Dead Inside Until
It’s so easy to get caught up in love. The trendiness of it, the glitziness of it, the thrill of it all; time and again we fall in and out of that river of dreams.
My words mean nothing inside my head. They need paper to live. That is the heartache of the writer. The words are always there. Dead inside until.
Wrinkled breasts. Does wrinkling come after sagging? Or before? The night after he left I finally took off my clothes, the ones I had slept in. I didn’t want him to make love to me. He had his arms around me all night, the whole time, his face right next to mine. His hands cupped my bottom. I twisted and they caught my front. I twisted some more. “What’s the matter,” he said. I told him. “I feel stupid.”
He didn’t say anything more because he knew what I meant. I wanted to talk but not to him. There was too much to say to someone who was responsible for the pain, but not really. Not totally.
What would I remember? The way he tweaked my peach silk panties away from my hips with his mouth, his tongue winding closer and closer. When I remembered this, I forgot the things I didn’t want to remember.
Justina, the female impersonator, will be 55 next month. He stands in front of the oval mirror in his kitchen, fussing with a wig, a platinum one, with an afro comb. Every few minutes he turns away from the mirror and takes another sip of white wine. In the couple of hours I’ve been there he’s had about four glasses.
“See, this is what I use,” he says, and shows me pancake make-up. Tonight he is wearing an orange dress. “I wear a girdle to keep this in.” He points to everything between his legs. “Tonight should be good for at least 50 bucks. Popeye should be around. Now I’ll be frank. You want to know what I do? He comes over, sits in the bathtub, and I pee on him. After it’s over, it’s over and we’re like two old friends.”
He pauses just a minute. “The one that loved me the most was Billy. But that was 12 years ago. He was at Alcatrash and when he came out he lived in Show-ho. He was on the FBI’s most wanted list for forgery. They came right in this apartment and chased him through that window.” He points. “Billy gave me five thousand dollars plus money all the time we were together. I never asked questions. Every Tuesday I would get an allowance, $100. He was living with a girl and they had a son. He made me promise that if anything happened to him or the girl, I’d take care of his son. And I said, sure. I had a god damned French poodle for fourteen years. I’ll be happy to bring up your son.”
He had two lovers living with him for awhile, both at the same time. One was a young kid Mikey, whose father owned a huge carpet cleaning concern that did industrial cleaning (“you know like the World Trade Center”). Mikey was living with a Japanese girl and going to the police academy. The other guy was Ray whose father was a plastic surgeon somewhere upstate. Ray was robbed when he first came to the city in a gay hustler bar called the Haymarket. He was sleeping in an SRO hotel and kept the light open all night long because of the cockroaches climbing up and down the wall. Someone told him to call Justina who told him “I have to make certain demands. I don’t care how handsome anybody is. I don’t keep nobody. You have to give me $50 a week and sleep in my bed with me and we have to have sex at least twice a week.”
He asks me to help fasten a rhinestone bracelet and then decided one was not enough. He put on another one and then a chunky silver necklace with what looked like coke spoons hanging from it. A collection of boas in all colors hung high above the bed next to a gown specially created for $1600 for a show next weekend. Then he showed me photos of him and his mother at his mother’s birthday party. And of Ray sitting nude on the edge of the bed. And of Pete who “went and had a sex change and became Pamela. She would rob her own mother.”
She tried to remember the last time she had made dinner for a man. She scoured her mind, swept it clean. It must have been Paul, new year’s eve, when she made that casserole of potatoes and vegetables. He said nothing, ate like it was a major annoyance, until she had to ask him “is it okay?” “I’m eating it, aren’t I?” That was at least four years ago. Sam would be different. Tomorrow she would be making dinner for Sam.
But today was Wednesday. And today was Vic. She lay in bed with Vic, with Vic and his words: “I think we should start seeing each other regularly again.” Regularly. What does regularly mean? She didn’t know and she didn’t want to ask. She was planning the menu for dinner the next night. Chicken stew. Suppose they didn’t have the skinless chicken thighs the recipe called for?
