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NOTHING TO ME
At eighteen, I stand on the steps at the art house cinema where my boyfriend works, watching the doors of Theater One. Usually, the moment the lobby clears, we'll find some corner, lean up against the wall, and kiss until a stray patron clears her throat at the counter. Then I'll blush, and my boyfriend will go serve popcorn. Once the patron is gone, we'll tangle up again until the credits run. Because of our displays, the manager has posted a sign that says, "No Making Outor whatever you kids call it these days."
Today, as usual my boyfriend wears black leather, and tight jeans, and I complement him in torn tights, a miniskirt, high laceup boots. The Gay and Lesbian film festival is showing downstairs, and upstairs it's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I can hear the dialogue through the doors of both theaters, and I know we're clear for a good half hour, but I stay on the stairs.
"Come on down," my boyfriend calls sulkily from the ticket booth. I point to the sign, but the truth is I want to stay where I am. I enjoy watching the dykes filter in and out of the theater to order Jujubees and real Cokes. It feels like home. The audience members for the festival are mostly in their late thirties, sporting layered haircuts, beaded earrings, and Frye boots. If I squint, I could mistake them for my mother, as she looked eight years ago. Back then, she kept her hair above her ears and wore overalls or flannel, even home toour WASPy Christmas dinners, even among the pearls and angora of holidays.
My mother is married to a man now and has let her lesbian friends drift away. That era of our lives is not something either of us talks about much. I haven't, for example, found occasion to mention it to my new boyfriend. Once upon a time, talking could have meant custody battles or social workers. Now, silence is an old habit.
Still, there's a comfort in looking at the women here for the matinee. For the same reason, T smile at the tattooed clerk who sells me my cigarettes and the purple-T-shirted band who clump together at pro-choice rallies. They remind me not just of the mother who raised menow transformed into a microwave owner, a wife, a wearer of costume jewelrybut also of the dozens of women who were my surrogate mothers. Some were my mother's lovers, some just friends who, having lost their children to the courts or never having had any in the pre-turkey-baster decade, were drawn to me as a possible or temporary daughter.
The movie lets out, and I watch curiously but absently, half
thinking of the kiss I'll get as soon as the lobby has cleared.
And then, therenearly unchanged in the eight years since I last saw heris Laura. Dirty blond, radiating competence, just as I adored her.
Panic. I flush. My chest constricts. I turn, then gallop up the stairs. Leaning over the railing, T watch, then pull away, then watch again until Laurait is Lauradisappears out the door.
My mother had known her in high school. They met again,both out lesbians, in the early eighties, and fell in love. Itwas long distance at first; Laura lived in Portland, Maine, andwe were in Boston's Mission Hill. On our first visit to her apartment,I made a point of scattering the plastic army figures shegave me around every room. My mom thought it was cute.
"She's marking her territory," my mother said when I gotup to join the grown-ups at the table, leaving a half-battled warin my wake.
"Pick those up," Laura said.
Something in her tone of voice made me do it. New lovers,in my previous experience, would indulge me, following mymother's lead. I could go to bed when the grown-ups did, watchlate movies, and skip school to make up sleep. My mother believedice cream could be dinner on occasion. But, as I beganto learn, Laura believed in health food and rules. She was anactivities director during the summer, and I could imagine she'dbe happy with a whistle around her neck.
Rules were not always what I expected them to be. Thatsummer, we went to pick Laura up at the ritzy camp where sheheaded the outdoors program. All the campers had left, and wescoured the cabins together, collecting the blue uniform sweatersthe girls had abandoned, tubes of toothpaste, bars of soap,and other treasures that would see us through the lean winter.
"Taking what rich people leave behind isn't stealing," Lauraexplained to me. "They don't even think of this as wasting."
My mother and I shopped with coupon books in our hands,picking the green-banded no-name cereals over Kellogg's so thatmy father's meager support checks and the welfare would lastthe month. If the lines were long at the checkout, my motherwas likely to dash back into the aisles and trade our butter fora jar of artichoke hearts or a bar of Swiss chocolate. On shoppingnight, we'd feast on the delicacy and then eat our toast dryfor the next two weeks. When Laura moved into our home inSeptember, the indulgences ended, but so did the sense of deprivation.She, too, had lived off slim earnings, but she hadlearned to stretch the checks into sufficiency. Unlike my mother,she was never tempted to sacrifice the end of the week for aFriday-night mimicry of wealth. If we needed more than wecould afford, she'd find it for cheap, or free. Laura was the onewho insisted we join the food co-op, and she did the volunteerwork that kept our membership good. She planted vegetablesin our yard, and the nearby Victory garden, and by the start ofthe school year, I was well trained in lifting rolls of toilet paperfrom public restrooms.
