by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by neomeruru
The first time I kissed Frank was the night Joe Cornish died.
I knew his was the finger on the other end of the button as soon as I heard the doorbell sound, so I dried my eyes and buzzed him right in. I heard him coming up the stairs to my fourth-floor rathole of a studio, each step weary and sodden, while the downpour outside echoed through the concrete stairwell. He rose into my view like a ship coming in over some far horizon, one dark, wet degree at a time, until he was there at my harbor in his tight brown pants and white summer sneakers, his moustache made sad by the rain.
“Joe,” I said, because there wasn’t anything else to say about it. Not even a year in, and we’d long passed the point of questions beyond ‘when’.
He put a hand to his face. “Jesus, I didn’t want you hearing from someone else.”
I shook my head. “It’s all right. Margie called.” She was a night nurse at Mt. Sinai; she was good at breaking bad news to all kinds of people.
Frank gave a little nod, as though that were all right. Drips of rainwater continued to fall off him at a steady pace. He was too thin by a mile, and in those days we already knew that thin was what happened to the people who went into the hospitals — if they could get into the hospitals, if they could stand being treated like a nuclear device set upon by a bomb squad. People who went into the hospitals didn’t come out again. I’d seen Joe a week prior to that, before the pneumonia had gotten so bad they’d just stopped letting in visitors altogether. He’d been a skeleton with big cloudy blue eyes and a respirator, and when he’d stared at me I hadn’t been sure he’d seen anything of me at all.
“Get in,” I said, standing back from the door, “before you catch your death.”
I hadn’t meant to say it like that, not so soon after Joe, but it’s something my mother’d always said when I was growing up, and sometimes expressions like that just came out of me without my thinking about what they mean. I only heard it after I’d said it. But Frank just smiled, gave me that grim little grin he’d cultivated, and walked on in.
He sat on the edge of my mattress, which was bound by the constraints of my tiny apartment to serve double duty as my couch, and ran his fingers through his sopping wet hair, brown turned black by the rain. I tossed a towel over his head, and after a moment, he began to dry himself with it. Poor Frank. He’d loved Joe — we’d all loved Joe, but Frank had been in love with Joe, which was an important distinction to make. Joe’s lover Niall had died two weeks previous. I guessed I’d never find out if the fungus eating away at Joe’s brain had been merciful enough to keep him from knowing that. I put on a pot of tea, because I didn’t know what else to do.
I pulled a pair of sweatpants and an old NYU shirt out of a drawer, leftovers from some walk of shame or another, and tossed them to him. “Here,” I said, and without comment he began to strip. His honey skin was sickly pale, so white with chill and damp that it’d almost shaded to a milky blue — but it was clear of all spots big and small. So far so good. I counted four of his ribs before I remembered it wasn’t polite to stare.
I put honey and lemon in the tea, and I made him drink both his mug and mine until he’d stopped shivering. I sat beside him on the bed and put my arm around his shoulders. Joe had always been so vibrant and energetic, full of smiles and laughter and old songs. As hard as it had been to see him sick, it was harder to think of him as anything but alive. We’d all gone to Coney Island that past April, and Joe’d tossed me over his shoulder and run us both full-tilt down the sand, into the surf, while I’d shouted bloody murder all the way, until the icy spring ocean had hit my chest and stolen my breath. Three months ago might as well have been in another life.
There was a crash outside, followed by a shower of sparks, and the apartment went dark in the only way that New York City has ever gone dark — not black, but into a dim orange glow that filtered through the curtains. The window air-conditioning unit growled to a stop, leaving us warm as well as wet.
“Shit,” I said.
“Fuck,” said Frank.
That’s when we started to laugh.
“Shit!” I shouted again and again at him, at the storm, at the universe, and every time I did, he punctuated it with a roaring, “Fuck!”
Between the two of us, we kept that up for nearly a full minute until we couldn’t talk anymore on account of laughing so hard we’d begun to weep, tears rolling down our cheeks, gasping for air, straight past sense and right on into hysteria. Anyone who’d seen us would have found the nearest phone and called the men with butterfly nets to take us away to the funny farm, but alone together, we just howled at will. We laughed past the point of anything’s being funny, past sense, past reason. With nothing to see anyway, I shut my eyes.
By the time we at last exhausted ourselves enough to wind down, we had both fallen backward sideways across the mattress, hanging over the edge from our thighs downward. My arm was under Frank’s head and his arm was around my waist, so that his hand brushed slowly up and down my side. I turned my head to say something to him — whatever it was, I can’t remember, or maybe it was nothing at all — and he turned his face up to me, and when our mouths met, we fell into a kiss the same way we’d fallen into the laughter: desperate, needy, hysterical.
His lips were thick, I thought at the time, not so much wide but substantive; when I sucked on his lower lip, I could really feel it in my mouth. I’d always expected facial hair to be unpleasant in a kiss, but his moustache was soft, to my surprise. He tasted like cigarettes, but everybody tasted like cigarettes in those days, one of our slower-acting poisons of choice. He brought his hand up under my shirt to rest on my bare back, not working to any more salacious end, but just holding me, so I let myself be held.
We didn’t go any farther than that, not that night, but we lay crosswise in my bed and just made out like teenagers — and we were teenagers, both nineteen, but it felt older back then — for however long it took Con Edison to fix whatever transformer had blown. The lights came on and the party was over; as though on cue, we both stopped and lay still, pressing our foreheads together.
“That,” he said at last, his voice quiet beneath the storm, “was the most heterosexual thing I’ve ever done.”
“Have I cured you?” I asked, laughing as I poked him in the side. “Have I cured us both? Should we alert the media?”
Frank stuck out his tongue at me, then rolled on his back, staring up at the blank ceiling as his smile slowly faded. “…Hey, Jen?” he said, after nearly a full minute of silence. “It okay if I stay here tonight?”
“I wouldn’t kick a dog out in this,” I told him, and it was true, but it also plastered over how I was glad he’d asked because I hadn’t be sure of how to go about offering, of how to admit that I didn’t want to be alone either. I swatted his legs so he’d turn himself facing the right direction, then got up to make one last bathroom visit before turning out the lights. I hesitated for a minute, then stripped naked before crawling into bed; it was my bed, and anyway, it wasn’t as though Frank would care.
I tried to sleep, but wound up staring at the wall, at a long rectangle the restored streetlight outside cast; the rain streaked down the glass made it look as though landlord’s choice of bleak white paint was melting. I tried not to think about Joe, but that just led to thinking about everyone else I knew out there in hospitals that night. I’d already stopped thinking in terms of if the next call, and started thinking in terms of when the next call. What name would Margie tell me next? When would they have Joe’s service? Where would let him in this time? What would I wear to the funeral? Would his family be there at all? Would they keep us out? How many more times could I ask off my shitty, low-level newspaper job to bury my friends?
Frank reached for me — in his sleep, I thought at first, but I felt the flutter of his eyelashes against my shoulder as he curled up along my side. “I’m scared.” His voice was fragile, no louder or more imposing than an eggshell’s breaking. “I’m scared it’s already inside of me.”
There was nothing I could say to that, so I held him to my chest and watched the shadows cast by the rain, stroking his back until at last he fell asleep and I could too.
I winced and bit my lower lip as I stuck my wrists under the faucet, but I held them there until the water that flowed over them ran clear. “Jesus,” I swore once I could trust my voice not to shake, “you’d think one dyke would be nicer to another, even if she is a cop.”
“Oh, honey.” Frank sat on the end of the bed as he tugged off his dress socks; he’d come to pay my bail looking as presentable as I’d ever seen him. “Callum swears he saw the pig who broke his jaw sucking cock a week earlier at the Man Trap. Closet cases hit the hardest.”
I supposed he was right — and hey, at least she hadn’t hit me in the face. I’d been stupid, though: time and again they’d told us, if you’re arrested, go limp. Intellectually, I’d known that, but the second I’d felt their hands on me — invisible beneath the heavy latex gloves, fear of contamination having become just another part of the uniform — some instinct had kicked in, and I’d scratched and screamed at anything in arm’s reach. I hoped I’d broken the skin. Let one of New York’s Finest take a turn suffering sleepless nights, sitting up and wondering what might have crawled into his pig blood.
