no matter how hard I try to hold fast to my body, it escapes me. It’s quicker and nimbler than I am. Years from now, when I am in college, I’ll learn to blame the Gnostics for starting this argument. I’ll shake my fist to high heaven and call them fuckers. Why did you do it, you fuckers! But today, I am a head chasing after a body on Sixty-Third Street and Second Avenue, and this spectacle infuriates Armgard von Bardeleben.
“Ach, du lieber Gott!” she screams. The Jamaican accompanist rears up like a horse and lands back on the keys. “You, you...!” Armgard starts, and in the mirror I watch her pull off her ballet slipper to fight me.
Paul’s body is so attenuated and refined, I might pulverize him. I am such a galoot, such an irredeemable oaf. Outside the studio, I’m a sprawling mess of errant parts, only outside the studio they haven’t removed all the furniture. I walk two fingers up the rungs of Paul’s sternum and balance them on his clavicle. “I’m gonna jump!” I say, with quavering finger-knees, and in a second, distant voice I call back, “Do it! Do it!” I enact this small suicide one time after another.
“We’re not getting anywhere with this,” Paul says.
Paul has come here to do me this favor. There is nothing for him in it except the opportunity for convention, which is a novelty. Paul is a faggot. “Say it, darling,” he tells me. “With gusto.” I cannot say it. Nor can I say what I am—a virgin—but I don’t have to because it’s there for all the world to see, like a giant pineapple growing out of my head. Every week my virginity sprouts a new, garish fruit, and soon I will labor under the weight of a headdress as high as Carmen Miranda’s. I want it off me.
The night we made our date with convention, Paul said, “Say I’m a faggot, or I won’t sleep with you.”
Between the bed and the wall, where I have wedged myself, it’s soft and warm on one side, cool and hard on the other. I am perfectly balanced on the equator. “My darling,” Paul says, “this can’t work. Not with you over there and me over here. What’s happening?”
“I love it here,” I say.
“You love it,” Paul says. “How fabulous for you. But you’re hiding from me, and that makes me feel lonely. That makes me feel like a crumb.”
“Why?” I ask. “You’re not supposed to care. The point was that you don’t care.”
Paul stands and pulls the bed from the wall. I drop from the equator straight to the floor. “Okay,” he says, “that was mean,” and he lies down. “That was a mean thing to say, and you said it.”
This is why I must never speak.
I lie under the bed, my palms on the box spring where I imagine Paul’s body should be.
“Paul?” I say, in a voice so small it’s nearly a whisper. “Paul, I love you.”
“You don’t have to say that,” he says.
“It’s true,” I say.
“You don’t have to mean it, either.”
Armgard von Bardeleben has stopped class to make me turn across the floor until I am able to locate the music in my body. “We have all the day, yes?” she asks the class. The class agrees we do. I begin on a clean diagonal, but after several passes, I pick up speed and start to veer. “Don’t you stop, you!” she shouts. “Don’t you dream to stop.” The Jamaican accompanist sees I’m headed for him and stretches both arms across his keyboard. As I reach him, he bolts off the bench and takes hold of me by my bun. He walks me backward into the waist of the grand piano, like a tango. He brings his face to my ear.
“Girl,” he says, his breath hot on my neck. “This is my home. You’ve come into my house now.”
“Better,” says Armgard, and she waves the class back to the center.
Alone in my bed at night, the furious Jamaican pianist and I dance. In our dance, we run circles around each other. I circle once, twice. The third time I run and throw myself into his arms. He winds up like a hammer thrower, the sweat flying from his dreads. He turns and turns and hurls me across the music, and somehow he’s catching me on the other side.
Men Among Men. New York. 1978.
Tonight, Paul and Philip and I are going to a club in the old Meatpacking District, a neighborhood I haven’t been to.
“What should I wear?” I ask Paul. When we go to clubs, Paul has something to say about my outfit. Mostly we go to Studio 54, where you have to be chosen to get in, where a crush of people strains against a red velvet rope—straight people in tube tops and chinos.
“What you have on works,” Paul says. “Your cheekbones could use some light.”
At Studio 54 there is a gatekeeper. For some reason that no one has explained, we have a privileged status. For us the gatekeeper unhooks the red velvet rope, the waters part, and we pass like the Jews out of Egypt. The passage is terrifying. I lower my head and make myself small, and I hold tight to Paul’s hand or to the edge of Philip’s giant cape. I hurry through and hope to God I’m not plucked out and left to stand on Fifty-Fourth Street alone at midnight with the straight people in chinos.
Tonight, for the club in the Meatpacking District, I wear a shiny black leotard—a dress-up leotard—and Lee jeans. Lee has just started making a special cut for ladies. The flaps of fabric at the sides would be for my hips, if I had hips. On me, the ladies’ jeans have an equestrian flair.
“You could put on a different pair of jeans,” Paul says.
The Meatpacking District is an abandoned civilization in the teeming city. We get in a cab and Philip gives the driver directions, but it’s as if he says, “Take us to nowhere,” and the driver knows exactly where nowhere is.
