5.10 / October 2010


Neil and I rented a side bedroom from his brother’s girlfriend for fifty dollars a month.     We called it our afternoon home—it was where we lived between the end of my school day and my ten o’clock curfew.   I was a junior in high school, he was a college sophomore; both of us lived with our parents.   We bought a hotplate, a stockpot, and a tea kettle.   I stole things from my mother’s house:   a white hobnail bedspread, mismatched flatware, chipped mugs, and an elaborate, gold-encrusted fingerbowl I used as an ashtray.   He repaired broken radios and clocks on a card table near the door; I made boxed macaroni and cheese for our dinner.   Playing house.   That old game.

Mostly, though, we made love on the old pull-out sofa under the big picture window, afternoon light streaming in through the batiked cloth that we had rescued from a nearby dumpster and hung as a curtain.     We lived naked on the lumpy mattress, swathed in the hobnail bedspread.   We ate, read, fucked, talked, smoked cigarettes and learned to drink coffee without our feet ever touching the ground, like children playing at alligators-in-the-carpet.   We were a tangle of arms, legs, mouths, hands, and skin and could not say where sex began and ended.

We did not always remember to stop and find a condom.   This was before AIDS taught us all that lesson the hard way.

I was queasy from the moment I got pregnant.   It had only been three weeks since my last period—too soon for symptoms, according to the handouts from health class—when the smell of gas from the Warm Morning heater in the bedroom’s old fireplace knocked me to my knees.   Neil scrambled to find a pail while my stomach roiled, and when at last there was nothing left for me to sick up, he put my head in his lap, tucked a damp tendril of hair behind my ear, and whispered, “Oh, fuck, baby, what are we going to do?”

We gave up the extravagance of the room in his brother’s girlfriend’s apartment.   I carefully snuck the bedspread, flatware, mugs, and fingerbowl back into my mother’s house.   Neil called the Assistant Principal’s office and pretended to be my father so that we could drive to the state capital and see a doctor at the state’s only abortion clinic.   Neil said that the Assistant Principal, who knew my father and couldn’t have been fooled, said, “Of course, John, I’ll go get her from class now.   Just call whenever you need to take Sarah out of school for a doctor’s appointment.”   He then said, in a less collegial tone, “We’ve noticed she hasn’t been feeling well these last weeks.   We hope you’re going to see someone about that,” and slammed down the phone.

The doctor at the women’s clinic said, yes, I was pregnant, and probably had been for five weeks or so.   She never asked what I planned to do; no one showed up at that particular clinic for neonatal vitamins or obstetric advice.   She handed me an appointment card for a Saturday four weeks later, patted my shoulder, and said, “See you then, kiddo.”

For a month, Neil and I scrounged for change in between our parents’ couch cushions, begged from friends, and did odd jobs in a panic to raise two hundred fifty dollars.   I took money for a prom dress from my mother, but never bought the dress.   Neil stopped eating.   His father didn’t keep food in the house, and even the subsidized lunches at the Student Union cafeteria would have taken too big a chunk out of the tips he earned delivering pizza for Dominos for him to save anything.   In the afternoons, when he picked me up from high school, we sat on the floor of his bedroom, rolling pennies and listening to David Bowie.   I fed him the bag lunches my mother packed—bologna sandwiches, bags of Fritos, Little Debbie oatmeal cakes—which I was too queasy to eat.   He brought me tall glasses of club soda and sleeves of saltines.

“It’s all going to be okay,” he said, every time I let the coins dribble though my fingers and dissolved into tears.   “It really will be okay.”

I don’t remember if he promised me we’d have children some day, when we were ready.   It seems he must have; we were always talking about the future, imagining for ourselves the kind of life that only seems possible if you are young and privileged.   A house with turrets, dormer windows, crystal chandeliers, and, oddly, composting toilets.   I would be a writer, Neil a brilliant engineer.   And so, with that impossible life shining brightly on the horizon, we never considered allowing the pregnancy to go to term.

Neil drove me back to Charleston, the two hundred fifty dollars in his wallet, on the Saturday I was ten weeks pregnant.   A woman in scrubs gave me two Valium and took me back to a small room with an examination table, a metal stool on casters, and a steel rack full of paper robes.   I undressed, slipped into a robe and onto the table to wait for the doctor.   In the next room, I could hear the quiet hum of the vacuum aspiration machine, one woman crying, and another mumbling encouragement.   I wanted to run to the nurse’s station and insist that they allow Neil to stay with me, but the Valium weighed me down. I could not move.   I waited, though I can’t say if it was for a long or a short time.

