by Jane Futcher
Bagels and Mink
It is a Saturday afternoon in mid-November, and the air is cold but not bitter. I am standing on a tree-lined street in suburban Rye, New York, in front of a neo-Tudor house, about to meet Rick’s sister and brother-in-law for the first time. It is 1972—Nixon has just beaten George McGovern; the Vietnam War is raging, and Rick has told his sister Victoria that our relationship is serious. On the drive from Philadelphia, Rick entertains me with tales of gay life—the bars where queens hang out in Philadelphia, the downtown park where Main Line stockbrokers cruise for teenaged boys. I am excited by the talk—it is my only contact with the gay world. I tell him about the straight woman at work who turns me on when she leans over my desk, her cleavage close to my shoulder, showing me the correct way to glass-mount a slide for the educational shows our company produces.We are both nervous about spending the night with Victoria and Hal. We are trying to be a couple, but we have never slept together, and we are both gay—he actively, me in tortured silence. Under those circumstances, it’s hard for me to feel comfortable with anyone, certainly not Rick’s family.
Now here I stand, in this expensive, upper-middle-class suburb on Long Island Sound, where married people raise 2.2 children and drive dazzling European cars. Here now, close to dinnertime, are Hal and Victoria coming down the steps to greet us. Hal is dark, short and good-looking, wearing starchy Levi’s and a blue chambray shirt—the perfect weekend outfit for a Madison Avenue filmmaker. Victoria is tall and lean, with a suntan, straight brown hair, and huge brown eyes that study me curiously. And why not? I am the first woman her 26-year-old brother has brought home; she is inspecting the package.We shake hands awkwardly and carry our bags into the living room. It is a living room out of Architectural Digest—flowered chintz slipcovers, a polished mahogany coffee table, graceful Shaker chairs. Victoria brings in a tray with tea, then crystal glasses of red wine, still later, Perrier. It is cold in the house, and I am hungry. But there is no food. Hal lights a joint. The others smoke, but I decline, afraid I’d get more uptight than I already am.
“Where are the kids?” Rick asks. He is taller than his sister, but she always dominates, he has told me.
Not to worry, Victoria says. The kids are spending the night with friends and will be home for bagels and lox in the morning. Something is in the air; an unspoken excitement lights his sister’s eyes. Hal taps his fingers against his thigh, then runs upstairs and returns with a silver box and a small slab of marble. He has a surprise for us. Cocaine. Let’s do some lines, he says.
I have never used cocaine and am not sure I want to. I ask Rick what it’s like, but he doesn’t know. He only smokes pots and does the occasional Quaalude. Will I have hallucinations, I ask? Will it make me paranoid? Oh, no, says Victoria, squeezing my arm, it’s fun and kicky. Try it, she says, showing us how to sniff the powder through a straw.
I sniff the powder on the green marble slab as the bare bones of trees scrape against the windows. Hal and Rick are in the kitchen talking about the film business. Victoria and I have moved to a love seat in the sunroom. I notice a bitter taste in the back of my throat, but I don’t feel anything. We are, however, having a glorious talk, gliding toward each other in a conversational Mercedes. Victoria is next to me, her stories drawing me closer. I have never felt so brilliant. But what are we talking about? Nixon’s reelection? The new shopping mall in Cherry Hill, New Jersey? Some nuclear test in Nevada? I can’t say exactly, but it doesn’t matter. I am feeling Victoria’s attention in my heart, which is pounding. I am tingling all over. I realize that I am stoned. Cocaine is not the vague, isolating, foggy high I feel on marijuana. It is sharp and focused and interactive. Has Victoria has awakened in me the longing that Rick is supposed fill? When she touches the back of my hand, I cannot find my breath.
“Are you hungry?” I am startled. Rick stands over us, studying us quizzically. He and Hal want to go out to eat. We are all hungry, but it is hard to move. If we don’t go soon, Rick says, the restaurants will be closed.
