Featured in Colorado Review
Portrait of a Family, Crooked & StraightFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Summer 2016
A black and white photo, 1976. In the foreground, two daughters in jeans and windbreakers pluck at cotton candy. Behind them their parents cha-cha, arms lifted. They’re hamming it up, improvising for the photographer, a family friend. After the last shutter click, the parents will kiss. This isn’t captured on film, but the elder daughter recalls it clearly, even years later. She must have turned from her cotton candy to see it.
You don’t even know how many reasons you have to be happy; you don’t know that behind you, your parents are exchanging the gaze of lovers, or that hardly anyone’s parents exchange that gaze, or that there will be a time, years from now, when your parents will no longer agree to look at each other that way.
* * *
They were married for twenty-nine years. From their yearbook photos, it was easy for their elder daughter, at fifteen, to slot them into categories. Gayle, nicknamed “Binky,” got voted Most Popular, Best Looking, Best Teeth. Best Teeth. David, like his daughter, didn’t win any popularity contests. Still, yearbook photographs show him as Tom Wingfield, the male lead in the Paul D. Schreiber Class of ’61 production of The Glass Menagerie. Back then, he sported the big, black-framed glasses popularized by Buddy Holly and was captured on film holding a book open in the palm of his hand. He’s skinny and bookish and earnest. A thespian. This member of the Thespian Society belongs to a different crowd than Binky Spanier, who, in addition to the popularity and looks and teeth, is head cheerleader, in a short skirt and a sweater with a bullhorn sewn on the front. The letters of her name descend diagonally along the bullhorn, BINKY.
On the inside cover of her yearbook, David writes, I hope you get the appreciating mate you deserve.
* * *
Each of my parents kept belongings in the night tables on either side of the bed. In my father’s, copies of Machine Design magazine, more than one calculator, cufflinks, spare change. In my mother’s, always, a candy stash. In her childhood, her father hid Mallomars and chocolate bars, and in mine she, too, hid her sugary vice, as if hiding and searching down sweets were traits passed down from parent to child. In her night table she kept Swedish Fish, Jordan almonds, jellied fruit slices sprinkled with sugar. She ate the colors she favored first, leaving the undesirable green and yellow slices. I’d find them in a ripped plastic bag under her Ms. magazines and pop-psychology books: If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him; Jonathan Livingston Seagull; Your Erroneous Zones. She must have known that I was stealing from her stash, though I tried to be careful not to eat what she might notice missing.
One day I noticed something other than the candy. I must have been old enough, for the first time, to turn my attention away from the predictable stash, with its hoard of discarded colors and flavors. I turned from the candy and read and reread the title of a book: Surpassing the Love of Men.
I must have been in my mid-teens. I’d had my first boyfriend, an offbeat sophomore named Melvin who refused to be called Melvin: he answered only to Sam. At night, while my family slept, he biked to my house and left gyros from Souvlaki Place on our front stoop, offerings in wax paper and congealed grease. On the phone he acted out exchanges for me between Jeopardy contestants and the host, all the characters channels for a chaotic, underutilized intelligence. His chaos and charisma, his ability to draw out my dry sense of humor, the petting under a sleeping bag we’d done almost every day that icy February: all this was preparing me to devote myself to loving men. Men charmed me: from Sam on, I fell always for the chaotic, the comic, the hilariously neurotic. I fell in love with the gyro on the front stoop, the pratfall, the arrow through the head. I preferred the profane to the sacred, the gangly juggler to the swaggering quarterback. My friendships with girls were solemn affairs meant for the entrusting of secrets, the confessing of fears, the forming and shifting and testing of alliances. Not so with boys. Boys meant breaking the rules, thumbing one’s nose at authority, swinging from the rafters. I could not, in short, comprehend the project of surpassing the love of men. At fifteen, I was just getting started on the project of securing their love.
My mother’s book would need to be tucked under the others, forgotten about, stashed away.
* * *
“Rosie’s crooked,” my mother said. “So are Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford.”
“People say Travolta,” someone offered.
“People say Hillary.”
