Our Lesbians
a short story by Patti See

“We all drink from a leaking cup. ” 
—William Matthews, “Memory”

Griffin said he’d go anywhere with me, and sometimes it seemed he had: shivering on stone benches along the river, idling in university parking lots, meeting in grimy downtown motels. But all of that was when we were married to other people.  

He didn’t want to come to this party. When we drove up, he leaned into my face and said, “One hour.” 

That’s precisely the time it took me to make my Madonna tits. One hour to cover the plastic funnels in tinfoil and attach a black satin sash. I was surely staying at this party at least two hours. 

Perhaps a living room of women’s studies professors dressed up as goddesses was asking too much of any man.  Griffin earned tenure in the English department over twenty years ago when the Women’s Studies Program was just forming and some of its instructors the ball busters they were caricatured to be.  I was twelve years old.  

I don’t know which of our departments was more surprised when we came out as a couple: one of the last great white males on campus dating the faculty advisor to the College Feminists. Dying White Guy Does Lipstick Feminist, he teased me.  He often described our life in scandalous headlines. 

           

The cobblestone path to our hostess Elaine’s front door is evenly dusted with snow.  Griffin nods toward the ten-foot bay window where two women have their arms wrapped around each other.  “I’d say this is the right place,” he cracks. 

As I ring the doorbell the two women turn toward us and wag their tongues.  

We are later than I thought.  

Dr.  Elaine Mumm, Philosophy/Women’s Studies, opens the door and says to us, “Enter this sacred grove and share in the goddess wisdom, joy and mirth.” 

Griffin says in a Hee-Haw voice, “A-men.”

Elaine’s white robe is sprinkled with glitter. She straightens her tinfoil crown. I have no idea who she is supposed to be. 

She pulls apart Griffin’s cashmere overcoat to reveal his purple suede jacket. “Stunning,” she says. She pulls us into the living room where the other guests are gathered.  

When I take off my coat, Elaine “ah’s” me. I’m dressed in my father’s pinstriped wedding suit, circa 1945, a fuchsia tank top, tinfoil-wrapped funnels over my breasts, and my First Communion rosary around my neck. I know I’m mixing my Madonna periods, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to wear a rosary.     

“Contemporary goddess,” someone murmurs. “Smart interpretation.”

I tease, “I make a point of dressing like a goddess every day.” 

“Me too,” Elaine says. “Today I’m Persephone. Demeter is over there.” She points at her girlfriend. When I look closer I see they have sheer white curtains wrapped around their waists and breasts, a brave move for January in Wisconsin. Demeter waves her scepter in the air.   

Griffin points to my tinfoil breasts. “You can tune in WISM from Memphis with these things,” he says to the fifteen or so guests. “And it’s been off the air for five years.” Nobody laughs but me and then Elaine, who I recall laughs at everything. 

I am relieved when Griffin moves to the kitchen in search of a corkscrew for our two bottles of wine. I am still uneasy about how to introduce him. Boyfriend is so adolescent, partner so late night western or gay, lover so European.  

The living room walls are covered with stenciled signs. God is just an abbreviation for goddess. Little girls made of sugar and spice grow up to be cheesecakes. My goddess creamed your god. Strong enough for a man but made for a woman. And simply Towanda!

An armoire has been transformed into an altar with candles and flowers surrounding a goddess statue with enormous breasts. From a distance she looks like half Buddha, half Roseanne. Surrounded by so many incense sticks, the fresh daisies seem to smolder. 

Next to the altar, Dr. Gerald Bellinger, Philosophy, sits on the futon, the butch-looking women on both sides of him dwarfed by his six-feet eight-inches, 350 pounds. Ger and the women nod and wave in my direction.  

When Griffin returns with two glasses of wine, I whisper, “What an adventure.”

I still get a kick out of faculty parties. These are the people I always thought I should be drinking with instead of high school girlfriends who still get sloppy drunk and talk about someone’s weight gain or a husband’s erections. 

Who knew that someday I’d be at a party eavesdropping on someone saying, That Garrison Keillor opera is somewhere between Cinderella and Scheherazade” or “He put the limp in palimpsest.”