I curled up in the back seat of Neil’s Honda Civic on the way home, staring through the window, still lost in the sedative.   I must have slept.   I remember nothing about the trip home.   I awoke swaddled in a nest of blankets on his father’s couch.   I do not know how Neil managed to get me from the car to the house—he was tiny then, and I never was.   Noises from the kitchen must have been what finally roused me.   Neil was making me lunch.

He came into the living room after what seemed like a long time, carrying plates heaped with brown rice, shrimp, and broccoli in a rich brown sauce.

“Here,” he said, “I know you haven’t been able to eat much lately, and I thought now maybe—” He trailed off, looking at me hopefully.   The food smelled like brine and garlic; it made my head swim.   But he was so sincere, so wanted to comfort me, that I ate it. The taste lingered in my mouth for days.

We stayed together for another few months. Because we had given up the room to pay for the abortion, we met in coffee shops.   Years later, he was my husband for a few months.   He made the shrimp and broccoli dish only once while we were married.   When he asked why it made me cry, I didn’t have the heart to tell him.   Taste, like smell, carries memory in a way I cannot guard against.   After that dinner, we never made love again.

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Putt and I drove from Huntsville, Alabama, to Atlanta for the First National Lesbian Conference without a single argument, which for us counted as an accomplishment.   We were always fighting, mostly about the gap between my vaguely defined bisexuality and her lesbian orthodoxy.   We had been trying, off and on, to be lovers for five years, and couldn’t seem to find a way to live comfortably with our differences.

The idea of attending a gay rights conference made up entirely of women—though, back then, we undoubtedly spelled it womyn or wimmin—thrilled us both, and that the conference was in the Deep South seemed particularly transgressive.   The Radisson Hotel in which the conference was held was a very modern, very urban sort of place; neither of us had ever stayed in such an aggressively corporate environment.   We were in our early twenties, not yet old enough to have those sorts of jobs.   My luggage was a ripped army knapsack; she wore frayed jeans and a t-shirt from a women’s music festival she’d gone to the summer before.   We were insurgents, smiling aggressively at the middle-aged businessmen in the elevator and roping our arms around one another in triumph.   I was at my best as a faux lesbian when it was a political act, though I wouldn’t have admitted it then.

The conference itself was a little tedious.   We went to different sessions; I to ones with enough theoretical content that I could later write about them for my Women’s Studies courses, and she to ones with names like “Goddess Spirituality” and “Sacred Drumming.”   There were women at the conference whose official job was to “watch the vibe,” to be certain that the all-mighty process moved forward.   More often than not, this meant silencing any voice that sounded even a little like mine; one of these vibe-watchers escorted a young, crew-cutted woman out of a session when she insisted that maybe there was something positive in the butch-femme traditions of 1950s lesbian culture. I heard another tell a woman who identified as “not yet sure of her sexuality” that this was lesbian space, and although she was welcome to stay, she should sit quietly and “let the process continue.”

It was 1991, and we tossed around words like phallocentric and gynocide with revolutionary abandon.   Radical lesbian separatism still seemed a viable option, and we quoted Andrea Dworkin with grave seriousness. (“Only when manhood is dead—and it will perish when ravaged femininity no longer sustains it—only then will we know what it is to be free.’)   I was, I knew, a snake in the grass.   I brought the male gaze into the room, I enslaved my would-be sisters with my disloyal lusts; I gave succor to the enemy.   At the end of every session, I slunk into one of the bathrooms (there were no “men’s rooms” in the conference area—we had liberated them) to whisper at the beige walls all the snarky comments I had swallowed.

We would meet up again in the afternoon for the plenary sessions; Putt, high on sisterhood, me furiously scribbling notes in the back pages of my dog-eared copy of Gyn/Ecology, feeling like a sex offender.   It was there that the real skirmishes broke out.   A group of women claiming to speak on behalf of all the Black Lesbians in attendance took the stage before one afternoon session and demanded that all the Jewish Lesbians leave, because they could not have “lesbian safe space” when surrounded by those who were oppressing their Palestinian sisters.   There was an ongoing debate about whether or not the bisexual women in attendance should have to self-identify—perhaps, it was suggested, by wearing a ribbon or button of a specific color—and abstain from voting on any of the conference’s referendums.   The gap between who I was and who the lesbian community would accept as a member of the tribe widened into a chasm.

