There was nothing wrong with where we lived, except that the neighborhood was radioactive and the house was pitched at a sharp angle. When I was in high school and obsessed with my body, I used to lay my dumbbells on the floor, and they’d roll to the wall of their own accord. My room was small and cluttered then, and my bed was missing a leg, so I had to prop it up with a brick. My sister Margaret was a year older than me and had a job at a flower shop. She was a mistake, or an “oops” as my mom referred to Margaret’s conception in rare moments of kindness, and was born while my parents were both in college. The wedding was thrown together in under two weeks, and my parents held what passed for a legitimate reception in a dance hall called the Luau Lounge, which was famous for the massive fiberglass pineapple that teetered precariously over the front door. Then came the house and the mistaken impression that if they filled it with daughters and tasteless knickknacks, they could turn it into a home or, at the very least, distract themselves from the fact that half of it was sinking into the earth, a sign, my father would lament while Margaret was in earshot, visited upon him by God to let the world know that he had made it with the wrong girl at the wrong time.
My mom invested in commemorative dinner plates and porcelain figurines she saw advertised in the slick, shiny inserts of the Sunday paper. I wish I could say I was being facetious when I say she “invested” in these things, or that some finely tuned sense of irony had inspired her each time she shelled out four payments of $17.95 to the Dearborn Mint for an eight-inch statue of a baby in a bunny suit or a frog in a tutu or a lone wolf baying at the moon, but my mom truly believed that most, if not all, of her purchases would pay off in the end. After all, the ads always noted in block capital letters accompanied by charts and graphs, many of the mint’s limited-edition plates and figurines went on to sell at auction for upwards of ten times the original sale price. Despite their alleged worth, however, mom kept all of her collectibles out in the open—lined up on the narrow mantle over the fireplace, crowding bookshelves and windowsills, and competing for showcase positions on the dining room table or in the china cabinet.
In addition to Margaret, I had two younger sisters, Kathy and Rose, and none of us were allowed to touch any of mom’s collectibles because, in her words, they were our legacy. From dad we would inherit four guitars and a copy of what appeared to be every LP pressed in the United States between 1966 and 1987, a period he frequently referred to as the golden age of vinyl. Growing up, I assumed that everyone had armies of porcelain figurines and massive stacks of old records cluttering their homes, and I was always amazed and partially scandalized when I discovered they didn’t. It was like finding out that my friends and their families didn’t believe in God or flush the toilet or own a television. If they didn’t spend their weekends scouring flea markets and yard sales for hidden treasures, then what kinds of lives were they leading?
Another oddity about my friends was that their parents beat them far less frequently than mine beat me and my sisters. Not that they were monsters about it, exactly. I mean, they knew when to stop. The only problem was that we could never be sure of exactly what was going to set them off. Like the time dad whipped me for picking up a porcelain sailor mom had just received in the mail. Had it been mom, I would have understood—and did, in fact, understand when she let me have it for dropping the sailor as dad growled my name. Since it was dad who made the initial call, however, I couldn’t even begin to guess what I’d done wrong until he informed me (between applications of the strap) that little girls who played with sailors would inevitably grow up to be prostitutes. Though I wanted to ask him what a prostitute was, I kept my mouth shut because I knew the answer would only be more of the strap and that mom was already twisting her rings. Not only had I touched my legacy, but I’d broken it, too. The sailor had lost an arm, and there were still three payments pending on him. I was six years old at the time. Margaret was seven, Rose was four, and Kathy was still in diapers. Two nights later, curiosity got the better of me, and I asked Margaret what a prostitute was.
“The same thing as a whore,” she said.
“You mean like mom?”
It was summer, and our windows were open, so we had to whisper. Otherwise, our voices would bounce off the vinyl siding of the house next door and into our parents’ room.
“Mom’s not really a whore,” Margaret said. “Dad just says that when he’s angry.”
“So what’s a whore?” I said.
“It’s the worst thing in the world,” Margaret said.
“Like Aunt Gina?”
“No, she’s just divorced.”