Sometimes I feel like an imposter. These are not my people, but they are a good diversion for the night. 

Griffin has endured too many faculty mixers—cocktail wieners and wine in a box—to care about making more than an appearance here. We haven’t gotten out much on Saturday nights—the only time we’re just about guaranteed an evening without his two kids and my son. We usually sit around Griffin’s kitchen table, drinking and smoking, sometimes dancing to the jazz station. We used to pine for each other on Saturday nights, while each of our spouses slept. This past year we have established new rituals together.  

Two spiky haired women from the religious studies department begin to lead us in a Wiccan rite for bringing in the new year. Each wears a multi-colored robe with many folds. One says, “The great goddess shines as the brightest moon. Goddesses dance beneath her both night and noon.”

The other asks us to burn a piece of the past: write a “cast off” wish on a Post-it-note—a name, a date, a place, a feeling or a situation—and then walk to the center candle and burn it. As we all take a moment, good students, to contemplate our assignment, Griffin says, “I don’t think this is what 3M had in mind for these.” He scribbles something on his note and then goes to the center candle to make his offering.  

I start to write down my husband’s name then cross it out.  

I want to ask Griffin what he wrote, though I am oddly superstitious. Like birthday wishes or wishing upon a falling star, would it come true if shared? 

Most of us are here for the party, the camaraderie, or the story. What fun to be able to tell a grocery clerk or bank teller or husband, “I’m going to a goddess party Saturday night.” Griffin watches his Post-it catch fire, and he sets the burning paper in bowl of water. He says, “Burn baby burn.” 

I write simply Wife

We all laugh when gold legged and tunic’d Venus, a.k.a.  Dr.  Tanya Thomas, Anthropology/Women’s Studies, says she is going to cast off Fidelity and then describes her stock losses. I look at her husband, Dr.  Mick Reynolds, history professor turned assistant vice chancellor, who wears a face that says he is here on husband duty. He reminds me of an aging cake-top groom, his dark beard and monk’s hair painted on his wrinkled skin. Tanya used to be a babe to everyone and will always be to her freshman Western Civilization professor Mick, who left his wife for her after she returned to campus with her Stanford PhD twenty years ago. She is still petite and blonde, sort of I Dream of Jeannie meets Margaret Mead.  

Another husband and wife team, Doctors Dick Shaw and Mary O’Dell, English, just had a change-of-life-baby two years ago and, Griffin says, lost their sense of irony about everything. They go to the center together and tell us their one-word cast-off: diapers. Griffin rolls his eyes in my direction. 

The cuddlers in the front window don’t even pretend to be involved. Their blank blue notes rest on their laps as they talk into each other’s bent heads. In their matching leather pants and bursting bodices they are more Harley chycks than goddesses.  

Next to burn is Dr. Maya Brock, Psychology/Women’s Studies, whose seeing-eye dog Gertrude will smell like patchouli incense for days after this party. I am tempted to say to this crowd that here is our own private oracle—which might have been funny if only Maya didn’t burn a piece of paper with her former dog’s name, the one hit by a car six months ago and whose loss she still mourns. 

When our two leaders take a break to dispose of the ash, I go to the kitchen, where the only student at the party is working her way through the snacks. I say hello to her and look for my wine. 

I’m the only one in the kitchen so she asks me, “How would you feel if someone showed up drunk or partied at your religious ceremony?” It’s not aimed at me; I’m simply the only drinker in the kitchen. I’m almost tempted to tell her I’d be more concerned if someone showed up religious at my party.  

I finish the wine in my glass and move towards the bottle beside her. She’s devouring a piece of divinity, the kind my mother made only at Christmastime. Her front teeth look as if she’s been chewing on green chalk. 

I pour another glass. I say, “I’m Catholic so I’m used to that.” I hold up the cross on my rosary, as if I need proof. “Saturdays nights, seven o’clock mass, the whole congregation reeked of booze. Even the priest.” I laugh. Then I remember my recreant lifestyle; I haven’t been to church since just before I separated, a year this month. 

I straighten my Madonna tits, the sash like a scapula around my neck. 