All the women shrugged and sighed and stared out at the water from their beach chairs. Ambitious women were always accused of being lesbians. My mother and Deb headed back to our room at the motel and returned with champagne and happy hour hors d’oeuvres: olives, crackers, grapes, cheese. Happy hour sent the conversation off in some other direction, away from the speculative game about who was and wasn’t. I felt relieved. I wouldn’t have relished admitting it, but I couldn’t get used to the word lesbian, with its buzz of consonants in the middle of it. It wouldn’t slip out of the mouth in one clean syllable, like gay. Worse, I couldn’t square it with mother, a word that held not just my affective ties, but also a definition of the world as a stable, knowable place.
Lesbian tipped the meaning out of the word mother. I didn’t want it to. Back in Utah, where I was living at the time and going to graduate school, I lay in my bed and tried out the sentence: “My mother is a lesbian,” I said into the dark. The phrase sounded like one of the slogans printed on the buttons my mother collected: “A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle,” “My Karma Ran Over My Dogma,” “My Other Car Is a Broom.” I knew I was supposed to be a liberal, a feminist, a person of tolerance and good will. None of this kept me from squeamishness when I pictured my mother sleeping in a king-sized bed in the suburbs with her androgynous, three-hundred-pound girlfriend. This was the nineties. Everywhere around me I saw the new, prurient interest in gay people. Actors played them on TV; preachers made pronouncements to the press about Ellen “Degenerate,” condemning the actress Ellen DeGeneres for coming out as a lesbian.
My sister couldn’t handle it. She marked out distance and territory between herself and my mother, refusing to go to her house. The spare bedroom at my mother’s became mine by default. Visiting her dropped me into a domesticity disconcertingly alien and familiar. I recognized in it my mother’s fondness for framed photographs of beaches, seashells she’d gathered herself over decades of summers, blond wood, candles, a palate of creams and blues meant to evoke sand and sky and sea. All this reproduced the domestic scenes of my childhood. But another version of my mother asserted herself here. Look closely at the beach scene and there’s a rainbow flag flying beside the rambling Victorian bed-and-breakfast by the sea. This isn’t just any beach: it’s Provincetown, where my mother and Deb vacationed with the two women in the photograph on the refrigerator.
In their bathroom, the impressionist painting of the woman bathing changes, takes on trappings. One evening, too much wine in me, I stand and stare at the painting, the woman’s flesh benignly blurred by the painter’s brush. I would not have lingered over it at a museum. But here, in the bathroom that belongs to my mother and her lover, that flesh irks me, the woman’s breasts and belly suddenly taunting and lurid. I open the medicine cabinet and survey the contents. On my mother’s side, the same overpriced creams and conditioners I use, the mousses and eye gels and promises of beauty in a jar. On Deb’s side, a bottle of men’s cologne, the polo player eternally swinging his mallet from atop his horse. Then toothpaste and eye drops and antibiotics, tweezers, nail scissors, flea powder for the dog.
What was I expecting? The men’s cologne unnerved me a little, but the ordinariness unnerved me more. My mother, crooked now, still used the same mousse I did. I closed the cabinet and studied my face in the mirror. I didn’t know it yet, but I was beginning to search my own surface for signs. The conversation on the beach would return and echo. Rosie’s crooked. Travolta. Richard Gere. My mother, after years of what I considered enthusiastic and successful heterosexuality, had declared herself crooked. Any day the frame of me might tilt.
* * *
My belongings arrived in Alabama a week after I did. I’d gotten a teaching job at the University of Alabama, a place I’d never given a moment’s thought until I got the job. I didn’t own much: a bed frame and boxes of clothes, plates and cups wrapped in newspaper, some framed pictures I’d paid extra to have the movers wrap. I drifted through thick July heat, 102 degrees, to unpack what little I had. Two champagne flutes, miraculously intact. But several plates were broken, margarita glasses smashed. And my large framed Georgia O’Keeffe print, when I removed the movers’ cocoon of plastic, sat behind splintered spears of glass.