“How ’bout Aunt Birdie?”
“She’s an abomination,” Margaret said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Worse than a whore, I think. It means she likes women.”
“I like women,” I said.
“Not like Aunt Birdie. She wants to marry other women. She wants to make babies with them.”
“How would that work?” I said.
“It wouldn’t,” Margaret said. “That’s why she’s an abomination.”
I already knew how babies were made, more or less, and the thought of it made me want to puke. The more dad drank, the more explicitly he discussed his failure to pull out of mom before the boys, in his words, rushed the field on the night of Margaret’s conception. Likewise, the more mom drank, the more willing she became to narrate their lovemaking using words dad grunted in her ear. Even with the windows closed, Margaret and I had to cover our ears to block out the sounds of their fucking and fighting. When they were done, there’d be snoring, and all I could do was wonder why mom let him touch her the way he did.
“Margaret?” I said, half hoping she was already asleep. “What if I wanted to marry another woman, too?”
“Mom and dad would have to kill you,” Margaret said. “And themselves.”
Lying awake, I considered my options. On one hand, I could pick up a sailor one day and let him make a prostitute out of me. On the other hand, I could marry another woman and try to make babies with her, and my parents would have to kill me. As far as I could tell, there was no middle ground, unless you counted what my mom had, but I really couldn’t see the difference between actually being a whore and only being called one, so I decided to err on the side of caution and swear off men forever. Not that it was really a decision so much as a revelation, learning the name for the thing I already knew I was. As long as Margaret kept her mouth shut about our little conversation, I figured, no one could kill me. Even if mom and dad did catch me trying to marry another woman one day, I could always plead ignorance. After all, dad had only warned me about sailors. Women were another matter altogether.
In the beginning, it was like having a secret identity, like being Wonder Woman or, better yet, Cat Woman. Ears perked and eyes peeled for any and all information pertaining to Aunt Birdie, I’d prowl around the kitchen, pretending to look for rubber bands, thumbtacks, tape or scissors in the junk drawers whenever mom talked on the phone on the off-chance that my fellow abomination’s name might pop up, or I’d page through old photo albums at my grandparents’ house, hoping for even the briefest glimpse of an abomination in the wild. To all appearances, Birdie looked like everyone else in her black and white universe—always a little taller than mom because she was older, always in a plaid jumper, always with her long, straight hair, fair skin and the wide, toothy smile that hid the secret longing she and I would always share: not a longing for the touch of another woman so much as a longing for the unconditional love of the people we loved unconditionally.
Birdie wasn’t my mom’s sister. They were cousins, a point mom clarified whenever she could. And her real name was Bridget. “Birdie” came about when my mom was two and couldn’t quite wrap her tongue around the right diphthong. When Birdie was in high school, she had a lot of boyfriends. Then came college, and the girls there made her go lesbo. At least that’s how mom told the story to our neighbor, Mrs. Reed, snorting derisively into the back of her fist when Aunt Birdie showed up with her “friend” Joanne to the barbecue my parents held to celebrate my first communion. Joanne wore a denim dress and a straw hat, and Birdie wore a pair of blue jeans and a white blouse embroidered with flowers. They didn’t hold hands, and they sure as hell didn’t kiss, but when their eyes met, it was like they were both in on the same joke, a special secret that, for all their half-muttered comments, sideways glances and raised eyebrows, the rest of the world would never understand.
Mom hugged Aunt Birdie and shook Joanne’s hand. Dad asked if he could fix either of them a hotdog, and Mr. Reed choked back a laugh in a paroxysm of hacking coughs he blamed on the smoke from the barbecue grill. All through the party I stole glances at Birdie and Joanne from behind my white communion veil, and all through the party I prayed to God to keep me from getting caught. If they beat me for saying hi to a sailor, there was no telling what my parents would do to warn me against going lesbo. But I couldn’t help myself. The looks that passed between Birdie and Joanne meant that I was right, that being an abomination was really something special, that one day maybe I could look at someone like that, and she’d look back at me, and we’d share the same secret Birdie and Joanne shared.