She’s wearing a silver pentacle choker around her neck, and the star moves each time she swallows. In her Bucky Badger sweatshirt she looks better dressed for partying in the student bar district or at the library writing a paper on Persephone as Rape Survivor. I feel bad for her and her seriousness.  

She shrugs. “I still don’t think it’s right,” she says. She stuffs some more candy into her mouth. 

 

After two glasses of wine and half a Wiccan ceremony, I find myself in the garage with the other smokers—the two women we saw cuddling in the front window when we arrived.  

I tell the butch-looking one that I know the hostess goddess because I work with her. I purposely do not say “teach.” I may try to pass myself off as a secretary or even a student. I’m not sure where I’m going with this yet. I call this game Let’s Get Drunk and be Somebody Else

She tells me, “Let’s face it, they’re a goofy group, those women’s studies professors.” She could be any girl I knew in high school.  

“Some,” I say.  

“I love my job,” the prettier one says to me. She is perky as a Scout Mother, and in fact she may be. I’d expect to see her at the corner bar with her husband in matching nylon sports jackets, not here in this cold garage warming herself on another woman. She tells me she works intake at the county jail and that her friend is a day cook at a daycare center and a night bartender at a gay bar. I nearly joke about the combination. 

“And what does Madonna do for a living?” one asks. 

“You know, the usual party hopping,” I say. I adjust my sash.  

Each takes a turn touching my tinfoil tits. After the second time, I take them off and hand them over. One slips the sash over her head and the other immediately begins to fondle my funnels. The two women giggle and coo into each other’s necks. I let them take my tits inside with them. One says to me through the screen door, “Remember: sacred magic of the goddess is happening all over the earth.” She winks at me. 

By the time I go inside, the ceremony is over, and a faint scent of burnt paper hangs in the air. Now we’re ready to party. 

My breasts make their way around the circle. When they get to Gerald he stands up and looks at himself in a mirror. The tinfoil cones on his huge shoulders look like Hershey Kisses. He laughs.  

Griffin whispers in my ear, Rotund Philosopher Strokes Out Blissfully Wedged Between Dykes

If he was doing headlines, this party had to be some fun for him.  

“Thanks for coming,” I tell him. 

Next Maya rubs her fingers gently over the tinfoil and inside the funnels. Her guide dog stands and shakes, then sniffs the funnels. Maya murmurs something to the woman next to her then nods at the answer.  

Early mornings when I wake up at Griffin’s and he’s still asleep, I pick up whatever book is on his nightstand. Last week I read a short story about a blind man who doesn’t understand the magnitude of a cathedral until he puts his hand over the hand of someone drawing one.  

 

  I touch Griffin’s thigh and make my eyes go to Maya—who is still feeling my tinfoil tits—then back to Griffin. He is perhaps the only one in this room who will know what I mean.  

“Just like that story about the blind man. To the husband it’s a church and in the wife’s version it’s a missile.” He shrugs.  

Maya puts the sash around her neck.  

I laugh out loud. Griffin does quirky headlines, and I see short stories in action. We are perfectly matched or we are doomed. 

 

After another glass of wine I’m back in the garage, cigarette breaks blurring together, until the party for me is in the garage with the lesbians.  

Griffin joins us. Then Mick Reynolds, who speaks for the first time tonight. I ask the women their names so I can introduce them. Mick talks to Griffin about the university travel budget.  

After the guys leave our party within the party, Lisa, the butch, says, “Your husband is a cross dresser. Yep, I saw him wearing your breasts in the living room.”

I know she means Griffin. “Oh?” I say. “My husband is home in bed.” 

Though I’ve been separated for over a year and Griffin divorced for longer than that, we still do not move together comfortably in public. Early on I trained myself to keep my distance from him, so we might pass ourselves off as acquaintances. In stores, the mall in particular, I still walk one step behind and far to the right of him, as though I could slip into a crowd without anyone realizing we’ve been lovers for six years.  

 “Sorry,” Pam says. “You just seemed so together.” 

“We are. It’s no big deal,” I say. 