I took the print to a shop to have the broken glass replaced. My pictures needed to be hung right away. This became a fixed idea for me, almost an obsession, entirely unreasonable. I didn’t even have a sofa yet. I didn’t have proper kitchen utensils. My apartment was large and cavernous; my voice, when I worried aloud to myself, echoed off the blank walls.
After the sun went down one day, I went for a walk to case out the neighborhood. A man sitting splay-legged on a sloping lawn called to me.
“Want to pick some nut grass?”
He had the smooth skin and lanky limbs of a pre-adolescent boy. He had a boy’s full head of hair cut in glossy bangs he tossed out of his eyes. When nervous or excited, his right eye twitched involuntarily, a tic that I at first mistook for overly enthusiastic winking. A twelve-year-old might have been stretched and broadened to the dimensions of a grown man; this, I saw later, was what disarmed me. Only the spidery network of laugh lines around his eyes convinced me that he was six years older than me, thirty-nine.
That summer, my first in Alabama, was a languid, stifling sequence of days that shaded into night with no discernible drop in temperature. I had never experienced such unabated heat. Most of the twenty thousand students and faculty, whose cars jammed the main thoroughfares in town during the school year, left for the summer months. It was both the emptiness of Tuscaloosa in summer and the emptiness of my apartment—walls formidably blank—that brought me into Jim’s orbit.
I needed to paint the bathroom and hallway. Jim took on the project with gusto, choosing paint with me and hauling in a ladder for the job. He wouldn’t take the money I offered him, asking only that I keep him company while he worked. Soon we were trading opinions, the northerner and the southerner laughing at each other’s assertions. I heard myself, appalled, recoil and scold when he used the n-word. When I punctuated stubbing my toe with goddamn, he objected with a forcefulness I at first thought was a put-on. Southern Baptist meets Yankee Agnostic. We managed to piss each other off at least once an hour.
He told me jokes while he painted.
“What did the two black lesbians say to each other? ‘You da man.’ ‘No, YOU da man!’”
* * *
Jim and I thought it would be a big party, but there were just five of us for dinner. Linda, the hostess, served us wine. The other two young women seated at the table conversed alternately in English and German. Right away, an animated conversation began.
“A hen party!” Jim sat back, amused, arms crossed over his chest. He managed to stay quiet for half a minute or so before he was back in the conversation, as big a talker as any of us.
Linda told a story about going to an employee Halloween party dressed as Aunt Jemima. She had painted her face black, but not her arms. She had worn a kerchief on her head and, instead of serving pancakes, poured shots of whiskey into people’s mouths. The week after the party, some of the employees lodged a complaint. At the meeting called to address the matter, one black woman wanted to know why Linda had painted her face black but not her arms and neck. Another asked how Linda would feel if someone dressed up on Halloween as Chandler, Linda’s mildly learning-disabled nephew. Linda felt it entirely unfair to compare an invented character to an actual person. Jim nodded in agreement. This ignited a discussion about race and gender that stretched into hours. More hours, more wine. Somewhere in the midst of this we ate a delicious German noodle dish. As the evening drew on, the discussion got more contentious, sharper lines drawn between us. We discussed women and men and date rape and domestic violence and patriarchy. I was the one who got us going on patriarchy. I was pontificating. I’d had too much to drink and was angry. The woman beside me, Jamie, joined in, agreeing with my points and sometimes, remarkably, backing me up with statistics. I didn’t know where she was getting these numbers, but they sounded marvelous. Furthermore, they flummoxed Jim. I began to enjoy seeing him flummoxed.
Jamie took one of my wrists and circled it with her hand. As Jim rebutted my remarks and her statistics, she worked her other hand up and down my forearm. Jim was explaining how just as many men as women got the shit kicked out of them, maybe even more, but that men never reported the violence because they feared the authorities’ perception of them.
My mother worked at a domestic violence agency on Long Island. So many men threatened women being served by the agency that the offices were now housed in a building with a false storefront and an elaborate security system. I was planning to explain all this to Jim. I was planning to jump in and refute him any minute, as soon as he gave me an opening.
Jim suddenly detoured from the argument he was making and stared at Jamie. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to be a massage therapist,” Jamie said.
