Read an Excerpt
When I Call Her My Husband
Linnea and I have been lovers for all these years, and I wonderare we married?
I ask her as we sit at our red kitchen table, in our South Minneapolis corner duplex with peeling walls and crumbling Victorian trim. Outside, the stoplight on Portland Avenue sends a shallow green, yellow, red wash in through the front windows as gearhead cars and accessorized Caddies with dark-tinted glass shriek through the intersection. As downtown commuters in tidy Hondas plod home south after work. As Harley guys rumble past with pipes clattering. As red Isuzu Troopers with big speakers in the back cruise by slow, bellowing with low bass, hip-hop, thump-da-thumps. As another family of kids we haven't seen before careens around the corner on bikes, the little ones on Big Wheels, pumping to keep up with tires growling and buckling over loose stones and broken glass.
Inside, our three cats lounge beneath the ceiling fan. Our dog digs through her basket of bones and toys. We are surrounded by the clutter of ourselves. Snapshots of friends and nieces. Funny postcards of women in vintage drag. Homemade valentines too sweet to throw away. Herb tinctures, and big bottles of vitamins. Big bottles of olive oil and every kind of tea. Glossy urbane magazines and mail-order catalogues for things we never orderbooks on tape, or down comforters, or loose-fitting casual clothing. Piles of clippings from the Village Voice that we don't have time to read. City newspapers and poetry booksor volumes of lesbian and gay theory or books about quantum physics or Star Trek or dogs. Our moderate collection of plastic dinosaurs, including the five-foot-long, blowup pteranodon hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Our large and varied collection of holy statues and candles, Catholic and Orthodox, mostly the Madonna, along with a few other saints and goddesses: Saint Lucy with her eyes on a plate, Kannon with her many arms, Marilyn in plunging black décolletage, shell ladies from ocean-beach resorts, and a piñata rendition of Madonna (the pop star) we made a few years back for a party. All this is seven years of us. So are we married?
I ask her in the summer as we ride in her Chevy Blazer truck on our way to a week in a one-room cabin on the shore of blue-gray and unblinking Lake Superior, the dog's head hanging between us from her spot in the back as the forests along the northern highway grow more blue-green and needled.
I ask her in the winter over big bowls of steaming seafood soup at our usual table, between bright white walls and abstract prints of fish, in the nonsmoking section of our favorite restaurant, run by a Chinese family emigrated here from Vietnam. Mostly daughters, black-haired and half our size, one-by-one they interrupt us to admire the silver jewelry Linnea buys me at gem shows, to ask us questions about our relationship, to describe how their lives are changinga wedding engagement, a new baby, a college acceptance on the East Coast.
In all these spots, public and private, I ask Linnea, "Are we married?"
Her response is always to move closer, pull me closer if she can. Let's say we're at home, lying side-by-side in the king-sized bed that we bought with our only joint charge card (Slumberland). The bed is one of just three joint purchases we've made in our first seven years. The others were a TV and a queen-sized water bed that we sold later when we started waking up aching, my back, her knees. The water bed was our first joint purchase, and I cried when we bought it in our second year together because it was so complicated. There were enough boards and rubber and cords to fill up the back of a pickup truck. "I moved my whole life to Minnesota in a Pinto," I sobbed. "And now just the bed takes up a whole truck." Now we lie on our king-sized King Koil on a plain steel base, big enough for both of us, the dog, and a cat or two if there isn't any roughhousing. We're still waiting to be able to afford a frame for this extravagant mattress. We want something showy and romantic, like a Victorian sleigh bed, to match our feeling for each other. But our dreams surpass our credit limits. If the state of marriage is determined by property, we may not have enough to qualify.
So we're lying in this bed on a Sunday evening, the dog curled up just under my stocking feet, one of the cats annoying me by obsessively kneading at my chest, and I ask her, "Do you think we're married?"
Linnea rolls over, shooing away the cat, resting her belly alongside my hip as her chin nuzzles my shoulder. "I think you're my wife," she says.
I laugh and squeeze in closer, turn so I can kiss the soft exposed flesh below her ear. She is completely serious and not serious at all, in that queer way we learn to roll with a language we are at once completely a part of and completely excluded from.
"Yes, honey," I say. "You are my wife, too." But this is not the right word for it. I can feel the vague tensing in her limbs as she holds me, the structure of her embrace still solid as something deeper steps away. What is it in her that is compromised, knocked off its feet, when I call her wife? A sort of manhood? But this is not the right word either. "I don't know the word," she would say. "But I'm not a man."