“What does a lesbian bring on a second date?” Lisa asks me. “Did ya ever hear that one?” She says in Pam’s direction, “Do you know this one, honey?”

Pam shakes her head. 

I say, “A U-Haul.” Then I tease, “I heard that one in eighth grade.” 

I imagine Pam has a husband in a matching nylon jacket somewhere, and he’s probably home in bed right now.  Lisa is so in love she doesn’t seem to care about anything else. 

“So where’d you two meet?” I ask. I’m already hatching a plan for these two women. They will become our lesbians, much like young married couples adopt a bachelor or two to model how good they have it and the bliss that awaits. I’ve just learned their names, yet I’m already imagining them sitting in a fenced backyard with Griffin and me this spring, a secluded spot so no one will see Pam with her girlfriend. They’ll be safe with us because squeezes on the side don’t tell on other squeezes. We’ll grill bratwurst, and they’ll bring potato salad. We’ll have nothing in common but our adulterous pasts, and we’ll tell the stories we couldn’t tell anyone else.  

“A bar,” Lisa says. “One down by the post office. You know it?”

I shake my head.  

“It’s where we met Elaine,” Pam adds. 

Later when the party starts to break up, Pam pulls me aside and invites me to go with them to the same bar. 

In the car I ask Griffin, “There’s a gay bar by the post office?” After a bottle of wine each, we’re ready for the next leg in this adventure. 

I’ve never been to a gay bar before. At first glance, this could be any working class bar in the Midwest except that the flannel shirted men lean in a bit closer when they speak to each other over the music. 

Griffin and I come through the back door and sit at the first booth we see. I hide my Madonna tits next to me in my coat. 

 As I wait for him to get our drinks, I consider asking him what he really wrote and burned. If I know Griffin, the paper was blank.  

I burned my paper, a silent effigy, unable to name then what it is I need to get beyond besides Wife. Now I consider what I should leave behind—being a mistress—so I can begin to grow into Griffin’s comfortable and reliable mate.  

I do know what cannot be cast off: that catch in my throat when I drop off my son or the thought of him away from me at bedtime; chronic pain too big to name on a Post-it note.  

Griffin sets down our glasses and settles across from me. He drums his fingers on the tabletop.  

I cannot tell him that after giving up so much to be together, the only option for us is to be eternally pleased with each other. This is what Griffin and I said we wanted: the romance of a daily life of buying groceries together, strolling through K-Mart searching for bargains, folding laundry at the kitchen table, making the bed.  

I’m about to tell him A mistress is a goddess created by man, when he yells, “This place is all about getting ready to be somebody.”

I lean across the table and say, “We would know, wouldn’t we?” He doesn’t hear me. We both watch the crowd. 

We are experienced bar people, but in this bar we are merely visitors. On my walk to the women’s room, I feel eyes on me. It occurs to me, surrounded by sexually ambiguous folks and dressed as I am, that I could get picked up quite easily. I contemplate how I feel about that as I squat over the toilet.  

When I return, Pam and Lisa are snuggled together in the booth across from Griffin. They take turns talking directly into the other’s ear, I think for the sake of kissing ears or necks or cheeks after each phrase.    

We start to tell them about our past, how we were adulterous lovers for years and finally have had a chance to be together almost fulltime. We’ve never talked this candidly with strangers or, really, anyone. Griffin tells them that we still haven’t danced in public. 

“If you love a song,” Lisa says, “you can dance to it.” 

They listen for a few seconds and nod as if they are interested, and soon they are kissing, eventually engaged in what looks like gnawing on each other’s faces.  

Pam takes a break and says to me, “Sometimes when I’m out on the dance floor, I feel like I’m making love to the air.” 

I nod. What else is there to do? I must save my laughter for the trip home. 

She says, “I haven’t admitted that to anyone but Lisa. She’s never felt like that. Have either of you?”

I start to say, “Sometimes when I’m making love.” I stop.  

Griffin grabs my hand under the table. He says, “Sometimes when we’re making love we feel like we’re on a dance floor.” We both laugh. 