The backseat of the Jaguar smells of leather and money. We are driving through White Plains searching for a place to eat. Everything is closed—the Italian restaurant they like, the Mexican, cantina, the Gold Dragon Chinese. Hal and Rick are in the front seat, and Hal is irritable. We consider takeout chicken from Kentucky Fried, but nobody is hungry for that. We drive back to their house and eat Jiffy Pop popcorn Hal makes in the kitchen. He and Rick are tired. I glance at Victoria, who looks at me, then looks away. I am not tired at all, just cold and excited and slightly numb.
I will sleep in the pink bedroom belonging to Victoria’s twelve-year-old daughter, Alice, they tell me. It is large and pretty, with pinups of Vogue models and a girl’s white dressing table and chair upholstered in pink hearts. Rick will sleep in little Harry’s room. He and I say good night on the landing halfway up the stairs. “How are you doing?” he whispers.
“OK, I think.”
“Victoria likes you. She told me in the kitchen.”
My stomach whirls. “I like her, too.” I glance at the Andy Warhol print of Marilyn Monroe on the wall behind Rick. “She’s very warm.”
Rick smiles, and rolls his eyes. “She’s crazy, you know.”
Victoria looks at us from the bottom of the stairs, head cocked to one side. “You’re talking about me, Rick,” she says. “What are you saying, little brother?”
Rick’s laugh is a little too loud. “We were saying how much we love you, Victoria.”
“And I love you.” His sister smiles and winks.
In the daughter’s pink bed, I lie awake. It is a strange family, I think, not eating food, only drinking and smoking pot and sniffing cocaine. I wonder for a minute if he and Hal had sex in the kitchen while Veronica and I talked. Not even Rick, who seems to have gotten it on with every guy he’s ever met, would get it on with his sister’s husband. I take comfort in the clean smell of the sheets and the stillness of the house asleep.
The clock strikes in the hallway. It’s two A.M. I hear a noise. Someone is at the door to my room. Without switching on a light, a figure tiptoes toward me
“Are you awake?” It’s Victoria. She sits down on the bed. The feel of her body next to mine awakens an ancient hunger.
“Listen,” she says softly. “I want to take you for a ride in the Jag.”
“Don’t get dressed, just put on your coat.”
I stare at her dark shape. “Now?”
“Why not? You won’t be able to sleep.”
She shakes her head. “It’s the cocaine. We had more than they did.”
Why am I thinking about my mother, who is so hopeful that Rick is my boyfriend.Victoria is on the edge and will take me to the edge if I’m not careful. But why not? What am I afraid of? Don’t I want to go to the edge, do I? I pull off the covers.
“Don’t get dressed. Just put on your coat.”
“Need clothes,” I say, finding my blue jeans and a sweater. The floor creaks as we descend the stairs to the kitchen. My hands sweat. I am afraid that Hal or Rick will hear us, and stop us.
Victoria is seated in the Jaguar and indeed she is naked, save for her black mink coat. I can see her full breasts as she reaches up to click on her remote-control garage-door opener. She backs slowly out of the garage as we move slowly down the quiet, tree-lined street. We drive toward the ocean or the sound, I am not sure which. She is talking, and as she talks she stops at an intersection in Rye. The light changes from green to red, then back to green, but Victoria does not move the car. “You better drive,” I say, “or the cops will get us.”
“Scared?” she laughs, then drops her foot onto the accelerator.
We are parked on a jetty overlooking the water. Or is it the Sound? Victoria is talking about Rick. “He’s gay, you know,” she says.
This is the first mention of gay, anything gay. It is a step, I know, in the direction of my craving. “I don’t understand my brother,” she says. “Do you?”
“How do you mean?” I am cautious.
“I can understand two women being attracted to each other but not two men.”
I inhale and grip the armrest. I feel the heat of her words.
She leans closer. “Have you been with a woman?”
I gulp. “No.”
She says nothing. We sit in silence, the cold more cold because of the cocaine. The tension screams between us. “I am attracted to you,” she whispers.
The cocaine is still racing inside me. I do not feel brilliant anymore, just excited and numb. I have never been this close to a woman. I have stuffed down my feelings since first grade. Since before first grade. I have never allowed myself an expression of my desire. And here, next to me, is my boyfriend’s sister, her arm around my waist, her fingers rising beneath my sweater.
I play with the zipper of my jacket. “I’ve never. . . not with a woman.”
Her breath singes my neck. “Really?”