So I press myself even closer, sliding my thigh up to rest between her legs, sliding my hip up against her hip so I can feel our bones touch. The evening sun falling through the lace we have hung on our bedroom window scatters bright, sun-colored roses across her face and chest.
"Not your wife," she says.
"My handsome wife?" I try.
"I don't like wife."
It's true, it doesn't fit her. But who does the word wife fit? Fishwife. Housewife. I don't like it either. But when Linnea calls me her wife all that falls away. Then it is a word filled with all the attention she gives me, plump with kisses on the neck as my thighs part to her hands. We can only use this word if we steal it. Hidden in our laps it's better.
Better for me. When I say, wife, her jaw muscles stiffen. She becomes strange, unknowable to me while the sun outside falls behind clouds, while there is no light dappling our bare arms and faces, while the surface of our skin chills.
"OK," I say. "How about husband?"
With this word, husband, I feel her relax, the flow between us returning. Can I call her my husband without meaning a man? Without meaning a woman who wants to be a man? Without even meaning a woman who acts like a man? Even now, over thirteen years a lesbian, I still meet men I am attracted to, but just from the surface layers of my skin. No man can touch my face, my lips, and cause everything in me to drop, bones to water, as Linnea can, as women like her, butch lesbians, do. Who in the world can fly you to the moon, set you to swoon, send you down with that old black magic in a Tony Bennett ballad kind of love fever? For me it's a woman who would rather be a husband than a wife.
When I call Linnea my husband I mean that she's a woman who has to lead when we slow dance, who is compelled to try to dip and twirl me, no matter that I have rarely been able to relax on a dance floor since I stopped drinking. She leads me between the black walls of a gay bar, our faces streaked with neon and silver disco light, the air so dark Linnea's black leather belt and both pairs of our black boots seem to vanish, leaving parts of us afloat in the heavy smell of booze and cigarettes. She leads me slipping under streamers and lavender balloons, in the center of the light cast by several dozen candles, on some friend's polished oak dining-room floor cleared for party dancing. She leads me across a Sunday morning, sun streaming into our living room through southern exposed windows, so bright it sets the dust spinning. We dance clumsily on the purple oriental rug we bought cheap at a garage sale, the worn wool covered with cat and dog hair, the dog barking and nipping at our heels, me in stocking feet, Linnea wearing athletic shoes because the arches of her feet went bad a few years back.
When I call her my husband I mean that she's a woman I saw dressed seriously in a skirt and heels just once, early on, when she still tried to cross over for job interviews. Her head, shoulders, hands looked too large, her gait too long, an inelegant drag queen. This is a woman who's happiest straddling a motorcycle, who wears a black leather jacket and square-toed biking boots even when she's not riding. For years I've been telling her that her thick, curly hair would look fantastic long, wild with its own life like the hair of Botticelli's Venus or Arlo Guthrie's hair in the Alice's Restaurant days, but she will always be a woman who wears her hair short, cut to look slicked back at the sides, a grease-free DA. She's a woman who does not look like a man, yet is often mistaken for one, a woman who meets a clamor of gasps when she enters into the pale green light of shopping-mall rest rooms. The other women are caught with their naked hands motionless over the bright white sinks. The boldest and least observant among them checks her own reflection in the mirror, straightens her back, breaks from the pack to protect the others, points to some unseeable place on the other side of the cloister wall"This is the women's room."
I mean Linnea is a woman who once stood at the center of the Gay Nineties Saturday-night throb, her Levi's tight across the ass, her black leather boots and black leather jacket absorbing the speckled silver light refracting from the spangled curtains of the drag stage. She was caught in a fast second of instinct when she swung around and decked a drunk flat in the nose. He had reached between her legs from behind to grab what he thought was her dick. "He got two surprises that night," is what Linnea says about it.
I mean Linnea is a woman who is a woman because she was born with a woman's body. The large breasts and tender nipples. The monthly swelling, cramps, and blood. The opening up into her that she will do anything to protect, even break a man's nose in the glittering dark of a bar where drag queens sway on a sequined stage in sequined gowns and sequined eyelashes, their breasts made of foam rubber or silicone, their dicks taped up safe between their buttocks, as they smile like pop stars before paparazzi and mouth the words of Whitney Houston songs.