The vendors’ room offered the only respite from the unrelenting seriousness of the conference.   There, and only there, did sexuality rise up above the din of politics and make itself heard.

Putt and I leafed hungrily through back issues of On Our Backs.   Maybe somewhere in those tastefully shot, mostly black and white photographs of real women loving real women, we would find a rubric that would let us be lovers.   Oh, we’d each had stormy, tempestuous love affairs with other women, but somehow the alchemy of sex never worked between us; we never stopped being a clumsy tangle struggling toward intimacy, we never dissolved into a single, fluid being.   At best, we soldiered on until the effort left us exhausted enough to fall asleep as comrades-in-arms.   More often, attempts at sex simply reaffirmed our belief that things could never work out between us, because I had loved a man or two and could not say I never would again.

We purchased buttons with slogans like “Sisterhood is Powerful,” and “Grrrl Power.”   We did not buy the ones that said, “Jodi Foster Made Me Do It” or “Vagiterian.”   We were not that bold, nor that crude.   I bought rainbow bracelets, a totebag silk-screened with a photograph of The Venus of Willendorf, pink triangle earrings, and twice as many books as I could afford.   I hoped to educate and accessorize myself into what Putt needed me to be.   I loved her; it was painful to be told that I was her oppressor.

For the first two days, we walked by the Good Vibrations table without stopping.   One of our earliest arguments had been over my suggestion that we just cut through all the trouble we were having and take my vibrator to bed with us.   Putt was horrified.   She was not, she made it clear, going to let something that could best be described as a contraption anywhere near her sacred yoni, and could not believe that I would even suggest it.   We had still been teenagers then, and she was the real lesbian, so I apologized and never brought the subject up again.   But there we were, five years later, still confused and frustrated.   Finally, on the next to last day, I grabbed her hand and pulled her over the table.

“Look,” I said, gesturing to the table full of dolphin-shaped dildos and Wahl coil vibrators, “if this stuff was anti-lesbian, the conference organizers would never have let them set up here.   I mean, they’ve banned perfume, alcohol, and men.   It’s not like they’re shy about excluding.”

“I don’t care what they think.”   She gave me a long, cold look.   “I told you how I feel.   Why are you pressuring me?”

I picked up a silicon statue of the Virgin Mary, showing it to Putt.   Maybe I even shook it at her, though I like to think I didn’t.   “How is this phallocentric?   I don’t understand.”   The woman sitting at the table, who I now think might very well have been the queen of lesbian sex herself, Susie Bright, laughed at us and shook her head.

“Of course you don’t understand,” Putt said.   “You have sex with men.   You WANT us to have a penis in bed with us.”   She turned away, and I followed, reminding myself that I had no right to be angry, that I was—as I’d so often been reminded since we arrived—in danger of defiling her with my own impure desire.

That night, we went to a little Ethiopian restaurant that everyone at the conference had been raving about.   We were shy going in; it was comfortable in the hotel, but we had lived with the harsh stares of the Deep South for long enough to be cautious.   But inside, women huddled around the small, low tables in multiples of two.   It seemed everyone at the conference was here with a partner.

The owner, a short middle-aged man in a starched white shirt and dark polyester slacks, smiled and lead us to an empty table in the back corner of the restaurant.

“Have you eaten Ethiopian food before?” he asked.   We had not and agreed to let him pick out the dishes for our dinner.   “You will like this very much,” he assured us, and then, after asking if we ate meat, and whether or not we liked our food spicy, he walked off to greet the next table of conferees.

Putt and I looked around, amazed to see so many women openly holding hands, even kissing, in a restaurant smack in the middle of Atlanta.   We were tired, less certain of ourselves, not as brave.   The uncomfortable afternoon weighed heavily on us, and we had little to say to one another.   Finally, the owner came back carrying a huge mesob covered in thick lentil and spinach porridges, chunks of meat and fish, and a large oval of injera.

“Watch how they do it,” he said, pointing to a family sitting at the next table; a family who, amazingly, seemed completely at ease in the company of fifty affectionate lesbians.   As we watched, they used small pieces of the injera to scoop up the porridges and stews on the outer edges of the mesob. “You do it like that, no knives or forks.”   He shook his head and laughed.   “But, really, you should feed each other.   It’s called gursha. In Ethopia, if you love someone, you feed them.”   He smiled at us—a kindly smile, not a leer—and went off to wait on another table.