I want to scream, right here in the leathery car, that I’d like to kiss her, crush her, touch every part of her naked torso. “I’ve wanted to.”
“Hal thought you had,” she says, turning on the ignition. I am blushing. I had not realized I was so obvious.
Victoria is driving slowly, weaving through the town of White Plains. Her diamond ring shimmers in the glow of the dashboard lights. “I find you very attractive. “
I look behind us, afraid other cars might hear us, see us, stop us. “I find you, you know. . . too.” The words creak out of my mouth.
She has stopped the car in the road again and has found a tape of Gladys Knight and the Pips singing a song called “Midnight Train to Georgia.” She is stroking my hair.
“I’d like to go to bed with you,” she says, twisting her wedding ring around her finger.
Sirens whine in my brain. My boyfriend’s sister wants to go to bed with me. The electric clock on the dashboard says 2 a.m. “I would have to have a drink first,” I say finally.
My body is approaching meltdown. I no longer have words. She guns the car and races us back to her house.
In the dark kitchen, we fumble for glasses. Her hands tremble as she pours me a giant tumbler of Chivas Regal. We stand barefoot at the counter, gulping our drinks, careful not to wake the men. The scotch burns inside me, but I feel safer now, as the cold nerves of the cocaine give way to the hot glow of alcohol.
“OK? Better?” Her eyes are hungry, wild, like Rick’s when he talks of the men he picks up in bars. She leads me up the back stairs to her daughter’s room, taking off her coat, dropping it on the floor, lying down on the bed in the darkness. She opens her arms and I slide next to her long, aerobically tuned body. The feel of her skin against mine turns my heart to silk. Her hips move; I am feeling the heat of her. I am handling her, a cowboy coupling with his girl. She allows me, wants me to move on top of her. Marry me, she whispers. Marry me, Yes, I say. I’ll marry you.
This is like the movies, better than the movies because t is happening to me. I feel the voices of all the women—the teachers, the schoolmates, the girls I have longed for since childhood. Each moment rewrites my past and lights my future.
“What is that smell?” I ask. “Like toothpaste.”
She hesitates. “Femme Unique.”
Vaginal deodorant? I have never smelled vaginal deodorant before. I kiss her thighs, brush my cheek against her legs. Something bristles on my lips.
“I shave there,” she whispers. She shaves her legs all the way up, between her thighs. I blink. Perhaps this is what suburban women do. They shave and put deodorant everywhere. How strange and interesting.
We kiss and hug and pant, but neither of us comes.
“It’s the cocaine,” she whispers. “Not you.”
“I’m happy,” I say. “Delirious.”
She laughs, finally falling asleep in my arms while I lie awake, savoring the pressure of her head upon my shoulder, the heat of her breath against my cheek, her legs wrapped around mine, the herbal smell of her hair. She is Patricia Neal, Jean Seaburg, Greta Garbo, Sophia Loren, Rita Tushingham, Mary Martin, Julie Andrews, Zsa Zsa Gabor rolled into one. She is my lover and my wife. I do not want this night to end.
We are breast to breast when the morning light creeps through the curtains. Against the pink sheets, we make love again, and this time we come. Victoria’s face seems older and more solemn. She looks at me with a softness I did not see last night, and we start again, to be sure this is not a dream.
Hal is standing in the doorway, unshaven, in a blue terry cloth robe. “You two better get up,” he frowns. “Alice will be home in fifteen minutes.” He studies us quickly, wound in each other’s arms, and closes the door.
I notice the African doll in a woven headdress gazing at us from her daughter’s bookshelf. “Is Hal mad?”
She stretches languidly, then snuggles back into my arms. “Hal? It was his idea.”
“What?” She is so close to me that her face has three eyes.
“He wouldn’t make love with me last night. Said I should try you.”
I swallow, loosening my grip on her waist so I can see her face clearly. “It wasn’t your idea?”
She kisses my ear. “Does it matter?”
I stare at her mink coat in a pile on the floor. “I thought you were attracted to me.”
“Hey.” Her tongue touches my lips. “Don’t let go of me. There’s not time.”
I hold her tight again. I search for words. “You wanted to do this, didn’t you, Victoria?”