In New York, I am always afraid, but never with Paul and Philip. Paul and Philip are men, especially Philip. They’re towering figures both, and unabashed, and at home in their skin. They’re older than me and they know everything. In Manhattan Plaza, the apartment complex where we live, Paul dresses me up like a doll and powders me with sparkle dust and Philip pulls me onto his lap and reads me the stories I missed in childhood, like the story of Babar, who is an elephant, and also French.
There is no traffic in the Meatpacking District. There are no storefronts, no homeless, no garbage cans or human detritus. Sometimes, in Midtown or in the Village, Philip opens his giant cape and throws it around me like Dracula. Together we walk, my arms around his waist. I close my eyes and go where he takes me.
Tonight, in the Meatpacking District, we’re bare, we’re too much exposed.
“Where’s the meat?” I ask.
“The meat!” Paul screams, and laughs. When Paul laughs, he throws his head back like a starlet. He has a flexible neck for a man.
“The butcher shops,” I say. “The slaughterhouses. Where are they?”
I’m from Kansas City, a cow town, but I don’t like to think about slaughterhouses. Still, I wish there were one here now.
“Long gone,” Philip says. “The meatpackers packed up and left years and years ago.”
“Where’s the meat!” Paul sings. His voice rolls like smoke along the barren streets to the river.
The bar is in a narrow street behind a door with no sign. The music is so loud and percussive, it makes the long, low building’s tenuous roof jump. Outside, the cracked sidewalk trembles underfoot.
Paul and Philip install me on a stool at the bar. Men in leather pants and white muscle shirts, the shirts we call wifebeaters where I grew up, rush to pet and embrace me. I’m the only woman here. I wish I had taken more care with my outfit, with my face. The men stroke my hair. One leans in close and says, “You’re flawless.” He gives me the softest kiss on my forehead, like the kiss Glinda the Good Witch gives Dorothy.
The men lock elbows with Paul and Philip and dance them away, into the crowd of other men.
I’m so painfully shy, it’s a misery for me to speak, but here I’m not expected to. The bare-chested bartender brings me sweet drinks—the kind no real drinker drinks—and I perch demurely, fishing for cherries and pineapple chunks in my frosted glass. I nod along to the music. I enjoy my rich interior life.
My life with Paul and Philip asks practically nothing of me. I’m content to wait for them outside the dim rooms at the backs of bars that don’t have signs, and to avert my eyes—this is easy for me—from the doings of men among men in the absence of women. I’m a dancer. I spend my days with men in leotards, like me. We’re shapes in a mirror. I spend my days with women who starve themselves pitilessly. They want badly to escape gravity. I want to hold fast to the floor. I want to feel something like weight. I want to land.
In the dim light of the room that separates the bar from the bathrooms, the men pulse and bend, their lithe shadows fading.
I am the only lady in the ladies’ room. The ladies’ room is full of men. Men making out against the walls, at the sinks, in the stalls. Somehow I imagine that when they understand I’m here, the men will stop and file out in an orderly fashion. They’ll wash their hands first, of course. It doesn’t work this way. I bend down and look under the stalls, hoping for one without feet. There are so many feet facing every which way, some in odd numbers.
“At the end, Cookie,” one of the men says, tipping his head in the direction of the last stall.
I enter the stall and lock the door. I take stock. I cannot urinate in a room full of men. This is a fact. This is a hard truth. I hang my purse on the hook on the stall door and walk out. “Excuse me,” I say. “Pardon me, please,” I say, and I turn on every faucet at every sink. I return to my stall and get to work. I should not have worn a leotard to a bar in the Meatpacking District.
From the toilet, the gush of water from so many faucets softens the sounds the men make with one another. I’m peaceful enough now and pleased with myself for my easiness in a bathroom full of men. Here I am, I think, in a bathroom full of men, going to the bathroom.
From a hole in the stall wall between me and my neighbor, near the toilet paper holder, an engorged penis advances. It stops. In the garish fluorescent bathroom light, it’s unmistakable. Also, impossible. It’s the color of a new brick. It’s mapped with fat blue veins. It has the merest bend, toward me.
I study it, the errant penis. It throbs with life.
If I were a mother, I’d wrap it in soft cloths and place it in a basket among the bulrushes and float it down the river to safety like baby Moses. But I’m not a mother. I’m barely a woman. This is what I’m here to learn. This is what I hope Paul and Philip will, somehow, teach me.
Teach me how to be a woman in a body.
I take a length of toilet paper and drape it over the penis. I’m at a loss for a social convention in this particular situation. I’m sure there is something one does in this instance, but I understand I’m not the one to do it. The penis is not intended for me.
Because it’s never inappropriate to say thank you, I say it.
“Thank you,” I say.
Through the hole the penis leaves behind: the swish of coarse denim, a metal belt buckle, a shoe dropped to the floor, and dropped again. My neighbor is putting himself together in such a hurry, he’s lost his balance. He careens from wall to wall. I cover the hole with my palm.
“Shhh,” I want to whisper. “I’m not the authorities. I’m not the Gestapo.” In my mind, I’m Anne Frank and my anonymous neighbor is also Anne Frank. We must stay perfectly still. But I say nothing. I understand that it’s a kindness to say nothing. It’s a kindness to flush the toilet and upset this silence. It’s a kindness to let the anonymous man anonymously take his leave of me.
This is the first goodbye.