Vic kissed her neck. He knew after all these years that was her weak spot. Women have lots of erogenous zones, he told her. But not men. He had kissed her neck the first night they met and that did it. She was his. Now she was thinking about chicken stew.
He lifted her t-shirt. She was thinking about timing. Not timing in bed but timing the chicken. The recipe was very precise. Put the potatoes in for 15 minutes until fork tender and then at the very end put in the green beans, trimmed, for four minutes.
Vic was trying his best to tease her bra off. Oh, for god’s sake, she thought, and pulled her sweater over her head. His moves were always the same, but he always got off to a good start by kissing her until she became breathless. Really. She reached a point where she couldn’t breathe.
But that wasn’t going to happen this afternoon. She was too preoccupied. He finally began to understand but he knew better than to argue or ask questions. She never got angry at questions but she retreated and he had learned not to dig too deeply. It worked better that way.
I was in a flood once. You might have seen it on TV. The flood waters broke record crest and swept down streets that, once safe, had been everything to me; now, stitched together by barriers and blockades, they meant nothing. The rain sunk into holes; cliffs collapsed, mountains slid. I was almost swept off by a raging creek. The extravagances of nature left me hammered. Flood waters are a dreadful color, rushing memories of dreams. I was one of the ones that stayed put. They couldn’t talk me into evacuating. I simply abandoned the first floor of my house and climbed up to the second where I realized it was very important to want to live forever. Pain is a memory, I said. Swim.
I had to face the truth. I could have gone to the hospital. I should have gone to the hospital. He asked me to go. Didn’t beg but did ask. Definitely did ask. In my whole life no one had ever asked me to go visit them in a hospital. And I cannot imagine myself being the kind of person who would refuse a request from a dying man, a man I had loved, adored in fact. But I was that person. I didn’t say no to him. I just didn’t go. And then he died. And I was challenged with something more critical than the terror of the terminally ill and the smells and sights I would be forced to endure, not only his sights and smells, but anyone else who might be dying there at that time. I was confronted with myself.
We met when I was nineteen and he was seventeen. He lived in Westchester County and not yet legal to drive in the Bronx where I lived. He came from a good solid family. I didn’t. He found my phone number scratched on the wall of a telephone booth in the South Bronx. I didn’t do it. Some guy I had hooked up with did. “For a good time, call ___.” So he called and we fell in love, slowly and yet all at once. Until he found somebody else. I don’t think we ever stopped loving each other but it wasn’t the kind of love that worked when you needed it to.
He would be buried with a funeral mass at St. Eugene’s Church in Tuckahoe. A special piece of music he requested would be played. I would never know what it was. I would not be there. I would be at work typing things like The Guarantor hereby irrevocably consents and agrees that any legal or equitable action or proceeding arising under or in connection with this Guaranty shall be brought exclusively in any Federal or state court within the County of Erie, State of New York. Later on the document would come back with a revision to read within Cook County, State of Illinois. I would get a bagel with light cream cheese for lunch.
He would be cremated, half of his ashes would be put in with his mother’s casket and the other half would be scattered over the bay where together we had owned a small cottage that ultimately became his. He was constantly toying with it, taking out the old staircase and putting in a spiral one, and then taking that out and putting in I don’t know what because by that time we had had a big fight and weren’t even talking.
She’s married to a guy who’s in Marijuana Rehab. She’s been exercising and everyone says she looks great for 46. She’s ready for an affair while she wonders when/how to tell their son that he’s adopted. Her sister just got divorced but spends every Saturday night with her ex and does his laundry. Her father has lymphoma and her mother has a benign tumor near her ear which they gave her radiation for. She doesn’t like guests staying at their home because she doesn’t like other people using her bathroom. She keeps saying she’ll put in another bathroom but she never does. Only her sister can stay there. But not the ex. She made about $100,000 as a real estate salesperson last year. Her husband called it discretionary income meaning she just has to take out for social security and the rest is hers to do with as she wants. She often gets angry at their son. He talks with his hands and loves to be read to. She washed his mouth out with soap by -- really -- putting a bar of Dove into his mouth and making him spit up and ultimately throw up. He was playing with glue and got it on the TV. I once asked her husband before he went into Marijuana Rehab if he could say one good thing about her and he said she’s persistent, makes a good salesperson, and lets criticism wash right off her back.