The marks the handcuffs had left were superficial, though, and most of the blood pooled now in the motel basin had been on me for hours, dried and crushed and caked. It had been worth it, though. We’d brought the ambulance down to Pennsylvania Avenue and we’d taken Walt’s body out of the back and we’d nearly succeeded in heaving it over the White House fence. Except for that last hurdle, it had been just the way Walt had wanted it, the most obnoxious funeral possible. We’d gotten on the news, though, or at least I thought we had; I’d seen some cameras in the crowd, but there was never any telling what would make it on the air. A thought struck me, and I turned to Frank. “What’d they do with Walt?”
Frank shook his head. “Don’t worry about that.”
“What? I’m a big girl. Tell me.” I wrapped one of the cheap motel washcloths around my left wrist, which still smarted.
“All I saw was the coroner’s van,” said Frank. “So, you know, probably some city crematorium.”
I hoped they just let the smoke belch out into the air, unfiltered; it would have made Walt happy to infest all the lungs of the DC Metro area. Maybe he’d even get breathed in by a Strom Thurmond. “Hell of a wake, though.”
“Hell of a wake,” Frank agreed. In the mirror, I saw him take a look at my back and then make a face. “Oh, honey, take off your shirt.”
“What?” I asked as he walked over to me, but I felt it as soon as I pulled the flannel away from my left shoulder — or, rather, as I tried to pull away and felt the fabric stick to my skin. “Shit, is that mine?”
“At least some of it.” Frank took the other washcloth beside the sink and ran it under the tap for a few seconds, then held it lightly above my bare skin. “Let me clean it up,” he said as he began to wipe at the unseen-to-me injury. It stung, but it wasn’t the worst I’d had, nor would it probably be the last like it.
I shook my head as I leaned forward over the sink in my bra and jeans. “No telling when that happened. Just blood, right? No shit or vomit or anything like that?”
“Just blood,” he said, we’d both said, as though there were any ‘just blood’ left in the world. The only infected women I knew either were junkies themselves or had junkie boyfriends, and I wouldn’t have stuck my face between their thighs even under normal circumstances, but I still got tested like a good girl once every three months, practicing what I preached, watching the phlebotomist’s vial fill up with red. Mine was still the closest thing to just-blood any of us had left. He eased my bra strap off my shoulder, and I just sighed and took the whole thing off, letting my tits flop free. The outside of the left one was already a cloud of purple and yellow. More just-blood, only better contained.
As he wiped up the mess that was my back, I flinched a few times, but only because the touch was uncomfortable, never because it out-and-out hurt. “Anybody ever told you you should be a nurse?” I asked, and he smiled. “I’m serious! Not one of those piece-of-shit doctors. Somebody who does the real work.”
“I think doctors do ‘real work’ too,” he said. He rinsed out the washcloth, then ran it up my neck; it was the only cool thing in the muggy summer heat of the cheap, un-airconditioned motel room. “But to answer your question, yes. My oldest sister was a night nurse, so I wanted to be one too. I even said so, right before my dad beat my sissy ass for saying a faggot thing like that.”
“Well, fuck him. Your sissy ass would make a great nurse.” I leaned forward, bracing myself on my forearms against the yellow formica basin. “You do enough of it for free now. Ought to at least make someone pay you to wipe all the assholes on the East Coast.”
That made him laugh, which was such a sweet sound I couldn’t help smiling. “Maybe next lifetime.”
“Yeah,” I said, because there wasn’t anything else to say. Once upon a time, he’d wanted to go to nursing school; once upon a time I’d wanted to be a writer. The plague had ended our lives as surely as it had ended so many of our friends’, except that we didn’t seem to know yet how dead we were. Early on, we’d talked about it like maybe our plans were just being put on hold, the same way a flu bug might take down a city for a week or two before everyone there got back to their routines. That had been five years ago. I clenched my hands around the sides of the basin, straining my hands so hard into fists that old cuts cracked open and began to weep again.
Frank put one steadying hand in the small of my back and took my shoulder with his other, helping me stand. Without comment, he led me over to the room’s one bed — king-sized and singular, which the motel clerk had given a straight-looking couple without Frank’s even expressing a preference. When I went places with my girlfriends, we always got given the doubles, even if we asked otherwise. The world of semi-respectable motels had some pretty firmly entrenched ideas about who would and wouldn’t be fucking. I stretched out on my stomach, then rolled over on my side when the bruise on my breast started to ache. I shut my eyes and listened as Frank ran the washcloths under the sink again, then closed himself into the little shower/toilet combo closet and took a leak. It was weird, listening to boys pee; all the pitches and distances were off, all the splashes too echoey. I heard first a flush, then the clink of the toilet seat’s being lowered again. Frank was a good man.
As he came out and washed his hands, I kicked off my jeans and took a look at my legs, which had a few war wounds, but nothing that wouldn’t fade within the week. “Getting arrested isn’t fun,” I said, peeling off the ragged edge of my big toenail; the dyke cop had stepped on my foot, though I couldn’t swear to how much she’d meant to. I’d been extra-mad because she’d been hot, and I’d wanted to fuck her even while she’d been throwing me in the backseat of her squad car. Fucking adrenaline, making my hormones all weird.
“I don’t think it’s supposed to be,” said Frank with a wry smile. He filled one of the plastic cups by the sink with water, then brought it over for me. I sat up just long enough to toss it down. “You should get some rest, though.”
“I wish I could. I’m wired.” I stretched out across the bed, not minding the way the scratchy polyester duvet felt against my skin. “Like I’m about to crawl out of my skin. Or run down to the morgue and grab Walt’s body and haul him through the streets all by myself. I don’t know. Something. Anything. Anything but rest.”
With a nudge, Frank rolled me back over onto my stomach, only this time I got an arm under my torso so the pressure didn’t hurt quite so much. He put his fingers together between my shoulderblades, and I gasped hard, only this time it was a good sound. “Just breathe deep,” he said, his nurse’s bedside voice so tender. “Try and relax.” It was a command I couldn’t disobey, not with the way he was working my muscles. I felt the tension begin to slip away as my body began to remember that it had options other than ‘fight’ and ‘flight’.
I also began to get horny, though I didn’t realize quite what was going on until I shifted my legs and found that my panties were soaked through. Adrenaline did strange things to hormones, sure, but I couldn’t blame it all on that. I hadn’t had sex in nearly a year, not since an apocalyptically bad breakup had left her with all our lesbian friends and me with a general distaste for human companionship. Between the cop and Frank, I’d been touched more in the past twenty-four hours than I had in the past ten months, and I wasn’t made of stone.
“Okay, okay,” I said, rolling over onto my back as the politest way I could think of to get Frank to stop touching me, only he didn’t stop, and I didn’t want him to. His hands had been over my shoulderblades and now they were on my breasts, and when he squeezed my nipples between his fingers, I came right then and there. “Oh, fuck,” I said, reaching up and grabbing his face so I could kiss him hard.
Hard was what I got from him, too, as I wrapped my legs around his waist and felt his cock poking through his jeans. It was all the confirmation my keyed-up, angry, secretly frightened and scared self needed — I sucked his lower lip as I went for his belt and button fly. I squeezed my hand in between his boxers and his skin, and when I felt his erection, I wrapped my fingers around it and had to force myself not to laugh. Maybe there wasn’t anything inherently funny about penises in general, but this penis in particular was such a strange experience — like someone had wrapped warm steel in silk, was all I could think, and for some reason I couldn’t quite understand, I wanted it in me. I was no stranger to the dildo and strap-on, but I was usually the one wielding or wearing them, respectively. Wanting Frank’s hard, thick cock ramming in and out of my cunt was the least lesbian thought I’d ever had in my life, and I couldn’t stop having it.