The door opens again. Hal is dressed now, and irritated. “Get up, Victoria. Alice is downstairs.” He slams the door.
Victoria closes her eyes, opens them, inhales and sits up, standing naked in front of me.
“I miss you already,” I say. I feel like crying.
“You’re very sweet.” She picks up her coat and leans over to kiss me. “You sure you’ve never done this before?”
I shake my head.
“It was fun, wasn’t it?”
“Very,” I say. “I’d like to do it again.”
“Yes.” She inhales, then closes the door behind her.
I lie in bed, afraid to move, afraid to disturb this mesh of smells and touch and abundance. There is another knock on the door. Is it Victoria? Please, let it be Victoria, coming back to make love again. But it is Rick. He is pale and much taller than I remember, wearing pressed blue jeans and a blue and white striped shirt. His brown eyes reach mine. “Time to get up, sleepyhead. The kids are downstairs. Hal’s toasting the bagels now.”
“Guess what?” I say slowly.
He sits next to me on the pink bed, where Victoria has been, but the feeling is so different. There is no electric shock, no molecular dissolve.
“Try to guess,” I say, sitting up.
“I can’t guess.” His eyes are wide.
He shakes his head. There are blue shadows under his eyes. “Just tell me.”
“Victoria and I . . made love last night.” The sound of my words startles me.
His eyes widen. “What?”
I sit up, pulling the sheets up to cover my naked body. “We couldn’t sleep, because of the cocaine, so she took me for a ride in her car, and we talked about you, and we drank scotch and then she suggested we make love.”
“Really?” I smiled.
He stands up. “Jesus,” he says. “Goddamn Victoria.” He clenches his fists.
“What’s wrong?” I am so happy. Rick’s gay, after all. He must understand this feeling, must know what this relief is like, this glorious undoing of my past and rewriting of my future.
He faces me, all color gone from his cheeks. “She did it to hurt me,” he says, hovering grimly above me. “To hurt me and especially Hal.”
I close my eyes. Did the night have something to do with Hal and Rick? Weren’t we two women, hungry and alive, releasing the caged things inside us? “It didn’t have anything to do with you and Hal.”
“You don’t know her,” he says, closing the door behind him.
In the kitchen where Victoria and I poured Scotch last night, I am now eating bagels and lox and cream cheese Rick, Hal, Victorian and the children—a girl and a boy—who steal shy looks at me. Hal does not speak. Rick is courteous but subdued. I glance at Victoria, who eats nothing, sips her coffee, avoidsing my eyes. The kids tell us about a birthday party at a bowling alley last night. They ate hot dogs and red vines and popcorn and chocolate sundaes. Someone threw up on a bowling ball, and they had a wonderful time. It is strange, the change in Victoria. She won’t look at me. Is Rick right? Did she do it to hurt them? Once, when she is putting more bagels in the toaster over and the kids and Rick cannot see her face, Victoria looks quickly at me without hiding, letting the warmth of last night show in her eyes. My legs soften, my breath races. Then her face tightens and becomes blank again.
Rick puts his dish in the sink and says it is time to drive back to Philadelphia. He is meeting with a producer first thing in the morning and he needs to get his sample reel ready. He and Hal load the car. Victoria offers to show me the garden. We walk arm in arm, finally alone. There is so much I want to say. But the children are watching from the window. We go as far as we can, to the edge of the lawn, and stop to study a pale blue hydrangea that has somehow survived the November cold. I stare at the blossom, heartened by its triumph over the frost.
“Thank you,” I say, squeezing Victoria’s hand.
She glances at the house. “Rick’s furious with me.”
“I know.” I smile into her worried eyes. I love you, I say with my eyes. I am taking you home, holding you next to me. I want to ask when I can see her again. I want to tell her what our night together meant.
Her face contracts and her eyes seem to bulge, as Rick’s do when he talks about his difficult family. “It seems so hopeless. All of them so angry at me.”
Near us, a robin pecks the hard ground. “It was wonderful,” I say. “If they knew how wonderful we felt, maybe they wouldn’t be so mad.”
She cocks her head to one side. I see the beginning of a smile. “It was fun, wasn’t it?”