Jim made a face and returned to the question of men being afraid to admit their wives could whip their asses.
Jamie leaned in and whispered to me, “Do you think he’d notice if you left for a bit?”
“No,” I said.
She got up and left the table. I remained for a few minutes, then got up and excused myself. I didn’t know where I was going; I hadn’t seen any part of the house other than the room that led from the front door to the kitchen. She let me in the bathroom and locked the door. We sat down together on the edge of the tub.
“He’s a piece of work,” she said.
“He’s a bastard.”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“God no,” I said. I told her how I’d just moved to town and that he was the first person I’d met in Alabama. She listened carefully, commiserating with me about the conservatism of the locals. She’d been living in California the previous year and had only recently been transferred to Alabama.
“And that thing about Aunt Jemima,” I said.
We agreed Jim was a Cro-Magnon. We agreed, and then, on the edge of the tub, we leaned in and kissed each other, as if to seal it. Something hateful had to be banished—that was how I felt in that moment. The current of sympathy that traveled between us could blot out the hate.
I’d never kissed a woman on the lips before; I’d never passed my hand over a breast. The exercise was instructive. I felt how small a woman could be in the hands of a man, how a man could bend and snap and break her. All the people I’d embraced passionately had, until that moment, been men, young men, dense with muscle, never frail. This woman, smaller even than me, self-possessed and lit from within, could be bashed with one blow. I saw myself bashed with one blow, though I’d never been hit.
We kissed for a stretch of time that felt like fifteen minutes. I could hear the distant, dwindling conversation in the kitchen.
“What are the two of you doing in there?”
“Talking,” I said. Jamie and I pulled apart, wiped our mouths, smoothed down our hair.
When I opened the door, Jim looked shaken and a little sick. “You were in there forty-five minutes! What were you doing in there for all that time?”
How could I formulate in words what had passed between us? The kiss that blotted hate, the sympathy that traveled in currents, the laugh and ease on the edge of the tub, the listening, the embrace. I couldn’t explain, either, how Jim himself had been what made Jamie and me kiss each other in the first place. Already I understood that no language would ever be invented to convey this to Jim. A great drunken wash of sadness passed over me then, for everything that was untranslatable. Between women and men I often felt an abyss open when we talked: the way they framed the world and the way we did.
As Jim and I crossed the dark lawn toward my car, he said, “You humiliated me. The two of you in there. What were you doing?”
I focused on the road, in the overcautious way of drunks.
“Did you have each other’s clothes off?”
Bitterly he said, “She kiss better than me?” He was thinking aloud and didn’t give me time to answer the question before he thought of another. “You had sexual feelings toward her?”
I was about to respond when he made another observation. “You’re driving erratically.”
“No, I’m not.” I knew I was weaving.
Later that night, he called me. “I’m coming over,” he said.
“No, you’re not.” I was sitting on my kitchen floor with the portable phone. I was eating cheese. I was having a hard time picturing Jamie’s face. It was three o’clock in the morning.
“I’m coming over,” he said.
In the morning we got up and went to church. To church. I showered and put on a flowered dress I’d worn for teaching. I had a vague memory of being told I was going to be shown what a man was, alongside an equally convincing belief that I’d merely invented that, dreamed it. I’d awakened in the morning with him in the bed beside me. When he reappeared for church, he was showered and combed and wearing a suit. At the Northport Baptist Church, we sat in the back behind three elderly congregants who greeted us and shook our hands. They were pleased to see Jim. “Is this the next Miz Powell?” one of them asked.
An interminable karaoke-like business in which a woman accompanied by recorded instrumentation sang about Christ as the lamb whose blood healed her gave me time to assess. I’d never sat in a room full of Baptists. The preacher got up and gave a spiel from Numbers, in the Old Testament. The sermon was about spiritual presumption—presuming that one was just waiting around in this life to be delivered into heaven. This led him, by some route, to citing Ellen DeGeneres (“from television, the outspoken lesbian”), who had claimed publicly that each person has to decide for him- or herself what’s right and wrong and then be responsible for one’s actions. I thought this sounded like a pretty reasonable idea. The preacher, though, countered by saying that one doesn’t decide. There is a right and a wrong, he said. You find it right there in the Bible.