I took a handful of Frank’s hair in my fist and lowered his face to my unbruised nipple, where he hesitated for a moment. “Fucking suck it,” I growled, yanking his hair until he complied. He took a few flicks across the tip with his tongue before getting right in there and obeying. He added a touch of teeth, which made me moan and grab for the headboard with both hands as I writhed under him. I took my bare feet and hooked my big toes into the waistband of his pants, then pushed both them and his boxers down his hips. He pulled my panties aside and stuck a few fingers into my cunt, then proceeded to finger me with all the force of a man getting ready to fuck another man’s ass. I turned my head into the pillow next to me and moaned.
When he pulled away at last, he looked down at me with a lost, sweet expression, as though some part of his brain might be rebelling against what his body seemed to have gotten itself into. I knew the feeling. “Are we…?” he asked, gesturing to his penis, which was stiff and alert and had already answered his unfinished question with an emphatic little bouncing nod.
“Yeah,” I said, before I could change my own mind. I slid off my panties and went for my clit, pinching it between two fingers and feeling how hard it was. “Please.”
With a nod and no small lack of grace, he stood from the end of the bed and kicked off his pants, then opened his dop kit and pulled out a foil square. He tore into it with all the skill of a GHMC volunteer and rolled the shiny condom inside from the tip of his penis down toward the root. Bless his instincts: despite knowing better on so many levels, I would have let him stick it into me right then and there. Suiting up was the cause of only a brief, delay, though, and a moment later he was kneeling back between my thighs on the bed, still wearing his white t-shirt and gym socks. I couldn’t believe how hot that ridiculous look was making me.
He didn’t waste any time in getting it in once he was there, though. As a veteran of many toys of unrealistic proportions, I wasn’t the best judge of relative equipment size, but his cock filled me up just fine. He didn’t move my hand, so I kept pinching and tugging at my clit as he eased into me until he could go no further. I propped my head up against the pillows and looked down. I was no stranger to pornography, but there was still something odd to see it for real and from this angle, the way his tanned summer skin stayed the same shade from his hips to his groin and down to his cock, which disappeared into the light brown hair around my pink pussy. “Fuck me,” I said, and by God, he did.
Or at least, he did for a little while — we weren’t going to last long at this, and I think we’d both known that from the start. I didn’t clock it, though; I just closed my eyes and let him stuff his cock into me again and again, not making but letting it happen. In a way, it was like a the earlier massage, only this time he was getting as much out of it as I was. Even at the time, in the little hyper-analytical part of my brain that never shuts off, that was strange and delightful enough to make me smile. All the lesbians I’d ever been with had taken turns with sex: you get yours, now I get mine, and maybe then it’ll be your turn again, if we feel like it. This was Frank’s turn to get off, but he was still doing all the work. I felt used, in a way, just a hole for him to spunk in, but it felt good too, to know I could make him feel that way without even having to stress about whether or not I was doing it right. I loved it even as I was aware that it was not only the least lesbian but the least feminist thing I’d ever done in my life. I told that part of my brain to fuck off; I was getting laid.
He made such a dumb face when he came — eyes squinted shut, mouth open, grunting heavily — that I laughed before I could think better of it. But I could see him grin even as he slipped his cock out of me and collapsed on top of me, putting his head on my shoulder. I felt him shake and realized he was laughing too, so that’s what we did there, more naked than not on a cheap motel bed, with the condom still on his cock and my juices all over the insides of my thighs: we laughed. The absurdity of the situation caught up with both of us, I guess, and we howled until tears ran down our cheeks. I slapped his ass and he flicked my nipple, and we laughed so hard we both wound up doubled over, gasping for breath as we clutched our stomachs. What a royally fucked-up day it had been.
At last he stood and managed to stagger over to the sink, where he filled a glass with water and drank it down before refilling it and handing it to me. I tried to drink, but then I noticed how funny the used condom looked on his limp little penis, and I laughed mid-swallow and nearly choked to death. He stuck his tongue out at me as he pulled off the latex and tied it up before tossing it into the trashcan. I was filled with the crazy desire to know what his cock would feel and taste like in my mouth, first soft like that, then as it got harder and pushed down my throat. I’d never really wanted much to do with penises at all before, so this was new and different.
Frank flopped back down on the bed and looked at me, and I twirled a curl of his hair around my index finger. “Our secret?” he asked.
That thought was a shock of ice water to the system. “Yeah,” I said, feeling the happiness of the afterglow slip away as it was replaced by the growing, gnawing fear that our friends would find out. The poster faggot for safe gay sex and the dyke whose Schwinn had a sticker proclaiming that a fish needed it like its rider needed a man, fucking one another straight? We would’ve been crucified outside the nearest ACT UP meeting as an example to other traitors to the cause.
But that wasn’t anything to worry about, because know one would ever know. And besides, secrets like this weren’t hard to keep when they were one-time things.
“Stop, stop, stop,” I begged even as I came, bucking my hips as he held his lips tight around my clit. “Oh, fucking fuck, fuck you, you fucker, you fucking fuck, enough!” I smacked his head until he got the picture. “Oh, sweet Jesus, enough.”
With a grin a mile wide, Frank sat back and observed the red, puffy, slick mess he’d made between my legs. He wiped his chin on the inside of my thigh. “Your mouth says no, but your vagina says yes.”
“Oh, fuck you extra,” I said, and I kicked at his chest; he caught my foot in his hands and gave the sole a kiss. “You can’t say that shit to me. I’m a Lesbian Avenger now.”
He’d had me like that for forty-five fucking minutes, just eating me out like I was his last meal. For a while, I’d believed in the last-ness of each of our encounters: The first time had, of course, been the original last time, and it had stayed the last time right up until two months later, when we’d shared a cab back from an ACT UP planning meeting in Queens and he’d fingered me in the back seat. It’d been my turn to bail him out of jail after the March on Wall Street, and after I followed him home for a thank-you meal he promised he’d cook, we fucked on every flat surface in his gritty studio apartment and never got around to dinner. He came over with a dozen of our other friends for a good-riddance party after one of my bright, brief relationships fizzled to a nasty close, and his offer to stay late and help me clean turned into sex so enthusiastic we literally broke my cheap bedframe.
About the time we got back to Marco and Kenji’s house after the ’88 FDA demonstration, I think we were both willing to concede that this was becoming a problem, especially when we both found ourselves in the basement in the middle of that October night, wedged into a little unfinished alcove by the washing machine, hands pressed over one another’s mouths so we wouldn’t be heard. We shook hands after that and agreed to see other people, and for a while we’d made good on it: he and Damien had lived together for nearly a year, while I’d butched my way through most of the Lower East Side. Then we’d both been hauled off by the cops at the Stop the Church action and celebrated our freedom by fucking one another’s brains out in his tiny standing shower.
So now it was still a problem — it was just one we didn’t talk about, especially not now that Frank was working full-time for GMHC as one of their organizers and I’d become one of the Advocate‘s regular lesbian-beat freelancers. I’d once joked that we were professional gays and amateur heterosexuals, and we’d both laughed longer than the punchline had warranted.
I wiggled my toes in his face and he bit the big one in a way that tickled so much I nearly kicked him in the mouth. “And that’s the first thing I’m going to avenge,” I said, sitting up. “Your weirdo foot fetish.”
“I do not have a foot fetish,” he said, pulling each of my toes until they made satisfying pops. “You just have very biteable toes.”
“Spoken like a man with a foot fetish,” I said, or at least I started to say, because halfway through my saying it, there was a knock at the apartment’s front door, and we both froze, our hearts in our throats. I was sprawled out across his bed, naked except for my unclasped bra still hanging around my shoulders and my panties bunched around my left knee, while he was still dressed down to his loafers, but pitching an impressive tent in his jeans. It looked, to say the least, bad.
He swatted at my thigh and nodded toward the bathroom, and I grabbed what clothes I could as he called out, “Who is it?”
“Carmen,” said the voice from behind the door, and I hauled ass double-time. Frank made some fluttering gestures around his head, which I could only hope I’d understood as I scampered into the bathroom and turned the shower on full blast. I didn’t even wait for the water to warm up, just bit my tongue and stepped beneath the icy spray.