The first girl I ever wanted to marry was Katie Wilcox. She had green eyes and a gray tooth, and her mom drove a Pontiac Firebird. Our relationship hit a snag, however, when I realized that the only subjects Katie found interesting were kittens, her mom’s car and boys. That’s when I fell in love with Jennifer Schmidt, whose mother was the school nurse on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. But Jennifer liked boys, too, and so did Nicole Short, Kim Mifflin, Andrea Brady, Erin O’Connell and Elizabeth Nolan. In fact, the more time I spent in third grade, the more I realized that my life as an abomination was going to be one hell of a lonely ride if I didn’t at least pretend that I saw the boys from Menudo as likely suitors and Ricky Schroder as a potential husband. By the time I was in seventh grade, I’d gotten so good at the game that I took the strap across my newly pubescent bottom for letting a boy grope me under a cafeteria table at lunchtime. Then came high school and the beginning of my dumbbell years, an awkward period where I tried to like boys and starved myself to make them like me. I wasn’t an abomination, I told myself. I wasn’t a lesbo. In fact, I hated lesbos—hated them so much that one night I practically made my dad shit himself with laughter when Aunt Birdie called and I shouted upstairs to let my mom know that “the dyke” was on the phone. When she hung up, mom said that Joanne had been diagnosed with cancer.
Dad grunted and laid the needle on a Bruce Springsteen record, thus initiating a string of incidents that stick in my mind like a sappy montage in a made-for-cable coming of age movie: We skipped the funeral because Joanne wasn’t technically family. I started kissing boys. Birdie stopped coming to family functions. Margaret let a delivery boy make it with her in the back room of the flower shop. A girl at school showed me how to puke without putting a finger down my throat. The plumbing leaked. The kitchen ceiling caved in. Mom took in a cat. Kathy discovered needlepoint. Rose got caught smoking. One grandmother won a hundred bucks in Atlantic City. The other lost over three hundred to a bogus roofer. My grandfather stopped wearing pants. I learned how to get high using a paper bag and an aerosol spray can. Kathy gave a boy a black eye. Rose got caught drinking. Margaret was late three times in a row. Mom’s cat ran away. I turned eighteen and voted Republican. Dad bought a new guitar and wrote a song about New Jersey.
One night when I was a freshman in college, I asked Margaret what sex with boys was like, and she told me it was like sticking a balloon in yourself if the condom wasn’t ribbed. She was still working at the flower shop, but the delivery boy was long gone. There were other boys now, with pencil-thin mustaches, and men with hairy chests. Margaret rarely slept at home anymore and didn’t care when dad called her a slut. Or said she didn’t, anyway, but I knew what the emptiness insider her was like because it was my emptiness, too. The only difference was the balloon. At least she had that to fill her up from time to time. All I had was my secret identity and a straw hat I bought at a flea market.
I wish I could tell you I’d been confused by my sexuality and that was why I tried to starve myself through high school and slip through college stoned, but I always knew I was an abomination. Or a lesbo, to use mom’s word. Or a dyke, to use dad’s. I wasn’t gay- or bi-curious, as some women claimed to be in newspaper ads for women seeking women. This wasn’t dabbling or experimentation. It was who I was, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I’d hear dumb sorority girls speculating that every woman would have at least one lesbian experience in her lifetime, or that everyone was at least slightly homosexual, or that it was probably okay (in theory) to “dyke it out” with another girl in front of your boyfriend if that was what he wanted, or that it would be really cool to have a friend who was a hardcore lesbian as long as she wasn’t the kind who hated men and refused to shave her legs.