She supposed this was what it was like when two people stopped sleeping together. She would start going to bed first, making clear her intention to go straight to sleep. He would stay up, sitting alone on the big white porch, watching the night. The next night it would be his turn. Drained from the day, he would go up. She was free to follow but she did not, lingering instead in her favorite upholstered rocker over a newspaper that she had read quite thoroughly over morning coffee. They could talk about everything but they couldn’t talk about this. Had no words.
She thought he was having an affair. He worked out at a gym from ten to midnight a couple of times a week but he had never showered there. Then he started to come home showered. That’s when she started paying attention. She first noticed the change in his voice, even before his eyes gave him away.
But life goes on, is what she is thinking this morning. Lulu the beagle sits poised and then turns her head to listen to the call of a crow. It is a quiet morning. A large black bird lands on a small branch and almost brings it down. The evergreens are yellowing. She was worried about them. They seemed to be growing but they were browning inside. Everything is dying but the geraniums. They go on and on as long as you pinch them.
When summers were
“Do you think we’re gluttons?” he said.
We were on our way to a yard sale on Burnt Ridge Road, me looking for old cookie jars, him looking for farm tools. We shared a day-old English muffin.
I laughed. “No, I think we should just buy and buy and buy some more . . . and enjoy it.”
And buy we did. Two old birdhouses and a feeder for a dollar each and an old ice saw that was about ten feet long with a wooden handle for five dollars. Later we found a white china pitcher for three dollars and an old mirror in need of silvering with a wooden frame painted lipstick red. Another three. We saw only one cookie jar but it was $45 and when the lady said make me an offer I declined. It’s worth the money, I agreed, but I just don’t need it that much. Had I said yes, that might have bordered on gluttony.
Later I sat by the pond and listened to the frogs jump in. The birds chirped, the crows called. I cleaned out the bird houses, emptied them of twigs and grass and what looked like cotton, and even found a piece of a brown paper bag in there.
He said "Now all we have to worry about is where to put the birdhouses. Decisions, decisions,” he smiled.
Neither one of us said it. We never said it. We never had to. We had it all – health, enough money, no glaring sadness. We got along, liked the same people, but preferred being alone. Alone with each other.
“Your friend left this for you.”
Her husband pointed casually to a small plant in a plastic flowerpot.
“What is it?” she asked. “I mean, does it need sun or shade?”
“He didn’t say. He just left it right there.
“Right here?” She stooped down. Then she glanced back at the sun. “This is a sunny spot so I guess that means sun.”
She sat down in the cool grass. The blades tickled her naked legs. Her husband edged back. She dug a narrow not too deep trench and tapped the back of the pot. She eased the plant into the moist earth. The dirt crumbled and a pressed yellow flower slipped out. Stuck to it was a piece of paper. A very small piece of paper with ragged edges. She knew who it was from but she didn’t know what it said.
Her husband scuffled back. “You don’t mind if I work over here? I don’t want to make too much noise but I have to use my jigsaw.” He plugged it into the outlet in the kitchen just off the deck.
She tucked the paper in her shoe. She took the shovel with the wooden handle and stuffed in the dirt, laying to rest the yellow flower. She felt guilty already.
Things had started looking ugly lately, making her unresponsive to even the beautiful things. She marveled that a little plant with not yet a name could captivate her.
She slipped her finger into her shoe to make sure the note was still there, masked except to her. Life was about to perk and she began to wonder if there really was such a thing as a little white lie.
The Free Dictionary labels it: little white lie Fig. a small, usually harmless lie; a fib. Every little white lie you tell is still a lie and it is still meant to mislead people.
Lying starts small but it can be a loaded gun you pull out when you need a fix, when you get fuming, when you feel the world has bolted its eyes and ears. It distorts things, gives you a forged sense of control. A treacherous game where your sole motive is to be understood as someone you are not.