I didn’t step out again until I’d gotten thoroughly drenched and cleaned enough come from my pussy that my thighs wouldn’t make octopus squishing sounds when I walked. I wrapped a towel around myself and pulled on my panties, hoping that my dripping skin would cover how they’d been damp before I’d even put them back on. Well, here went nothing.
I was a dyke, sure, but Carmen was a dyke: short and stocky and dark, with her hair shaved nearly off and tattoos up and down her beefy arms. Three years ago, she’d been raped and infected, and she’d spent every day since putting that giant chip on her shoulder to good use. She and I hated one another in that friendly sort of way we butches sometimes do, which is something I think we learned from paying too much attention to what American culture says about male friendships. “Oh, hey,” I said, feigning surprise as best I could, as though I’d expected to come out and find anything other than what I did.
“Hey,” she said, sitting in one of Frank’s kitchen chairs, arms folded across her chest, the dictionary definition of the word ‘tough’. “You got the flyers?”
“Yeah, sure, they’re in my trunk.” I pointed out the window toward the street, in the general direction of where I’d left my 1979 Nissan parked; the Advocate had me based out of Boston these days, but there was no way I would’ve missed this. “You want me to go get them for you?”
She shook her head. “Just bring them tomorrow. Getting all the last little ducks in a row, you know?”
I’d been doing this for a decade now; I knew. “Going to call a meeting for all the new people?” asked Frank, sitting cross-legged on the couch; he had a pillow over his lap and a book balanced on top of it like he’d been using a makeshift reading desk. Smart man.
“Think I should?” Carmen twisted one of her heavy silver rings around her thumb. It was hard sometimes to remember not only how much younger she was than either Frank or me, but how not much older we’d been when this had all started.
I nodded. “I want to believe DNC security isn’t going to decide that what we need is to be arrested, but just in case.” Frank’s bedroom was really just a little section cordoned off by bookcases that surrounded his bed, but it would do for privacy; I stepped behind the nearest shelf and went about the business of getting dressed. “Now if you’re still planning on getting us all down to Houston in August–”
“I am,” she said.
“Then I’d say it’s almost a given that some Republican fuckwit is going to have us hauled off for disturbing President Reagan Lite’s precious national convention.” I swapped my panties for another pair from my suitcase, then pulled on jeans and a tank top with no bra, figuring that counted as presentable in present company. “It’s okay, though. There, I’m just expecting to be a nuisance. Here, I’m hoping someone might listen.”
I heard a snort I knew was Frank’s. “That’ll be the day,” he said. “Putting People First is a great slogan if you’re somebody who counts as ‘people’.”
“Come on, we can be presentable. Keep the trannies and the queens to the back of the crowd, and don’t throw blood on anyone, and we’ll be fine,” I said — then stopped and looked hard at Carmen. “We’re not planning to throw blood on anybody, are we?”
“We thought about it,” said Carmen.
I shook my head. “Nope. That’s like shitting in the offering plate at St. Patrick’s — maybe it sounds like a good idea at the time, but it never works out the way you planned.”
Carmen frowned. “You didn’t.”
“Well, not me personally.”
“Desperate times,” sighed Frank, who stood, at last showing no evidence of his previous state of affairs. “I’m sorry, I’m being a terrible host. Can I get you something to drink?”
We talked for another hour about plans for the next day, and though I was involved and interested, I couldn’t help thinking how strange it was to be planning a demonstration and preparing for exactly that: a demonstration, not a riot. I had no illusions about being on friendly ground, even in a sea of Democrats, but it wasn’t the same as preparing to have my face kicked in by cops that were afraid I might infect them just by breathing. What was more, I found myself not missing those days at all — in fact, rallying for gay rights and going home afterward with no cuts or bruises sounded like a pretty good time to me. Fuck, I was getting old.
After Carmen left, following our promises to meet up with her bright and early the next morning, Frank held out his arms, and I melted into them, resting my head on his shoulder as he clasped his hands behind my waist. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he kissed my hair. “I feel so gentrified,” he said, his lips brushing my temple as he spoke.
“You can strip naked and get arrested tomorrow, if that’ll make you feel any better,” I said, and he laughed. “I wouldn’t worry too much, though. We’re still the Lavender Menace.”
He let out a thoughtful hum. “We … we still are, aren’t we?”
“…Yeah,” I said after a moment’s thought, but now that he’d out-and-out asked the question, I found I wasn’t as sure of the answer as once I’d been.
“I’d like,” Lenna began, and when no one responded to her attempts to speak over them, she bashed her fork against the side of her glass a few times. “I’d like to propose a toast!”
The room settled down a bit, and I started wishing for a hole in the ground to swallow me up. It wouldn’t have worked, though: they were all here for me, and if I was going down, I had fifty of my closest friends and publishers there ready and willing to pull me back out, damn them all. I tugged at my collar and smiled, trying to look like I felt at all at home in the suit Lenna’d talked me into wearing for the evening. She’d described it as ‘neo-dykey’ and said that she should know, and I’d let her pull her Cinderella magic on me. We’d been living together for six months, and we were girlfriends, and we fucked, even though the three things had seemed unrelated even from the start. But she knew about public image and I knew about needing one, so at least for now we were good.
The glass took a few more hits as Lenna tried to silence the last few conversationalists at the edge of the crowd, and then, with all eyes on her, Lenna hoisted it to eye level, encouraging the others in the room to follow suit. “Now, surely you all know that the only thing harder than being lesbian is getting straights to read about lesbians — and I’m not counting pornography,” she added, getting a good laugh out of the room. “But somehow, somehow, this lesbian ambassador, this dyke of the people, has brought the public at large a book they never knew they desperately wanted to read. Ladies, it looks like Ellen’s going to have to share the lavender spotlight!
“To Jennifer,” she said, because she insisted that nicknames were undignified, “and five more weeks on the New York Times bestseller list!”
Cheering in response, the crowd raised their glasses and drank and applauded and did everything else that was appropriate, and I smiled and said thank you and did everything else that was appropriate, and I tried not to think too hard about flinging myself out the window. We were about twelve stories up, and I wasn’t that much of an action hero, no matter what the gay press reviews said about Paul’s Last Rainbow. It hadn’t even taken that much effort on my part — about half of it came from columns I’d written for alternative newspapers back in the day, and the other half was from columns I’d written for the same alternative newspapers that had never been picked up by them. If anything, the attention made me want to disappear because it reminded me of how much I felt like a fraud and a hack, resting on my shitty laurels.
Several of the people in the room were friends of mine from back in the day, all of them women, because the men were all dead now. It was weird, standing there amidst the chatter about the Baehr case in Hawaii and whether or not Ellen had sold out, to realize the last funeral I’d been to had been six months ago for a young activist friend who’d been killed in a car crash. Nobody was tiptoeing around relationship talk out of respect for the guy in the room whose partner of ten years had just died, or sharing the things they’d overheard about miracle homeopathic remedies. Hard as I listened, I couldn’t hear a single person say ‘drug trials’ or ‘side effects’ or ‘hospice care’. Those things belonged to a different world, and maybe my book and I were the only ones that even remembered it anymore.
Laughing, Lenna took my arm in hers, and I smiled like I was having a good time. It was the least I could do for everyone who’d come out to congratulate my minor accomplishment. “So, which one’s your pick?” she asked, and the eyes of the half-dozen or so people surrounding us all turned to me. “Or is it more a question of which do we bump off first? I vote Mitch Albom; at least Frank McCourt’s sentimentality isn’t saccharine.”
“Ugh, Berendt,” said a willowy woman whose name might have been Magnolia; we’d been introduced earlier, and my brain had registered it as some sort of flower, but that had been as far as it had gone. “If I hear one more person in my family ask, ‘Oh, did you read about those homosexuals in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?’ I may scream.”
A dark-haired woman completely unfamiliar to me shook her head. “The other McCourt. You know he’s only there because his brother is.”
