7.12 / Queer Three

Melanie and Edith

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The exotic fish were dead. Death should never come before noon. That skinny red headed guy who sold exotic fish told me to be careful, feed the fish regularly. He didn’t have faith in me. How could I go back to the fish store and tell him that I killed four of the fish? He would swear at me and call me names like fish-killer or give me that pathetic look like you left my motorcycle out in the rain.

The sun that shined through the windows dispersed my living room graveyard long enough for me to realize I needed a goldfish. My roommate was in Hawaii. I could borrow her gold fish and put it in the living room and then get my gold fish later before she came home. What if I mixed up the fish? Would she be able to tell? And then the phone rang. No one called me in the morning except for my best friend Edith.

“I am sleeping.”  I said.

“I need to tell you something. Let’s have lunch.” She said.

She always had to tell me something.

I walked outside and the world looked flat and the sky was the color of the sidewalk and the two people on the street looked like two people on any street. There was nothing vivid about this day until Edith pulled up in her fancy car with her dark messy hair and her loud voice. She was in an orange vintage dress.

“Let’s take two cars.” I said.

We went to a swanky, outdoor shopping mall for lunch. The clouds above us were bland and we were with bland people; none of these people had ever been in Rome. I was fiddling with the menu and watching the waitress who had a hot ass. The restaurant was crowded. The air was stuffy. I wanted to get home to my one living fish Greta, who had survived the fish flu. My apartment rug needed to be vacuumed. My bottle of red henna hair dye was on the dining room table. I could have been a red head by now.

“You’re always so distracted.” Edith said.

“Well, you know.”

“I know what?” Edith asked.

“I told you big Connie at work has been on me. She’s going to get me laid off.”

“You’ve been at the same hospital for ten years, every week you tell me they are going to fire you.” Edith said.

“Well, this time it might happen. Connie mixed up the charts and blamed it on me.”

“You’re always so uptight. Jesus. Every day with you, it’s gloom and doom.”

“Yeah, well, you know.”

“You should really see a shrink.”

“That’s your news? you got me out of bed to tell me that?”

“You weren’t in bed, Melanie. And I really think you should start seeing a shrink, you’re not eating your lunch. It’s always paranoia and drama with you.”

She continued talking while I traveled inward to beatitude. I did this by envisioning her naked in a bath tub with a bunch of violets on her breasts. I didn’t like her lectures. Edith sounded like a group of bald congressmen when she gave advice. It was sickening, and the way her lips curled up annoyed me and her pithy statement about seeing a shrink felt like it was delivered to her on a silver dish by her handsome boyfriend Gary, who she might marry once her family determined whether his bloodline was royal or whether he was an impostor. Gary was delusional and thought he was a handsome prince from the Renaissance (he quoted Shakespeare) but he was really a common but arrogant jack-ass who didn’t know shit about how to make love to a woman.

Gary was an important doctor. Women fawned over him. He was a sucker for good looking women. Obviously this is why he was so smitten with Edith.

No doubt, Edith was someone to be admired. She was pretty in an unusual way.  Her nose bent towards the Pacific Ocean. Her eyes were green. Her hair was dark, lavish, almost too much. She dressed up every day.  And she was intelligent in that annoying way when a person really does know everything–how to tell what century a tree is from, the original mother myth of the knock-off myth, how swimming pools are professionally cleaned, how to make a soufflé, who sold what and to whom on the silk road, who wrote, The Doll’s House, (its praise and dissenting criticism), how opera singers become stars and how many calories there are in an air inflated rice cake. She was the head master of everything. And she insisted on getting a Brazilian bikini wax regularly. She was absolutely and without question a bitch to have as a best friend.

To make matters worse, a beautiful thoroughbred horse trotted behind Edith at all times. I had a humped back idiot that followed me around–an underling from a 1950’s Creature Feature. Edith wasn’t afraid of planes, of bees or of taxes. I was nervous and filled with doubt, but I had come to accept this about myself. We had different internal worlds.  Who cares?

Apparently, she did.

We sat next to a suburban couple who blended into the wall. They seemed to be married because they ate their lunch without talking to each other and every once in a while the woman would ask the man a bland question like, “Didn’t I tell you that AT&T has cheaper rates?” And then she would ask another question without letting him answer the first question.

She was much younger than he was. She no doubt married him for his money. The man ignored his wife’s questions and asked her,  “Did you find an acceptable accommodation for my mother and father when they fly out from Kansas?”

Edith and I had a bad habit of talking loudly when we were together. This couple was annoyed with us. The woman had platinum blonde hair worn in a retro bee-hive and she made a zip your lip signal at us.