I rode a trolley and two buses to hear gems like these every day—in the library, in the cafeteria, in the classroom. As if being gay were a merry-go-round and you could get off whenever you wanted, or having a gay friend was like knowing a well-behaved badger or a talking moose. It wasn’t cool, I wanted to scream. It was lonely. Yes, there were plenty of “resources” on campus for those of us who wished to “embrace alternative lifestyles,” but then there was always the prospect of going back to my sinking radioactive house and trying to convince my parents that my sudden interest in rainbows and pink triangles would in no way impinge upon their collective right to continue amassing vast quantities of porcelain and vinyl. Not that I thought they’d kill me anymore. They’d just throw me out on the street with no place to go. Or, if I were really lucky, allow me to live out the rest of my days with them under a dark cloud of silence and disgust. My only real option, as far as I could tell, was to let scruffy boys continue to grope their way through my bases as I grew increasingly intimate with the mind-numbing effects of household cleaners and other chemical solvents.
By the time I was a junior in college, Margaret had left for good, and the responsibility of getting Kathy and Rose off to school each morning had fallen squarely on my shoulders. Between signing permission slips, writing absent notes and pretending to be my mother when any of their teachers called, I barely had time to dwell on the fact that if they ever learned my secret, my sisters would turn on me as viciously as I’d turned on Aunt Birdie. Rose probably knew that I was sneaking hits off the blackened pipe she left on her dresser, but she never said anything (I’d like to think) because she was concerned about my health. In her own sweet seventeen-year-old way, Rose saw pot as a healthy alternative to Carbona and never stopped to think that I might be mixing the two before heading out the door in my wide-brimmed straw hat and dark glasses to ride the trolley and two buses to an American Lit class where the professor would try to scandalize us by revealing that Herman Melville may have thrown his wife down a flight of stairs or that Emily Dickinson might have been gay. This was the first class I shared with a girl named Allison Kravitz.
Allison had red hair and an overbite and always sat near the door. When she raised her hand, other students would roll their eyes. The problem wasn’t so much that Allison was particularly disruptive or held extreme political views as much as the fact that our professor, Dr. Eck, had a habit of deflecting all questions put to him back upon the class. This strategy kept him from revealing how little he really knew about anything and had the added advantage of conditioning his students to keep their mouths shut. But Allison didn’t seem to get it. Despite the murmurs and groans of our classmates, she always demanded to know why the rumors about Melville mattered and how questions about Dickinson’s sexuality were supposed to help those of us living in the here and now. Even if Emily Dickinson really was gay, she once demanded, did that make her poems suck any less?
Okay, so she was a little disruptive. But in a good way, a way that made me feel like maybe I wasn’t alone, and I liked to think I’d be asking the same kinds of questions if my brain weren’t so fuzzy all the time and I wasn’t so scared to reveal too much about myself. I was still an abomination after all, and even if Allison’s notebooks were all decorated with the appropriate geometric figures, holding on to my secret was—for me, anyway—still a matter of life and death. Which is probably why I couldn’t stop thinking about her. When it came to her sexuality, Allison was cool. Not in the dumb it-would-be-cool-to-know-a-lesbian sense, but in the sense that she didn’t wear her orientation like a badge. In fact, I never once heard her refer to herself as a lesbian. She was just Allison, and if you couldn’t deal with it, then fuck you. Although this attitude didn’t do a whole lot to improve her social life, at least she could look people in the eye, which was a lot more than I could say for myself.
Back at home, Margaret’s name was never mentioned. Dad was trying to resurrect the singing career he’d abandoned when he found out that mom was pregnant, and no one even raised an eyebrow when he introduced the delivery boy who had taken Margaret’s virginity as the new bass player in his band. Of course, Rose was too busy scoring weed off dad’s drummer to notice much of anything, and all Kathy seemed to care about was rescuing her share of the legacy from imminent doom as dad’s friends set up their instruments and amplifiers in our living room. In the kitchen, mom was making sandwiches for the band and asking over the thump of the bass drum if I thought she had to worry about dad and groupies.
“I don’t think that’s an issue, mom.”
“You don’t think he’s sexy?”
“He’s my father.”
Mom smiled as if to say she couldn’t see my point but was willing to let it slide. Dad was going to be big, she said. Maybe not like the Beatles or Bob Dylan, but that was only because he’d taken time out to raise a family. If not for the “oops,” we’d already be millionaires.