As much as I too had sometimes fantasized about bumping off my rivals, I waved my hands to put a stop to all this. “No, no, no bumping off the competition. Besides, do you know how much the author’s death bolsters book sales? If you really want to push my book up the list, you’re probably better off killing me.” That got a chuckle from the crowd, who’d only been thinking of death in the comical abstract, who’d never had the slightest intention of killing of any authors, famous or otherwise. I was older than most of the other lesbians in attendance, and I wondered when they had come out. Lenna had been born six months before Harvey Milk’s assassination. Most of the people I’d written about in those essays had died before the people around me right now had left fifth grade. I felt thirty-five and ancient.
The conversation went from there to Andrea Dworkin, which was my cue to excuse myself on account of having to powder my nose. I didn’t, of course, nor did I have to do anything else potty-related, but I could shut myself in the stall and be left alone for five minutes, and that was nice. I leaned my head against the tile wall and shut my eyes, listening to the whine as the building’s air conditioner fought off the heat wave outside. It was, to say the least, a lost cause.
I washed my hands and looked at myself in the mirror and tried to stop resenting my friends for missing the war. Maybe, I thought, if I could do that, I could stop resenting myself for having lived right through it and on to the next parts of my life. I’d even catalogued my friends’ deaths and put them on display. I was a war profiteer, a carnival barker trying to get people to pay their dime for ringside seats to what Elinor Burkett called ‘the gravest show on earth’.
I lurched for the toilet and vomited up everything I’d eaten since Nixon had been in office. Fuck, I had to stop drinking so much.
After cleaning myself up, I pinched my cheeks until they were no longer porcelain-white, put on my best smile, and walked back out into the gathering. I stood there just inside the doors, taking deep breaths, trying to negotiate my re-entry into polite company — and I might have stood there for another half hour, or maybe for the rest of my life, if I hadn’t heard a low, quiet voice from behind me say, “Hi, Jen.”
Before my conscious mind had even sent any reports to my brain, I’d spun around and thrown myself right into Frank’s arms. If anything, I was surprised that the force of that embrace didn’t bowl both of us over; he’d always been skinny, and I’d always had a good two inches and twenty pounds on him even at the best of times. But as my front pressed up against his, I felt an honest-to-God gut starting to form there, a manly little pouch of tummy thickness that met my own soft middle. So many friends I’d seen waste away to skin-wrapped skeletons and now Frank was getting fat. I buried my face in the crook of his neck and he stroked my back with his palm. “Hey, hey,” he said against my hair. “Long time no see.”
I did the only appropriate thing in that situation, which was to punch him in the arm — though even that was only a brief pause in what had become my apparent desire to give him the world’s longest hug. He smelled like aftershave and the subway, though the former not in a good way, and the latter not in a bad way. “You’re the one who hasn’t called, you piece of shit faggot cocksucking asshole,” I said, squeezing him tight enough to make him grunt.
“Excuse me, Madame Pussylicker,” he whined in his snottiest nasal tone, which just made me laugh and punch him again. “I’ve been up to my ears in bedpans and shit — literal shit.”
I leaned back from him far enough that I could give him a good look up and down, as though I could see his new profession written on his face. “I’m sorry, Nurse Frank?” I asked with a grin.
“Eighteen months and running at Sloan-Kettering,” he said, and I hugged him again. “When I heard you were going to be in town, though, I dropped everything.”
Before I could even start formulating a question about that, Lenna appeared behind me and stuck out her hand. “And you must be Franklin! It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
I looked at Lenna, shocked, and Frank laughed. “I’m still volunteering at the GHMC, so when she called, they knew just how to find me.” He shook her hand and smiled, and now that the spell was broken, I finally looked past him to see that he wasn’t alone. “And when Raynard heard I was coming, he wouldn’t hear of being left behind.”
“No way, no how,” said the skinniest, queeniest black man I’d ever met — and believe me when I say I have a strong basis for comparison — who extended a delicate hand connected to the rest of his arm by the limpest of all possible wrists. “I was just dying to meet you, Ms. Baker. I’ve read your book, like, a hundred times. Oh, the piece about Glenn and his brother Allen? Girl, I didn’t think I’d stop crying for a week. A week!”
“Well, thank you,” I said, blushing and looking at my feet; I’d always been terrible at taking a compliment, especially one that, even for the drama dripping off every word, was so sincere. “I’m glad. Well, not that I made you cry, but … you know.”
Raynard touched my shoulder as he laughed, then reached into his messenger back and pulled out a hardcover first edition of Paul’s Last Rainbow, the one with the plain typeset cover, from the first printing when the publishing house hadn’t been sure it would sell a hundred copies, much less a hundred thousand. From the looks of its ragged dust jacket and dog-eared pages, he might not have been kidding about having read it a hundred times. “Can you sign it for me? Or is that gauche? I’ve never been to one of these author things.”
Honestly flattered, I took the book from his hands. “I’d be honored.” By some divine providence, I’d stuck a pen in my pants pocket before walking out of the hotel, and I pulled it out now and flipped it to the front page.
“We met working third shift,” said Frank, “and you should have seen his eyes bug out of his head when he learned I was that Frank McIntyre.”
I was glad I’d written the same ‘[name], thanks for reading! J.R. Baker’ message in dozens of other books, because the automaticity of the gesture covered my shock as I put two and two together — or, really, one and one. He and Raynard had all the body language of a couple, and seeing Frank again had blinded me to that. “So you’re a nurse too?” I asked Raynard.
“Honey, I am this boy’s boss,” Raynard said with a snap of his fingers, and Frank laughed, so I laughed too. No, this was good. Frank wasn’t meant to be alone; he needed someone, and he especially needed someone as obviously full of life and fire as this flaming diva. “But he does a real good job, so I don’t ride him too hard on company time, if you know what I mean!”
Raynard dominated the conversation from there on, taking it upon himself to tell all manner of hilarious stories from the hospital and his after-hours drag life as Nurse Divine Intervention, but instead of being angry that he was monopolizing my time with Frank, I was honestly relieved. Maybe if we’d parted on bad terms in the aftermath of Clinton’s first election, that would’ve been one thing, but the truth was that we’d just moved apart and gotten busy. Time and again, I’d forgotten to call, then forgotten I’d forgotten to call, then not wanted to call because of not wanting to explain why I hadn’t called in the first place, then made new plans to call only to forget those as well and start the cycle over. If I’d learned anything from the ’80s, it was that the slow, senseless death of anything was hell.
After twenty minutes or so of this, though, Lenna came to tug on my sleeve and tell me that some of the publishing people were leaving, the kind of people I didn’t want to let slip away without getting in a few more good words. “Are you guys free this evening?” I asked, after promising her that I’d be there soon.
Frank shook his head. “No, we’re on shift soon. Are you in town for long?”
“Leaving tomorrow morning,” I said with a sigh. “I’ve got a reading in Miami tomorrow night.”
“Oh, the life of a jet-set author!” Raynard let out a theatrical sigh. “But you’ve got to come back soon. I won’t insist you stay with us, since you’re probably used to hotels with actual space and furniture and high-class shit like that, but if you want to slum some, we’ve got a very nice couch I promise doesn’t smell too much like someone else’s body fluids. And speaking of, if you’d excuse me for a moment.” He handed Frank his bag and took off in the direction of my earlier retreat, though no doubt for a different reason than I’d had.
Alone at last, Frank and I looked at one another. “He seems great,” I said, gesturing toward Raynard’s retreating back. “You seem great. You look great.”
“You look…” Frank reached over and took my hand, a gesture of nothing but pure friendship, which was why it was stupid when my palms started sweating. “Tired. You look tired.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that comment in the past few months, and from everyone else I’d laughed it off, made short-term excuses, promised it was nothing to worry about. But twenty minutes back with Frank and it was as though we hadn’t been apart for five minutes, much less over five years — and he’d always been so good at seeing right through me. “I am,” I said. “I mean, I like the work, I like the writing, I like having a book out, but–”
“But it’s complicated,” he finished for me, and I couldn’t help nodding. “We’re proud of you, though, you know? Those of us who lived to tell the tale along with you. You always told it best.”