When I say husband I mean the woman lying beside me on a cool spring Sunday evening while the thinning light streaked over our bed from the west turns rose-colored. "You are my husband," I whisper to her, and we both laugh a little under our breaths, as we kiss, as she rocks me until I am nearly asleep, as the light flickers and sinks into night, as we listen to Luis outside in the yard behind ours crooning in Spanish to his four little dogs while his pet parrots shriek, as our dog pants alongside our bed, waiting for her supper, as the cat kneads my chest, using her claws, and I shoo her off to the floor. "But does that mean we're married?" I whisper to Linnea. But she is drifting off into a nap. We won't solve this today. The rose light flickers and I drift off with her.
The World in Our Bed
It has been in these wordless moments as we fall off into sleep, or as we arrive back to the light, awake, still together, that I have wondered. Before it was the birds, our neighbor Luis's chattering pets, that filled in the background of my endless questioning, or it was the honk and rattle of Portland Avenue, or the heavy steps and laughter of our upstairs neighbors, their sounds creaking down through the weakening walls of that crumbling duplex. Now, as I look at our lives together, I see some things have changed. Linnea and I have new windows that look out onto a different side of the neighborhood. Another gaggle of voices screeches and coughs in the alley. Different splays of light form across the bedclothes. Still, the same questions inhabit me.
I am not the type who can disappear easily into the music of a moment, although I've learned to try, learned a little bit of the deep breathing, the mind-release of meditation, learned to master at least a momentary physical dissolve that allows me to meld my usually fractured consciousness with the particular tree rustle and traffic rumble of the city's sunny or thundering afternoons.
Still, most of my moments overflow with other moments. I rest against Linnea's breasts and stomach in a room where the sharp edge of afternoon light slowly dulls to matte and grainy dusk. The hot summer water spirits that had been writhing up from the sidewalks vanish as the evening cools. The voices of children thin as some are called home. Even in these hovering moments where I touch my lips lightly against Linnea's lips, run one finger along the curve of my lover's encircling arm just to feel her skin against my fingertip, even here I have to work to stay in just this one place. I have to sing in low whispers, breathe, now now, to keep myself out of daydream. This is one fact of our marriage. I am too easily distracted. Linnea sees just the one she loves but I'm always lost in a wide lens. I watch the muscled body of the world push between us and obscure the face of our body's love with its wide slice of cheekbone, its glimmering and familiar slopes of skin.
The question is simple. Who are we, the two of us, together? If we could look down on ourselves from above, what would we see? A married couple, like any married couple, linked through our coupling by history and tradition, literature and song, to the great pitch and roll? Or huddled refugees, expatriated by our aberrations, grabbing on and flying off again, but at home in the sweet wildflower ditches we find along the side of a the road?
I would like to stop worrying about it. I would like to just lie here, inside this moment, with Linnea, in our rumpled bed, on the grimy and gardened south side of a Midwestern city where I was not born. I would like to touch Linnea's lips against my own, and let my lover fill all my open spaces. I would like to let us, just us, drown out the other populations, the music of people and places that surround us even when we aren't looking out our windows. But then I am overcome with long-finished minutes. I might recollect a dinner with our friends, a cackling chorus made up of women who wear a tumult of natural black hair or green and copper weaves of imitation braids or maybe a stiff blond brush cut, and men with gray beards or homegrown dreadlocks or a sandy jazz dot on the chin, gathered around platters of organic turkey or homemade lasagna or walleye with black bean sauce.
Or maybe it's the face of my brother's wife I see, in the years before their marriage, in Chicago, the first time I meet this woman who will be my sister-in-law. Her long black hair hangs loose down the back of a rumpled T-shirt. Her smile is easy, from the side of her that likes this moment of her life in a big American city, speaking a language she was not born to and completely unafraid of her boyfriend's lesbian sister. Mitsuko's feet are slightly pigeon-toed, and she holds a glass of something cold in her hand, something she has been drinking as she sits up in Paulie's bed, watching television with her lover in the moments before Linnea and I arrive at the old apartment near the center of the city, the one with the doorman and the view of all those brick and tar rooftops, just a block from Lake Michigan.
This moment opens in my mind, dissolves into focus suddenly, without bidding. I can keep it to myself, or I can tell Linnea about it, but either way the moment is fuller and more fractured than it was before, and the world, welcome or not, is here in bed with us.