Wondering how much luck Rose might have had with the drummer, I turned away from my mother and her sandwiches only to feel her fingernails digging into my wrist.
“You’ll take care of me, won’t you?” mom said, pulling me toward her. “When dad runs off with his groupies and the other two move out?”
“I’ll take care of you, mom.”
“I promise, mom. I’ll take care of you.”
“You were always my favorite,” she said, releasing my wrist. “You were the only one I wanted.”
In my mind, I was already telling Allison about the terror in my mother’s eyes, the abject fear of heartbreak and loneliness and groupies who would never materialize. Which isn’t to say that I’d actually spoken to Allison yet. To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t know me from Adam. Even so, I’d already had about a million imaginary conversations with her and held her hand through countless imaginary walks across campus, both of us stealing glances at each other the way Aunt Birdie and Joanne once did. Fuck the world, these glances said. Fuck anyone who can’t let us be who we are or love the way we want to love.
Allison lived, or so I imagined, in a tiny apartment with a single window that overlooked a gray alley. When the rain fell, heavy drops of water would pelt the glass, and we’d hold each other against thunderclaps. I’d tell her about breaking the sailor’s arm and my Aunt Birdie’s heart, and she’d say it was okay. I was just a dumb kid, she’d tell me. Dumb and scared, like my mother and sisters and even my father the first time mom broke the news of Margaret’s imminent arrival. Then Allison would say that she loved me, and I’d say I loved her, too, and I’d promise myself I’d stop getting high.
When I wasn’t busy trying to construct an imaginary world for Allison outside of class, I was doing my best to gather data on her real life. HISTORY major, the back page of my American Lit notebook read. Germantown. Bartender? “Corporate rock sucks!” Dog=Snickers. Soft pretzel w/mustard. Snapple (raspberry). Parents okay with “it.” Toyota Corolla (tan). Lunchbox!!! Strawberry Shortcake (ironic?). Presbyterian. Dead Milkmen. “Beam me up Scotty! There’s no intelligent life down here!” The list went on and on. It was Aunt Birdie all over again, the spying and the strategizing.
The class met on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Mondays and Fridays, I’d sit right behind her. On Wednesdays, I’d sit to her left. The trick was to get Allison to notice me without being too obvious about it, to strike up a conversation that didn’t sound forced or desperate or just plain crazy. With boys, it had always been easy. I just had to drop a hint or two that I was willing to let them touch my breasts. Allison, on the other hand, had breasts of her own and wouldn’t be so easily swayed. Besides, I had no idea where to begin as far as letting her know I liked women was concerned. It wasn’t as if I could just walk up to her and say hey there, Allison, I’m an abomination, too! Want to go for some coffee?
Or maybe I could. I didn’t know. How to talk, how to laugh, how to be who I was. All I knew was that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life alone. The image in my head was me at fifty or sixty, still living with my parents and sneaking hits of paint thinner while mom dusted her porcelain, dad listened to his vinyl and the house sank further and further into the ground. In all honesty, I knew that Allison could never live up to my expectations. I knew that pinning all my hopes on her was completely unfair, that one day Allison and I could very well end up screaming obscenities at each other the way my parents still did, that we’d open ourselves up and make ourselves vulnerable and possibly live to regret it. But it was the kind of regret I was willing to live with, the kind of risk that could lead to something better, so I called her name one day on the way out of the classroom and said something dumb about liking her lunchbox.
Maybe we could have lunch together sometime, I said, and she said that would be fine.
Maybe today, I said, and she said yes.
We walked to the quad. We sat beneath the bell tower. We unwrapped our sandwiches.
Allison asked if I was hitting on her, and I said that I was.
I was happy and nervous and scared as hell.
To think, she could have been a sailor.
About The Author
Marc Schuster teaches English at Montgomery County Community College. He defended his doctoral dissertation at Temple University in May of 2005 and is a founding member of the Elliot Court Writers' Workshop. His fiction has appeared in After Hours, Schuylkill, Redivider and Weird Tales.