I squeezed his hand. “I should come to Brooklyn more often. Or you should come to Boston. One way or another. I miss you.”
“I miss you too,” he said, and he might have meant anything at all by it, except that the way he squeezed my hand right back as he said it pulled me closer to him, until the whole island could’ve washed away into the ocean and I wouldn’t have noticed.
As long as I was being honest, staring into those beautiful brown eyes made me have to admit at last that part of the reason — maybe even the whole reason, the real reason, past all the excuses and bullshit about forgetting — I hadn’t called Frank had been how I’d been afraid of this thing between us. It had been its own understandable, self-contained entity when we’d been together all the time, working as close friends toward the same goal, a fluke we’d been able to write it off comfortably as just what happened to friends at the end of the world. Except the world hadn’t ended, so that was one more excuse gone.
“Jennifer,” called Lenna at the same time Reynard began to sashay back in, so Frank and I jotted our phone numbers and email addresses down on scraps of paper scavenged from the many pockets in Raynard’s bag. We made our cheek-kissing good-byes and I turned back to the rest of the gathering before I could let myself do — or even think — something I’d regret.
The group Lenna led me back to was already abuzz, and it didn’t take even a New York Times bestselling author to figure out what had spawned their cattiness. “Camp is so dead,” said the woman who might have been Magnolia. “Drag doubly so. There’s nothing more anti-feminist than those grotesque caricatures.”
I twisted the pen in my pocket around and around as another unfamiliar-to-me young woman shook her head. “No, what’s worse is when they think they belong in safe spaces reserved for womyn,” she said, and I could tell from the way she spat the last word that there was no e to be found in it.
“It’s such a throwback.” One of my agent’s partners sighed and sipped his champagne; a well-suited older man, he was so straight-acting that I wouldn’t have believed he was one of us had I not been to his house and met his equally square lover. “We’ve just managed to get the American public to stop thinking of AIDS as a gay disease; the last thing we need is to keep being associated with that kind of flamboyant deviance.”
“They’re just old friends,” I said, and it was no small miracle that this cut off the discussion at the pass, rerouting all talk to the various good-byes I had been called over to supervise. I barely heard the good wishes and promises of later meetings, though, because all I could hear inside my head was a voice yelling about how I should have said something. Maybe a defense of diversity, or an appeal to tolerance, or a history lesson about Stonewall — something to make it clear that they’d gotten it all wrong and that no good would ever come from us turning on one another.
But I’d kept quiet, because I’d felt exposed too, and I hadn’t want anyone turning that critical eye on me. The hot new lesbian voice of a half-dead queer generation had to toe the party line, and that line increasingly drew tighter and tighter circles to separate ‘right’ behavior from ‘wrong’. There were no real alternatives. While everyone smiled and congratulated me on my accomplishments, I wondered if any of them could the traitor’s heart beating in their midst.
When Frank reached for the packet of condoms in the bedside table, I put my hand over the top of his and drew it back to the bed, empty. He frowned. “Jen, what are…?”
I took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. Swear to God, I’d had this planned better — I’d meant to say something before he’d even arrived, when I’d picked him up at the train station, when we’d gone out for dinner, when we’d been in the car together on the drive back to my place, when I’d poured the wine we drank while sitting on my couch before moving back into the bedroom. Every time I’d tried, though, something had stopped me surely as if my throat had collapsed, and I’d wound up chatting instead about work, book tours, old friends, exes, anything else. But he was only going to be here for the weekend, and that wasn’t even the only window of opportunity that was closing.
I sat up and took a deep breath. “I want a baby,” I said, because trying to cushion it any other way seemed dishonest. “I want a baby with you.”
He swallowed and crossed his legs beneath him on the bed, staring off at the blank wall behind me. I had prepared such a speech to convince him, about genetics and preserving our shared best qualities and the end of my aging uterus’ usable life, but I bit my tongue and let him think through it. He pressed his lips together and exhaled softly through the thin line between them, but as he did, he slowly started to nod. “Does it sound bad if I say I’m not surprised to hear you say that?”
“Depends on how you mean it.” I tugged at a pesky strand of hair that tickled me where fell across my shoulder; I’d been trying to grow out the mess on my head into something that didn’t look like a twelve-year-old boy’s haircut, but the change wasn’t coming easy to me.
“So,” said Frank, tapping his fingertips together, “do you want a dad or do you just want my jizz?”
His phrasing made me laugh. “Well, definitely the jizz. It’s been a long time since middle school health class filmstrips, but I think I remember where babies come from.” It was a warm evening, but I felt exposed and cold, so I tugged the sheet up over my legs. “The rest is up to you. I was thinking maybe something part-time on your end: you come up here for birthdays and holidays, maybe play host some weekends and summers when the kid’s old enough to make the trip alone. That sort of thing. But,” I added as my words caught up to my ears and I realized what a sudden imposition I had sketched out in those few sentences, “it’s really up to you. Up to and including disavowing all knowledge.”
With a smile, he crawled into bed right next to me and extended his arm across the pillows, and I curled in close, pressing a kiss into his shoulder. “Just going to tell anyone who asks that you slipped and fell on my dick?”
“Slipped and fell on a turkey baster, more like it,” I said, poking him in the side. “I swear this isn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’ve been thinking about it and talking to my doctor about it for about a year now. This weekend is even the best possible time to get me all good and knocked up.”
Frank cleared his throat. “Am I a traitor to the homosexual lifestyle if I tell you that sounds really sexy when you say it?”
That just made me laugh again. Age and time had dulled that anxiety to the point where we could joke about it without having to slink away afterwards. “You’re not the traitor; your penis is.” I reached under the covers to give his cock a pat; it had wilted some since we’d started talking, but it had by no means lost all interest in the opportunities available to it. “They’ll have to think of a new designation specifically for you: Kinsey 6, minus a few inches.”
He stuck his tongue out at me. “They are some very gay inches. You are just the exception that proves the gay rule.” He ruffled my hair into my face, and we both laughed as I raked it out again. “So, before I give an answer or whether or not you can put my spunk to its biologically intended use, can I ask what brought this on?”
I winced; I’d been hoping he’d ask me something, anything other than that. The answer was simple enough — the problem was only that I didn’t know if ‘have a baby was an appropriate solution’. The last few years had been something of a relationship desert for both of us, since Lenna had moved to Miami after deciding it’d be better if we saw other people and Raynard had gone off to Hollywood to pursue his silver screen dreams, but we’d had one another — at least, we did as often we he could make it up to Boston or I could find a reason to swing by New York. At best, though, that only got us together a dozen or so times a year, and what filled the time between our visits seemed to get less and less substantial. I had friends and I had my writing and I had my causes and and I even had the occasional lover, but the older I got, the less those things seemed to last long enough to be meaningful. I didn’t know if that was their fault or mine, but I was beginning to suspect the latter.
“I’m lonely,” I told him, shutting my eyes and putting a hand against his chest. “And I feel like there’s so much I could be doing there that I’m not. I want to spend my free time taking care of a kid. I want to make school lunches! How fucked up is that?” With a sigh, I rolled on my back and stared up at my plain beige ceiling. “I want to go to PTA meetings. I want to pick out little clothes that look like real-person clothes, only tiny. I want to mush up little peas and scoop them out with a little plastic spoon with Elmo on the handle. It is like a monster has taken over my brain, and that monster is telling me to do all the awful domestic things I used to scream bloody murder about being the intellectual death of women everywhere, and all that shit, except it’s not a monster at all, it’s just me. And … I want to be a mom. A good mom. I know all about being a shitty mom.”
Frank nodded. As far as we’d known one another, I’d never told him much about my family and he’d never said much about his, but we’d both met at sixteen as homeless kids at a gay rights rally in the Bowery; it didn’t take a genius to do the math about the qualities of our respective upbringings. “I think you’d be a great mom.”