We sat for a moment, staring at the bread and the thick porridges, considering.   Did we love each other?   Before the conference, we would have each said yes, and now neither of us was certain.   But, finally, we could not resist the charm of the custom or the heavy scent of spices that hung over the table.   We fed one another small mouthfuls of lentils, lamb, fish, and vegetables.   After a few warming bites, we grew playful.   Putt was immoderate in the size of her gursha and fed me more than I could chew, I became clumsy and spilled azifa down her chin, into her lap.   We laughed.   We laughed some more, and then we ate and kissed and talked and forgot to worry about whether or not I was oppressing her.   We left the restaurant holding hands.

But we went to sleep that night in separate beds, and never made love again, though we are still friends.   Every Christmas she sends me her famous Cayenne Cashew Brittle, and I send her jars of grape and cherry jam made during the summer.   If I am in the South, we meet up and take one another to restaurants famous for their barbeque, or grits, or pastries.   We swap recipes, and the only contraption we fight over now is her Kitchen-Aid mixer, which I insist she should leave to me in her will.   She says she hasn’t, but I don’t believe her.

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On our first date, we ended up at Nobu even though we had no reservations and the restaurant was always fully booked weeks in advance.   I do not know how he got us through the door, but James seemed to know every maitre d’ in Manhattan.   He fed me bigeye tuna and fresh fluke with dried miso while we sipped at lychee martinis and I tried to look sophisticated.   Afterward, we had Champagne at the Top of the Tower in the Beekman Hotel, across from my apartment.   I had left the lights on, and we could see from our table that I was not a good housekeeper.   He laughed about that, saying it didn’t matter. He had a cleaning woman.   Later, at my door, he gave me a halting, chaste kiss before scurrying off.   I thought I would never hear from him again.

I was wrong.   We began a love affair that was more passionate in the city’s best restaurants than in our bedrooms.     James introduced me to the voluptuary pleasures of Manhattan’s finest dining.   He fed me an amuse-bouche of asparagus soup with frog leg at Les Celebrites, warm octopus salad at Les Bernardin, and pan-seared foie gras with concord grapes at Jean-Georges.   I learned to identify tastes in wine like tar, leather, and smoke. We met for lunch on Saturdays at Caviarteria—a silly place that became emblematic of the excesses of dot-com era New York.   They served osetra with creme fraache on toast points and a glass of Champagne as a lunch special.   By the time we finally tumbled into bed, I had gained ten pounds.

When James stopped kissing me and calmly opened a night-table drawer and pulled out a syringe, I was mildly thrilled at the idea that I’d ended up in bed with a junkie—so New York, and I was trying very hard to be a New Yorker.   But it wasn’t heroin; it was something called Cavajet; a pre-Viagra answer to erectile dysfunction, which was, frankly, a lot less romantic.   It smacked of infirmity rather than dangerous hedonism, and the idea of his actually sticking a needle into his penis made me queasy.   But I went gamely on, pretending not to notice, afraid to embarrass him.   And he went gamely on, afraid to admit he didn’t think it worth all the hassle either, and would rather just go out for a drink or dessert.   And so, for several months, we had wonderful meals and terrible sex.

I grew fat. When food is sex, and you’re in love, it’s impossible to eat moderately.   Our weekends were protracted gastronomic orgies; we often had lunch and dinner at five star restaurants on both Friday and Saturday, each a many-coursed affair.   We wandered into China Town on Sunday mornings, paper in tow, and settled in at a table at our favorite dim sum restaurant—its name long lost to memory, because everyone knew it by its address: 60 Mott Street—and meandered through the small dishes from morning till afternoon.   The more I loved James, the more I ate, until the night when we had to cancel dinner with the Michaelsons at Le Cirque because I was too fat to fit into a single one of my cocktail dresses, and jeans simply would not do.

James, who I think loved me, too, took me to a shop for big women the next day, bought me three flowing silk dresses that I would fit into no matter what size I attained. They were tents in muted shades of gray and black with elastic waistbands and voluminous sleeves.   I wept while I tried them on, and because he did not want me to cry, James made a phone call.   That night, instead of food, we made love through a gram of coke.   It was hotter, more intimate, and more invigorating than any sex I had ever had.   I remember thinking: ur sex.