I spoke louder. I winked at Edith and leaned into her close– taking in her oh-so-perfect beauty. This feeling I often had sitting next to Edith was like a rush of warm wind on Catalina Island. I went with it and took a risk.

“Remember that night we got drunk and French kissed?” I asked.

“Why must you always bring that up, Melanie? That was over 15 years ago. We were in college.”

“I bring it up all the time because I fell in love with you that night. I guess I wanted things to go further.  I told you, you looked like a Russian princess.”

“You were reading too much Tolstoy at the time.”

“I was in a class entitled Tolstoy and His Works.”

“Well, that’s what I mean, you over focus on shit.”

“We could have been an item. I would have followed you to the ends of the earth, and I would have made better love to you than that stupid art history major Danny, you were so enamored with.”

“Shush, silly, I’m not gay and neither are you. You just like the dark poetry of it.”

“Are you in love with Gary?”

“I was. Not so much now, but we are getting married.”

Her voice got really loud when she said we are getting married. Like she was lost in the Amazon starving to death and her only chance of survival was screaming really loudly into the void we are getting married over and over again.

All of a sudden, I felt sick and Edith looked fuzzy and her beauty became invaluable just like when they auction fancy silver from the early 20th Century at Sotheby’s, gorgeous stuff that you would never need, but somehow your heart wants that silver telephone dialer, and some stuffy Vanderbilt holds up his sign and it’s over. I smiled. Big. Fake. With fangs.

Then I stuck my tongue out at Edith. “Gary is a fag”, I said in anger.  I continued to talk crazy, it was painful to listen to myself talk crazy knowing that I did not mean anything that I was saying but I had to continue in this vein as if somehow this bland day had turned into some kind of airborne disease that I had caught from one of these bland suburbanite dweeb heads at the mall. I went on: “This is a prissy restaurant-the men need to get laid and the women need their rugs licked.”

Silence in the restaurant. All ears on us. You could hear a pin drop or a crab walk across the floor. The man sitting next to us (the one with the young wife with the retro-bee-hive hair-do) told us to shut-up and take it outside.

“Who are you? The Egyptian police? I asked.

I gave the evil eye to his wife who had told us to keep our voices down.

Edith grabbed my arm, “Please, stop.” She said weakly looking like a sick kitten.

I turned away from Edith and apologized to this couple, whose lunch was ruined by my broken heart. I had transferred my pent up hurt feelings about Edith to them. I tried to make reparations. “Please excuse my rude behavior. I have been in crisis ever since they took away my membership at the country club.”

“Please stop talking to us. Or we will get security.” The man said.

“And please stop talking loudly.” The wife said. She was stuck on that phrase. Please stop talking loudly.  This was her favorite. She was not the sharpest knife in the kitchen. She never said lower your voice or I prefer quietude. It was always please stop talking loudly. (They didn’t seem to get that speaking quietly was something that would never happen if Edith and I were doing the talking.)

Edith stepped in and said “She’s off her medication and I am the social worker who is in charge of her care.”

I couldn’t let myself laugh at what Edith had just said. We are getting married kept exploding in my head. I got up and left her with the bill and I walked out of that bland mall with the bland people–my beloved Edith with her Gary and her upcoming wedding plans and I promised myself I would get on the crazy train and not stop until I felt like stopping.

Everything is set up before you are born–this little baby will grow up to be the boss from hell, this baby a beauty queen, this baby the bi-polar misfit that nobody likes and this little rosy-faced tot will be the one asshole in the House of Representatives that is singlehandedly holding up the health care bill from passing. It’s hopeless.

When I got to the mall garage, I realized I had forgotten where I was parked. Why does this shit always happen to me? I went floor to floor. Every fucking car was grey.  How can that be? I was thirsty and hungry. Happy, well-hydrated, well fed people walked past me. I saw several couples who I’m sure would be engaged soon. I saw an older couple out to rekindle their romance.  The man smelled like cigars and old books and the woman smelled of Indian bath salts. Two happy children, a brother and a sister, were throwing their stuffed animal teddy bears in the air. Their parents flashed their prideful parent smile at me.  The whole world was happy. I was the last unhappy person on earth. In thirty years my bones would be found in the parking structure and some scientist would make a note in his scientific journal that these were unhappy bones.

That’s when I saw my brown chevy with the big, orange sunflower painted on its side door. I opened the car door and got in.  I didn’t feel like driving home or going anywhere. I tried to lie down in the front seat but that was uncomfortable. The seat was stuck and would not go all the way back and it was stuffy in the car. I turned myself around, away from the steeling wheel, and I just sat there with the door open, thinking. I tried to lie down across the two front seats, that didn’t work either. Why did I wear red shoes? They looked funny hanging out of the car. My mind was full of wind and heat. Like a tumbleweed. I closed my eyes. And then I heard the voice of an angel. Or was it a dog barking? When you are lonely the voice of an angel and a dog barking are the same thing. You invent things. You have to.