“I swear I’ve thought about this, though. For a year or so now, maybe more. It’s not just some weird hormonal insanity.” Or if it was, it was an insanity that by now seemed fairly permanent, and therefore, to my reckoning, was no longer crazy but simply the way things were going to be. I might have been bad at any number of things, but I was pretty good by now at dealing with the unavoidable things bodies did to the people in them.
He took my hand in his and held it there for a moment. The compressor groaned as the air-conditioning system kicked in; the chilled air that wafted out through the vents made my nipples harden into little peaks. I’d thought at some length about what pregnancy would do to my body, and one of the things my once-pregnant friends had testified to was the cup size increase. With my luck, by the time I was done with nursing, they’d be down to my knees. The fact that this thought didn’t send me screaming and running the other direction from childbirth made me think there might be something to this crazy desire of mine, if it could overpower my vanity.
At last, he rolled on his side and kissed the tip of my nose. “I hear pregnant women get extremely horny.”
I grinned. “I’m already planning on seducing every lonely housewife in Back Bay. Fair warning. Besides, there’s got to be a section on Craigslist for that fetish, right?”
“Not in the sections I frequent,” he said. He reached for one of my nipples and caught it between his fingers, making me squirm. “You’re sure about this?”
“I am,” I said, and not just because I was horny now and might have said any number of things to keep him from stopping.
Frank leaned in to kiss my neck. “Then ask me,” he said, his voice hot and breathy against my skin.
I shivered. “Ask you what?”
“To do it.”
It was stupid and ridiculous and completely absurd and totally against everything I believed in about sexual health and personal responsibility and gender roles and I was so turned on I couldn’t move. “Come on, sexy,” I said, relaxing as he spread my thighs apart. “Fuck me raw and knock me up.”
That, for the time being, was the end of discussion. He kissed me and I kissed him back, pulling him on top of me and letting my legs splay. Whatever enthusiasm his penis had lost earlier, it was back now, and it poked me in the thigh with its little fleshy urgency. Despite all the contact I’d had with it over the years, I’d never stopped wanting to giggle every time it came out to play. I wondered if maybe all penises were like Frank’s: secretly fragile things, softer and more sensitive and in some ways even more feminine than anyone was willing to let on about. I had developed a peculiarly lesbian affection for Frank’s penis. The distinction mattered to me.
I’d had him fuck me countless times before over the years, but having him bareback was a totally different experience — even though, if I were being totally honest with myself, the difference in actual physical sensation from his wearing a condom wasn’t much. I was willing to chalk it up to the psychological contribution to the experience, though, which was significant. On countless occasions I’d talked to men, even screamed at them, about how even one unprotected fuck could mean their deaths, and now here I was, not only letting a gay man stick it in me without a condom but making sure he came inside of me. Even worse for my deep sense of safe-sex necessity was how much better it made sex. As I’d gotten older, the parts down there had gotten a little drier — but right now, I was dripping entire oceans from my cunt, soaking the sheet beneath me as he slammed his funny, wonderful naked cock in and out of me. He caught my nipple between his teeth and tugged, and I came so hard I’m sure I not only felt but made the earth move.
He wasn’t done yet, though. The man who’d barely lasted a few minutes inside me our first time had grown up into quite the fuck. Slipping his cock deep inside of me to steady us both, he grabbed hold of my thighs and tossed my legs over his shoulders so that when he bent down over me, my knees nearly hit the headboard. I wondered how many other men he’d had like this, or how many had had him similarly. It had never occurred to me before to wonder if he loved my cunt in a peculiarly gay fashion, or what on earth that might mean, to us or to anyone else.
“Come on, you bastard,” I said, panting as I clawed at his back. “You like that? You like feeling me bareback?”
“Fuck, yes,” he breathed right back, clenching his teeth together behind a grin. Not even the cold air blowing across our bodies could dispel the sheen of sweat that had formed across his forehead.
“You going to come inside me? Going to knock me up?” I’d always been a little too self-conscious about getting beyond the basic warmup dirty talk with my female lovers — sometimes it’s hard to let loose and say dumb shit when you’re afraid the person listening is doing a feminist critique of your use of language at that very moment — but Frank loved it, no matter how dumb it got. There was a certain freedom in our strange, straight affair, since once we’d already admitted to one another that gross violation of gay propriety, smaller linguistic transgressions seemed beneath notice. “I want to feel it. Make me feel your hot spunk all up in my wet pussy.”
Frank’s hands tightened around my thighs as he shut his eyes. “Last chance to change your mind.”
“Me?” I locked my ankles together behind his neck. “Change my mind? Ever?”
Frank laughed, but his laugh turned into gasping, then grunting, then groaning as he furrowed his brow in the way he always did just before orgasm. I was still keyed up and nervous, but I made myself breathe deep and relax as best I could, remembering what my doctor had said about anxiety as the enemy of conception. I was pretty sure she was full of shit on that and other matters, but I figured there couldn’t be any harm for taking someone else’s advice for once in my whole damn life. We were going to have to be lucky, sure, but our luck could use all the help it could get.
I didn’t feel his hot spunk in me, despite my earlier declarations of desire, but I felt him come all the same, as every muscle in his body went taut and he slammed deep inside me. He took a few deep, slow breaths before grabbing the headboard and using his leverage to ease back out of me without disturbing the near-vertical alignment of my hips. “I think you’re supposed to stay like that,” he said, his voice ragged with air.
“Excuse me, gay man, when did you do research on pregging up ladies?” I asked, ignoring that even without his input, I would be doing the same thing he had me doing now. Somewhere deep inside me, a big glob of Frank’s sperm was slowly oozing its way toward my cervix. This was some sexy shit, tell you what.
He sat back against the bed and braced my feet against his shoulder, helping me keep my hips elevated. I was sure I was a real beauty right then. “What? I’ve seen The Big Lebowski.” It took working every muscle in my face to not laugh and thereby encourage that kind of behavior. “Can you feel it happening?”
I snorted. “That’s not remotely how pregnancy works. B-plus for research, C-minus for the final product.” I touched my cunt to see what a mess we’d left, then slapped it a few times, creating great squishing sounds that made Frank wrinkle up his nose. “God, it’s like you don’t know anything about vaginas. You don’t get to teach our daughter about hers.”
“Daughter? Okay, now who doesn’t know how pregnancy works?” Frank’s eyes went a little wider with concern. “What if she’s straight? I don’t know anything about raising a straight baby!”
“Well, you’re going to have to learn.” I patted my belly as though there were anything there yet to speak of, trying not to think of how there might not ever be anything there. Now was a time not for dread, but for hope. “Because we are going to love this baby just the way she pops out, and if she’s heterosexual, we’re just going to tell her, honey, that’s just the way you are and you can’t help it.”
He bent down and put his face between my legs. “Son,” he said, addressing the general area of my vagina, “if you want to play football and subscribe to Playboy and go to prom with a girl, I may not understand you, but I’ll support your strange, deviant life choices.”
I rolled my eyes. “Isn’t playing football kind of gay?”
Frank kissed the inside of my thigh and gave me a perfectly dad-like smile. “Anything is kind of gay if you do it right.”
“Auntie Divine!” Katie let go of my hand and ran straight into the arms of a giant drag queen whose great lilac wig was nearly as tall as she was. Ever the font of grace and beauty, Divine — still ‘Raynard’ in his street clothes, but trying to call her anything but ‘Divine’ when she was all dolled up was an exercise in futility — bent down in her six-inch acrylic platform heels, wrapped her arms around Katie, and scooped my giggling daughter up into her arms without so much as teetering. She planted a big kiss that left a sparkly purple smudge on Katie’s cheek, much to Katie’s squealing glee.
A small sea of androgynous college students parted and Frank stepped through, holding a few printed signs. “Did you guys have trouble finding us?” he asked, giving me the same sort of sweet cheek-kiss Divine had given Katie.
“Nope. We just had to stop and get every sticker someone was handing out.” I pointed over to Katie, whose denim vest was invisible beneath the vinyl logos of every organization represented here today and then some. “Next time I’m making her carry her own swag bag.”
Frank took one look into the tote slung over my shoulder and laughed. “Are those condoms in there?”