Pam shakes her head and points to her ear, mouths the words, Can’t hear. Lisa rests her head on Pam’s shoulder and soon they are kissing again. I think of a headline to tell Griffin: Lesbians Fuck Air in Dark Barroom.

“Now or never,” Griffin says. “Dance with me in the only gay bar in town. No one cares about us here but us.”

I am a former wallflower. Still I am coaxed onto the dance floor, forcing my self-consciousness aside to dance with this man. 

I don’t know anyone here. No one cares that I can’t dance. Besides, amidst the pulsating strobe light, everyone appears to throb more than dance.  

“Relax,” Griffin yells to me as we reach the stairs to the elevated dance floor.  “It’s just like fucking.”

I have never danced dirty in my life, always saved room for the Holy Ghost between my partner and me like Sister Mary Simon warned us to do.  

I have no idea where my dance moves come from; I’m making this up as I go. We grind our hips, dance tight together, and then Griffin twirls me away.  

I throw off my suit coat and dance around it. Griffin and I pretend to tango through the crowd.  

A man with thin, arching eyebrows picks up my coat, folds it, and then rests it on a banister. I wave to him as Griffin simulates doing me from behind.  

I’m thinking of another headline—Hetero Couple Booted from Gay Bar for Dirty Dancing—when I bump into a woman and her girlfriend. Someone’s finger catches my rosary and the beads of two decades fall to the floor. I grab what’s left around my neck and signal to Griffin I’m leaving.

The two women fall to their hands and knees and pick up the beads.   

When I return to our booth, Pam and Lisa are gone.

 

We leave Griffin’s snow-covered car in the bar parking lot and swagger our way back to his house, stopping often to kiss or duck our heads from the wind and snow to light another cigarette. We are too drunk to be walking this far, this late, this close to the footbridge railing.  

When we first became lovers, we often walked across this footbridge from the campus to bars and restaurants. I always avoided the footbridge because I couldn’t bear to walk within two feet of the railing’s edge without my falling fantasy taking reel. Even as a kid I was afraid of walking too close to the edge of anything for fear I couldn’t help myself from jumping.  

The first time we walked together over this bridge, about halfway across, I said to Griffin, “I can’t do this anymore.” He didn’t know until the end of the bridge that I meant walking so close to the railing. 

Tonight I am fearless. As we walk, I run my gloved finger along the cast iron railing. Snow falls in big tufts to the black river below. From a distance, my arm wrapped in Griffin’s, our gait must look like we’re in a three-legged race. A cab wouldn't have been half as sobering, we think, as the sharp river wind.   

Saturday nights in his kitchen we call this too drunk to waltz around a sleeping dog. We have nearly as many names for levels of intoxication as Eskimos have for snow. That worries me, abstractly. 

The walk home allows us time to let our newest adventure retell itself. Why go out into the world without coming back with a story?

“That ceremony,” Griffin howls. “Could you believe it? Cast off this.” 

“I know,” I say. “It was a little goofy.” 

“Your lesbians in the garage were a hoot. One pulled me aside as we were leaving and asked for our number to invite us to their next party.”

“See, we’re out there, making new friends. Friends who’d rather make out than speak to us.”

We laugh so hard we have to stop. I throw myself dramatically against the railing and laugh some more.  

I say, “I thought Mick Reynolds was going to burst when you put my tinfoil tits on him.” I hold them up to the sky then dangle them over the edge of the railing.  

“They were certainly the hit of the party. Fondled more than any other set tonight. Non-tenured Faculty Pass Around Tinfoil Breasts in Kinky Ritual.” Griffin pinches my real breast through my wool coat. I turn to kiss him. 

We walk on. I can see the lights of the Salvation Army on the other side of the river.  

“I can die a happy man,” he says. “You finally danced with me in public.”

I twirl my tinfoil funnels around my arm like a lariat. 

Griffin teases, “All those lesbians sure liked you. If I hadn’t been along, who knows where you’d have ended up tonight.” 

I shrug.  

I put one foot on the railing and throw my tinfoil Madonna tits over the side of the footbridge, my own silly ceremony.  

They will be caught in the spillway downriver in the next town or the one after that.  We don’t think to watch them go

  

© 2005 Patti See

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