“Melanie, Mel-get up! Get up!” The voice got louder. I felt as if I was at a football game. When I opened my eyes, I saw her fishy eyes, that perfect dimple in her right cheek and I could smell her cherry-scented toothpaste. She held out her hand.

“What about my car?” I asked.

“We will get your car later. You are in no condition to drive.” she said.

Edith drove like a bat on fire. I thought she would kill us. I begged her to slow down. She drove faster. Then everything turned Twilight Zone. Suddenly a topless dancer was inside Edith and she was rushing to get to her lucrative job at the bar dancing the poles. She was glowing. She was sparkling like a neon sign on a road side motel.

When we got to her street, she demanded that I stay in the car. She went inside. I watched a bird play on the telephone wire. He was tweeting and jumping. A junior Elvis Presley. Edith came back and told me to get out of the car.

“Why are you talking funny?” I asked her.

“You’re nuts.” She said with an attitude.

“And you are perfectly normal like Nurse Ratched.”  

“Shut-up,” she said as she pushed me through her front door and grabbed my waist like a jail warden. We walked on her elegant Middle Eastern rug, over the safe blue threads and then made an abrupt right into her bedroom. She had laid down a white and grey Indian bedspread and had removed her throw pillows. Her windows were open.

“I don’t want to watch a movie,” I said.

“Shut- up,” She said.

Then she turned cold. Ice cold. It was Alaska in her room. Where were the polar bears? the ice huts? Jesus, it was cold in there. Then she told me to take off my clothes. “But it’s too cold,” I said.

“Shut-up,” She said. There it was again.

“Shut-up? Last week at the biker party you recited the last three pages of Ulysses.” I said.

“I did that for you.”

I felt guilty.  Maybe if I hadn’t talked so much I would have been a contender. Gary might not have won. I was always riding Edith about this or that. I never let her breathe. I felt loud guilt. I had reduced sophisticated Edith to one phrase. I had conquered her in the same way Napoleon conquered Europe and the conquistadors conquered innocent Mexico.

The song bird that had been dancing happily on the telephone wire flew away. Something dreadful was about to happen. Edith pulled the bedroom curtain closed. Her skin was incandescent. She climbed on the bed and her breasts were perfect but I had forgotten how perfect they truly were and we were we were going to make love and I was scared. Edith put her hand on my thigh and I noticed that she had left her alligator shoes on. She looked exactly like Catherine Deneuve in Belle du Jour.  She was that elegant. I was trouble and had forced this on her. How could I enjoy it? The whole situation was corrupt.

She kissed me on the lips and drove her tongue inside my mouth and it felt like a mermaid and I was transported. And then she took my breasts with her tongue and they collapsed and became hers and then she went down and swirled her tongue inside of me like small minnows fluttering and she rolled me over and did things and then turned me back over and did more things, countless things, things I would never tell you in the dark, and I begged her to stop but she kept going. I told her I was finished and she told me she wasn’t.

And when she decided she was, I asked her “Why?”

“It was a mercy fuck, Melanie,” She said.

“I forced this. Is our friendship over?”

“Is it? You’re always so in my face. You dwell on the same shit over and over again. It drives me crazy.”

“And you hold everything inside until you turn into monster bitch.”

I wondered if she was going to punch me in the face for saying that. She didn’t.      And we gave each other that look that meant so many things that language can’t convey. A look that was built on years of friendship and seeing each other through every disappointment and blessing that life can bring and our respective memories stopped us from our verbal chess game and the automatic way we had grown accustomed to talking to each other.  This sexy early evening became still, frozen.  We looked into each other’s eyes and saw that they were the doorway to fifteen years ago, back to the time we walked across campus together under a large and heavy moon, just the two of us–both broken hearted because we had failed academically in some way, and Edith’s boyfriend had met some other girl, and my girlfriend had stabbed me in the back and then borrowed my car and didn’t even bother to pay her parking tickets that were in my name and I had got caught recently for stealing a dress at Bonwit Tellar’s on Newbury street and Edith had to bail me out of jail and I still remember how her hair smelled that evening like rotten pineapples and how I wanted to take her on the dewy grass on that golden October night and how she kept talking about boring things and stupid shit and gripes and complaints, and her family drama, and I was tired of listening to her, but I loved the sound of her voice. Her voice pierced the autumn night air like a sea-dragon’s tail and wiggled itself inside of my heart and my blood stream and Edith slipped in like that, without permission and she became my world. Her question put us back to the present and where we were right now. On her bed. Post-sex. And Edith, a bride-to-be.