I nodded. “Non-lubricated. Make great water balloons. But the rule is she has to pick them up after they explode, so that they neighbors don’t call the cops because they think something funny’s happening on our front lawn.” I’d lucked into a deal on a nice little house in a good Boston public school district, but the trade-off had been a neighborhood of busybodies my friends collectively referred to as Massholes. At least they only grumped at me, though; I hadn’t yet met the person Katie couldn’t charm the pants off of.
Shaking his head, Frank traded me the tote for one of the signs, an HRC-branded rectangle that read ‘ENDA NOW’. The slogan’s lack of catchiness was the least of my problems here. “Why ENDA?” I asked.
“All the ‘REPEAL DOMA’ signs are kind of useless now, so I guess they’re going with second-string causes,” said Frank. Apparently released from her drag queen captivity, Katie walked back over, and Frank hunkered down to give her a big hug. In the sunlight and at this angle, the grey in his hair shone bright silver. “Good morning, sugarplum. How’d you sleep?”
“Good!” Katie nodded. She’d been a real trooper about sharing her usual guest bed at Daddy’s Apartment with Mommy, something made necessary by the fact that we weren’t the only guests at Frank’s this weekend. Frank himself was sleeping on his couch, turning over his own bed to Raynard and his significant other, a genderless person named Starr. I’d originally met Starr as ‘Lucille’, though, and remembering to say ‘xe’ and not ‘she’ was sometimes more than my scattered, aging brain could manage. I wasn’t about to stop trying, though, and Starr said that counted for a lot in xyr book.
Frank took one of her hands and I took the other, and together we led her together through the crowd in Washington Square Park. “You know, your mommy was arrested here once,” said Frank. I shot him the dirtiest look I could muster up.
Katie’s eyes — her father’s deep brown eyes — went wide. “Arrested? Really?”
That, I supposed, was the problem with history: it never got tired of chasing after me, and every time I stopped it mowed me down. “Because I…” I shook my head, looking for the words. “Because once upon a time, a lot of your mommy and daddy’s friends were sick. They were so sick they were dying, and sometimes it seemed like nobody was doing anything to help them.” We reached the short stone wall around the fountain and sat down there, watching the rainbow-painted youngsters bustle by. They all looked like babies to me; I couldn’t believe I’d ever been that age, much less even younger when this all began. “And we couldn’t help them, so we got together to yell at the people who we thought could.”
I could tell that Katie, looking around at the sea of assorted protesters with only a few bored-looking cops sprinkled throughout, didn’t have the context to understand what I was saying. She kicked her feet, knocking the back of her neon green sneakers against the base of the wall. “They arrested you for yelling?”
“No,” said Frank, “they arrested her because she told a police officer to go fuck himself.”
“Which is a very strong thing to say,” I added as quick as I could after, “and you shouldn’t say that to someone unless you’re prepared to be arrested for saying it.” Good grief, she was at the age where Office Friendly came to her first-grade class every other month to talk about fire safety and Stranger Danger; I couldn’t imagine the parent-teacher conference I’d get if Katie started telling the other first-graders her mom said to fuck the police. “Deal?”
Katie nodded. “Deal.”
“Good,” I said, shooting another half-hearted glare of disapproval at Frank over Katie’s head. We’d both agreed early on that considering the circles we ran in, there was no way we were ever going to keep her from hearing kindergarten-inappropriate words, and therefore the best we could do was not to minimize her exposure, but to teach her appropriate usage. For the most part it was working, though it had put me in the unenviable position of having to explain to her teachers that, all things considered, the kid who pushed her down on the playground was being a total motherfucker. I’d then told Katie never to do that again and taken her out for ice cream. Some days I parented only in mixed messages.
A few older hippies trundled on by, with their long grey hair and long beards and US OUT OF AFGHANISTAN posters; I wondered if anyone had bothered to tell them today’s event had been organized by specifically queer causes. Then again, I doubted if knowing that would dissuade even one of them from attending. They were a mixed bag, the type where I couldn’t be sure if forty years ago they’d been holding the US OUT OF VIETNAM signs or being the US in VIETNAM that those signs wanted out. Time tended to pave over little things like that.
From across the park, Divine and Starr waved at Katie, and Katie waved and blew a kiss back. I’d been her age in 1970 and I literally could not imagine circumstances under which my mother would even have allowed me to be in the same room with drag queens, much less taken me to meet them. Maybe someday I’d take Katie to meet her grandmother, when she could understand that the disapproval she’d face there had nothing to do with her and everything to do with me. Or maybe we’d just skip that trauma and guilt entirely, and go to Six Flags instead, and I’d tell her that I love her and I will always love her and she will never be able to do a single thing to make me stop loving her, and unlike my mother I’d mean it.
I felt a hand rest my shoulder, and I turned to see that Frank had stretched his arm across the back of the seat, behind Katie and over to me. I leaned over and gave him a light kiss on his lips over Katie’s head, and Katie stuck out her tongue. “Ew, gross,” she said, making the last word about five syllables long.
“You’ll understand when you’re older, cupcake,” said Frank, tugging at her ponytail.
Katie crossed her arms across her chest. “No, I won’t. I’m going to marry a bird. And we’re going to live in a tree, and no kissing.”
“All right,” I said with a smile, “I’ll bite: why no kissing?”
The look Katie gave me told me that I was at that moment, to her mind, the stupidest thing that had ever walked the planet, and in that same moment I saw exactly what the next ten years had in store for me. “Birds have no lips, Mom.”
She had me there. “Okay, sweetie, if you decide to marry a bird with full legal standing, then you have my blessing to make that bird your husband. Or wife. Or … something else,” I added, thinking of Starr. “As long as everyone involved is happy, consenting adults who respect one another’s boundaries.”
Frank tapped her on the shoulder, and when she turned to look at him, he pointed across the park. “I think Auntie Divine is trying to get your attention,” he said. In the midst of a crowd of people with glittery streamers, Divine was waving a handful of pink streamers and calling Katie’s name. When Katie waved back, Divine gestured her over. Katie looked up at me with an expression of pure hope, and the instant I gave her the nod, she was off, sprinting across the obstacle course of humanity between us and her self-proclaimed fairy godmother. At seven, she was fiercely independent and relentlessly cheerful, prone to stubbornness and the occasional temper tantrum, and already more aware of the complexities of the world around her than most people even my age. I loved her more than I’d ever thought possible.
I loved her more than I loved Frank, even, though he was a close second. Alone on the bench together, he reached over and took my hand, and I held it even as our palms sweated together in the mid-morning heat. We watched as Katie hopped over a guitar case and stopped to pet a friendly beagle before running up to Divine, who put a sparkly plastic crown on her head and started barking out inaudible-to-us instructions. She’d never even questioned why Auntie Raynard was sometimes Auntie Divine, or why Auntie Raynard insisted upon ‘Auntie’ even though he was clearly a boy, or why mommy’s friend Ms. Candy had a husband but mommy’s friend Ms. Janelle had a wife.
She also hadn’t ever asked about Frank and me, though I could see that was going to come soon. Frank and I had discussed this, and we’d both agreed that the best thing to tell her was the truth. And maybe if we could be honest with her, we could be honest with everyone else. And what happened after that, well, we’d just have to see. Maybe the future could be big enough.
“We did pretty good, didn’t we?” asked Frank, sitting there in the sunlight, surrounded by smiling, living people with rainbow flags and red ribbons. There were ghosts here too, hiding just at the edges of the signs and smiles, but they didn’t haunt the landscape so much as blend right in. That might have been Joe and Niall over by the cart selling Italian ice, or Walt tying balloons to a stroller, or Carmen sprawled on the grass in the shade. We’d brought them with us like our shadows into the daylight, and when we left, they’d come too. I’d carry them the rest of my life — how, then, could I do anything but live, live, live?
“Yeah,” I said, putting my head on his shoulder and watching as my daughter — our daughter — puckered her lips and blew into a plastic wand, sending soap bubbles rising into the sky. “Maybe we did.”