Three months later, the cocktail dresses that had been too tight weren’t even snug, and I had left James for a man with better drug connections who did not love me and so did not care that I was rushing into disaster.   I think we had sex all of the time, but I’m not sure.   The days from that year are a blur, the memories bruised and I never call this man by his name.   If I talk of him at all, I call him “my coke dealer.”   And when I think of him, I also think of James; who was kind and sweet and should have just let me grow fat.

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Tonight, I’m making rigatoni with seafood cooked in a pink vodka sauce.   Last night, it was linguine with sundried tomatoes, sausages, capers, and broccoli rape.   The night before, simple spaghetti with a meat sauce.   I spend twenty dollars a week on Parmesan alone.

I fill one of the huge Fiesta Ware bowls from the cupboard with the layers of pasta, sauce, and cheese, then carry it out to my husband, Scotti.   He is lying on the couch, watching the same episode of The Daily Show he has watched every afternoon this week.   He will eat two bowls this size in the next fifteen minutes, and then fall hard asleep.   He won’t remember having watched any part of the show, and tomorrow we will watch it again, our routine as set as the show’s script.   Only the pasta will be different; farfelle with eggplant, buckwheat and truffle oil; fusilli with a wild mushroom ragout; Spaghetti Fra Diablo.

Scotti is unhappy.   Not with me; the mess his unhappiness makes of my life is collateral damage.   But he is unhappy enough that all the anti-depressants in the pharmacopoeia only make a dent, and our family doctor has urged me to convince him to try electro-convulsive therapy.   Shock treatment.   The idea of it frightens me, and although I’ve mentioned it, it would be a lie to say I’ve tried to talk him into it.   In truth, his depression is so dark and all-encompassing that I don’t try to talk him into much of anything these days.   Instead, I work to be the buffer between what he needs and the sharp truth of things.   Food is my little white lie; it is the “everything is going to be alright” that I cannot bring myself to say.

I am five foot seven, and I weigh 208 pounds.   When I married Scotti, I was five foot eight and weighed 157 pounds.   Gravity is pulling hard on me.

Scotti weighs almost 350 pounds, more than even his square, six foot six skeleton can comfortably carry around. He’s a striking man—when we are out, children confuse him for Hagrid from Harry Potter, and old hippies holler, “Look, it’s Jerry Garcia.” But his knees hurt all the time and his feet look frostbitten.   He cannot feel them.   Diabetic neuropathy, near as the doctor can figure, although he isn’t diabetic.   It’s just one of many puzzles.   His hands are nearly as numb; half the time when he reaches out for me affectionately, he hurts me, unable to feel that he is touching me unless his caress has the force of a slap.   When I cry out, he looks bewildered and does not reach out again for days.   This is just one of the many ways I fail him.

The bowl of pasta piled high with grated cheese is another of those ways.   We would feel better if we were not so heavy, but it would be a long time coming, and I can’t wait that long to comfort him or myself.

Even our dogs are fat; we love them, too, and each has grown old and crippled in a way we cannot do anything about, so we toss them chunks of the sausage or pieces of pasta while we eat.

We have forgotten the ways of showing affection.

In the summer, when the vegetables are fresh, I will put us on a diet—again.   We will eat salads piled high with tomatoes from the garden and onions from the farmer’s market.   Scotti will lose thirty pounds; I will lose fifteen.   But it won’t last.   Soon enough, it will be fall again, the melancholy season, and we’ll put the pounds back on.   I will gain twenty; Scotti will gain forty-five.   This is how we lose the battle.

In truth, I like him fat, though not myself.   I like that even when he is too sad to put his arms around me, I can curl around his back and the sheer bulk of him creates an illusion of safety.   And there is so much we need to feel safe from, these days.   I like to watch him eat; to see the veil of depression lift for those few minutes, see him go at his dinner with a single-minded passion that I imagine, in his younger years, would have been the hallmark of his love making.   I can’t give up this shadow of sex, a remnant of passion, and doom us to becoming distant bodies in the same house.

He jokes that I am killing him with kindness; I say, “No, oh-my-love, I am just killing you.”   I am afraid it may be true, but I am more afraid to let the pot grow cold, to let the bowl stand empty, for very long.   My resolve is nothing compared to the way his sadness weighs us down.   It does not matter that I know what I am doing to the both of us; I am not brave enough to stop.   I am afraid that both hungry and sad, we would turn mean, or cold and drift away.   And fat is not as bad as that.   Fat is soft and comfortable; fat stands between us and everything that is not us.   Fat softens the blows.   Fat, at least, feels safe.