“Remember that time you wore that stupid cat costume with the scraggly tail to the first frat party we went to together-and you saved me from sleeping with that chemist asshole, what was his name?” Edith asked.

“His name was Frank Steinway. I always had to take care of you.”

“That wasn’t his name. Steinway? That was the name of his piano.”

“No, that was the name of his overrated, underachieving cousin,” I said.

“Cousin? What are you talking about?” Edith asked.

“Don’t you remember? Whenever you slept with someone, you gave their penis a nickname. Often times it was derogatory. You were such a bitch, but of course, you had a string of handsome young men eager to stand in line to dance with you or to ask you out for dinner. Frank’s nickname for his you know what, was cousin.”

“I never gave his penis a name, cousin was someone else’s penis. I guess I was a slut right?” Edith asked.

“No, you were exploring your options. You worked hard.”

Edith laughed and I joined in, our laughter bound us together in bliss-just long enough to confirm how far apart we really were now, how easily deep abiding friendships can be broken and how our college romance had receded. The time in-between those years was lost time, broken time, unrepeatable time. There was a long silence between us that lasted until that pesky cat of hers got into a fight with the neighbor’s cat. Bang! The silence broke. The garbage can on the side of the house spilled over.

“What was that?”Edith asked.

“Your pesky cat,” I said.

We were like soldiers who had come back from war and our own homes seemed unfamiliar to us.  And then I grabbed that stupid silk pillow behind her and put it over her face. This felt good. I wanted to keep going-to press harder. I let go. I put the pillow on the floor. The room smelled like Edith–her perfume, her laundry and her indifference. I stared at her Modigliani print. Love is dangerously close to hate I realized in that moment.

“I once had two cats. I named the black one Hate and the white one Love.” I said.

“You’re the only person in this world who can make me laugh.”

Edith pulled me towards her. I was tempted to retreat into her briar, to let her give me anything she offered. I pulled back this time. I didn’t let her kiss me. The light changed in her room. The world had turned gloomy. This turn of light felt tragic and vulnerable, like a newborn that might not make it to the next breath.

“You can’t purchase not being gay, Edith.”

“But I’m not gay. I’m not. I just love you.”

“You have a fucked up way of showing it.”

“Tell me a story,” she said.

I told Edith about my nervous tic. Every time my boss insults me, I need to show someone my tits. I’m not picky. It could be anyone.  I just have to show someone my tits after he insults me and the sooner the better. Once it was an anesthesiologist at my job.  We got on the elevator together and we both had proper elevator manners and then I said, my boss just insulted me and I need to show you something, and I lifted up my blouse and bra. Then the elevator door opened to the first floor and he asked me my first name and I gave it, and he got out and said, “It was nice riding with you, Melanie.” He said this politely like the way a grandfather thanks you for bringing him soup. Then he walked away. He was used to seeing body parts. No big deal for him.

“You made that up.” Edith said.

“I swear I did this. I did. I showed him my–”

“Equipment.” Edith said. And then she put her head on her pillow.

“I am going to sleep. Stay over.” She said.

I continued my story—

The last time it was the mailman. My boss had insulted me. I went home sick.  And then I saw him. I ran outside, he reached out to hand me my mail and that’s when I did it.

“You’re fibbing.” Edith said.

“No, I swear, listen to me.” I continued on.

Then he started to deliver the mail later and later waiting for me to get home. One day I got angry. I went right up to him and told him that he was greedy, that the tit show was over and that he should deliver my mail like he delivers other people’s mail. I told him the story of how my father took me to the opera when I was five years old, just him and me and my brothers stayed home with my mother and my grandmother handmade me a fake fur coat for the event, and that I had no interest in men who worked for the government. I wanted a man who would take me to the opera, but not really, because I am gay and prefer women but if I wasn’t gay–and he ran back to his truck and I finished my story even though now no one was listening.

Edith was asleep. She looked like a sea shell.  And this very bland day turned into a happy day, but I knew she was still going to marry dumb Gary, but sometimes life brings surprises and you wake up in Wyoming and the morning light looks like a church in an old, forgotten ghost town. And you enjoy the shadows of what was or could be.

I put my head down next to hers. Tomorrow, I would make Edith a cup of coffee and tell her about my new gold fish and about the fish tank–how it stunk like hell and then I would leave. Gary would take my place. Her breasts like butterflies in my mind.


Michele Swide is a short story writer with a penchant for vintage shopping. At thirteen she wrote a letter to Jimmy Carter requesting money to buy opera gloves. She has a degree in English from UC Berkeley. She lives in Berkeley with her husband. This is her first story in print.
7.12 / Queer Three