“Very,” I say. “Very, very, very fun.” I want to ask her to meet me in New York. Or come to see me in Philadelphia. I want to spend a whole night and a day and perhaps another night. I don’t want to leave her. We are married, after all. But I can feel the eyes at the window, and Rick is on the back porch, calling, telling me it is time to leave. Victoria looks at her brother, hesitates, and kisses me defiantly on the lips. Then, wordlessly, she turns and snaps off the head of the hydrangea.
Rick cannot drive home fast enough. He doesn’t want to know about Victoria, about what happened last night, but I tell him anyway. I want him to understand what’s happened. My molecular structure has undergone a complete transformation. Everything looks different, today, beautiful and clear, even the littered on-ramps of the New Jersey Turnpike and the smog-filled skyline of Newark. I have done it. I have loved a woman. I have lost my virginity. I am in love.
For days, weeks after that November night I move in a dream. IRA car bombs explode in Dublin, the U.S. increases its air attacks on North Vietnam, Apollo 17 returns to Earth from the moon. But I think only of Victoria—her body, her voice, her suburban, manicured body. She does not call, and she has asked me, without words, not to call her. I write her a thank you letter, but do not hear back. I imagine that any day she will call. I cannot call her because of her husband and children. So surely she will call me. Perhaps the longing for her lean, surprising body, is the reason I sleep with Rick soon after our trip to Rye. He is a kind, considerate lover in every way. But he is not his sister. Rick and I will never fly together on delirious clouds of pink. Yet it connects me, stangely, with his sister.
In June, I take a job in New York. Spiro Agnew has resigned as Vice President, Nixon has fired Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cos, and Haldeman and Erhlichman have resigned. And I still think about Victoria. Rick stays in Philadelphia, and we are no longer lovers. My transformation is complete. I am in love with New York and the Duchess—a lesbian bar on Sheridan Square—and have met a Southern belle named Bettie Anne at the office where I work. Rick, still hurt, will not speak to me. But he writes to say he, too, is moving to New York. One day, by the Seventy-second Street IRT, when I am going to my women’s consciousness-raising group, I spot him buying a newspaper at the kiosk near the entrance. “Rick?”
He turns and smiles. We talk for a while; he tells me about the film he is making for public television and his new apartment on 74th Street.
Finally, I ask, “How’s Victoria?”
“Ah,” he says, and wipes something from his eye. “Not well. She’s. . . had a breakdown.”
I swallow. “Breakdown?” A homeless man is chasing a pigeon on the sidewalk. “What do you mean?”
Rick’s brown eyes, the eyes of a friend now, not a lover, assess me slowly, then commit themselves. “She flipped out. Ran naked through the streets of Rye, nothing on, yelling that Hal was trying to kill her. It wasn’t true, of course. Although I wouldn’t blame him if he did. A neighbor called the police. An ambulance took her away in a straight jacket.” Rick pauses as a noisy bus passes on Seventh Avenue. “She’s better now. All drugged up but out of the hospital.” A Great Dane with an enormous pink tongue licks an ice cream cone in the gutter while his human companion talks to a man playing the violin. As an afterthought, Rick adds, “The children are living with Hal’s parents for the summer.”
My heart accelerates. “I’m sorry, Rick.”
He nods and bites his lip.
“Should I write to her? Call her? Is there anything I can do?”
He squints down at some broken glass near his feet. “I wouldn’t,” he says. “She’s still . . .”
I feel my throat tighten.
“Very ill. A letter from you now might, you know. . .”
“Agitate her,” I whisper.
“It wasn’t because of what happened that night? In Rye?”
Rick stares at me.
“I mean, she and I getting it on.”
“My sister is crazy,” Rick says. “She thinks only of herself. It has nothing to do with you. She slept with you to get back at Mike. And me.”
“Right,” I say. “I marched in Gay Pride,” I say quickly. “First weekend I was in New York.”
“Listen,” Rick says. “I’ve got a meeting with a producer in twenty minutes. Just came out to buy a paper. I’ll call you,” he says. “If I get the PBS job, maybe you’ll write the script.”
“I’d love to,” I say. He hands me his card and I jot my phone number down on one of his extras.
Then I fade slowly down into the underground.