* * *
“Ooh, I love that girl!” My mother lifted the photo of her partner and kissed it. In a little while we’d go to dinner with new colleagues of mine, two women—a couple—my mother wanted to meet. In the meantime, she was missing Deb, who’d stayed in New York for this, my mother’s first visit to my new home in Alabama.
We drank wine. My mother smoked a joint, and I, feeling how palpable her homesickness was, opted not to object to her smoking pot in my living room. I knew I would be objecting on the basis of some arcane principle anyway, the notion that mother and smoking pot in daughter’s living room were somehow inappropriately paired. I didn’t have any legitimate objection beyond that; I wasn’t afraid of some vice squad showing up and arresting her. My sister—whom my mother and I had long ago nicknamed Nancy Reagan for her strident anti-drug stance—would have flown off the handle had my mother lit up a joint in her living room. Impossible to imagine what she would have done in response to my mother’s enthusiastic photo kissing.
Over the course of two days, my mother bought and hung curtains for me, procured flatware at Walmart, hung pictures. She struggled and apologized for her clumsiness, saying Deb would be better at hanging pictures and curtains. At home, Deb had a workshop in the garage, tools mounted neatly to the walls, my mother’s cases of diet Snapple iced tea stacked on shelves Deb had built. My mother missed that girl too much; she would, as it turned out, leave a day early to return to New York, where her girl sat in a men’s T-shirt and pulled weeds on the front lawn. Later—after I told a new friend who would later become my husband that I’d briefly dated a southern guy who made fun of lesbians and used the n-word (how lonely and disoriented had I been by the move to Alabama even to befriend this person, much less date him?)—I would drive down University Boulevard and see Jim pulling nut grass on his lawn. In those moments, I couldn’t help but superimpose on him an image of Deb in her yard, pulling her northern weeds. No, not superimpose. I pictured Jim and Deb chatting across a hedge in some imagined suburbia, where the gay neighbors and the straight neighbors talk lawn maintenance.
* * *
At my sister’s wedding, two professional photographers documented every move we made. In a pre-ceremony photo session on the beach, the bridal party was directed to run—in our suits and gowns and dyed-to-match shoes—down the beach. Sand sifted into our shoes; carefully coiffed hair became tangled. Then portraits of our families: the groom’s family, the bride’s family, the groom with the bride’s family, the bride with the groom’s family. Somewhere, out of the frame, Deb stood in a black suit with long tails. At the reception, she and I danced. At first I wavered clumsily, resisting her lead. But then I gave into it. She knew how to lead better than I did, and I was slender and in a gown and heels, and she was dressed like a man, and I was enjoying the dance. I didn’t seek out my sister while we danced; I let the rest of the room settle into momentary anonymity, as if no one could see the maid of honor dancing with her mother’s lesbian girlfriend. No one knew it, but I had kissed a girl, and I had been date-raped for it, and I had gone to a Baptist Church, and I had sat with all the Baptists and listened to a preacher speak out against gay people, and my mother and her girlfriend weren’t allowed to dance at this wedding, and my mother and father didn’t want to dance with each other at this wedding—and they wouldn’t—and there would be no portrait from this wedding of the father and the mother and the two daughters together, no portrait for my wall.
When Deb looked at the photo albums from the wedding, she noticed there weren’t any of her. Those she found later, in a box. There wouldn’t be any photo of her and the maid of honor dancing, not even in the ones relegated to the box. The heavy woman with the black suit and tails spinning the slender woman in the midnight blue gown and matching shoes, hair unkempt, is only in the archive of memory. I see myself hanging it now, on the wall in my living room.
Is it straight or crooked? Tell me.
Wendy Rawlings is the author of a novel, The Agnostics, and Come Back Irish, a collection of short stories. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared most recently or are forthcoming in the Cincinnati Review, Florida Review, the Normal School, and the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology. She teaches at the University of Alabama.