We were poor, and we stole little thingssoaps, paper towels,pens, and sugar packets. My mother thrilled at these activities,filling her pockets with plastic stirrers she insisted we couldmake into a set of Pick Up sticks. Laura only shook her headslightly at this, but I could sense her disapproval. Later, leavinga small grocery, my mother pulled aside her coat to show us apair of Chinese slippers that she had lifted, and Laura erupted.We should steal only from big stores or chain restaurants, shecommanded, and only what we needed. My mother refused totake the slippers back and refused to pay for them, but afterthat, she left the stealing to Laura.
I didn't ask questions about these new rules, though theycontrasted with the codes of my teachers, their After SchoolSpecial morality. I already knew it was necessary, even right, tolie sometimes. When my teachers asked probing questions aboutmy mother's roommates, for example, I was trained to feignignorance. And my world was already one that acknowledgedinequities. With my father, I saw first-run movies on weekendnights, and with my mother, I had to eat the stringy carvingsof the jack-o'-lantern in a stew. When the kids at school calledeach other fags, I kept quiet, knowing that I could not argue,as long as my mother might be caught kissing a woman on astreet corner, as long as she picked me up wearing jeans and aman's undershirt.
Though our thievery might, in complex terms, have meantsomething for the salary of the checkout clerks at Bradlees orthe cost of necessities for other welfare families, Laura morethan paid our debt by her involvement in the community. Sheand my mother joined the fight against a diesel power plant thata university wanted to locate in our neighborhood; perhaps theythought no one there would have the time or energy to object.And Laura was drawn to the kids in the neighborhood. She'dsend stray kindergartners home at dark, help out with a dimefor an Icee, bring out the wrench to loosen the fire hydrant onhot days. In Boston, 1980, there wasn't a single racially integratedGirl Scout troop until Laura became the troop leader ofa multicolored band of Brownies from Roxbury and MissionHill. On Wednesday afternoons, Laura would gather the kidsof the poor lefties, the Hill, and the projects to cruise vacantlots for edible plants, which we'd roast over campfires betweenblown tires and rusted tin cans. And she never played favoriteswith me, even though I was the one who walked home withher. The other troop leader, Susi, was a nice married lady fromdown the block. I didn't know what she knew about Laura andmy mother.
It took me a while to get used to Laura. She was tough,where my mother was indulgent. I had chores, suddenly. Theywould argue over whether I ought to clean my room.
"It's her space," my mother insisted. "She's the only onewho has to live there."
But they were the ones who had to pick through my dirtiesto do laundry, and besides, Laura said, I'd have to take care ofmyself some day. I'd try, for a few days, to keep things neat,but when my room began to devolve to its old disorder, I'd waituntil Laura was out of the living room before I opened the dooron the mountains of toys and discarded clothes. I remember theshame I felt when she stepped over the mess to tuck me in andthe way I'd make excuses for the crumpled papers and spilledjuice: a social studies report, too tired, I promise I'll clean it inthe morning. She looked, shook her head slightly, and remindedme I wasn't the only one who lived in the house. Naturally, Iwent to my mother when I wanted something. If I came homewith a scrape from the playground, I knew which of them tofind to show the wound to. Laura might know the proper firstaid, but my mother would let me hold the iodine-soaked cottonto my own skin, would hold my hand and hush me as I cleanedthe cut.
The second summer they were together, Laura got a job ata camp closer to home and brought me with her. It was a CampfireGirls facility, and most of the kids were from the NorthShore, working-class, Catholic. They must have assumed Laurawas my mother, and I suppose I let them. The rules were differentat the camp. For example, Laura told me, I ought to becareful about my language. And I was, substituting "sugar" for"shit," the way I'd heard my grandmother do. And, I thoughtwisely, replacing "fuckin'" with "friggin'." The latter, however,turned out to also be considered a "swear" in North Shore circles."Ooooh," one of the girls tattled, "Sophia said a swe-ar."I was sent to the office of the camp directorLaurafor punishment.
"Well," she told me, winking. "I guess you'll have to bestuck in the office with me." She gave me one of the Popsiclesthat winning teams got in the color wars, and she made suremy mouth was clean of its orange mustache before I returnedto my group.
I first began to think of Laura as one of my parents towardthe end of that summer. Camp ended a few weeks before thestart of school. Temporarily rich from her summer earnings,Laura took my mother and me on a canoe trip in Maine. Whilewe were drifting during a lunch break, I took a bite of one ofthe green peppers we'd bought in the supermarket, and instantlymy mouth was on fire. I was leaning over the boat, trying toswallow the river, by the time they realized what had happened.
"Jalapeño," my mother said, laughing at my red facedsputter.
It was Laura who handed me the chunk of oily sun-bakedcheddar cheese, knowing the grease was the only thing thatcould neutralize the chile heat. And Laura waited until I laughedbefore she, too, cracked the smile that must have been pullingat her lips when I was choking down the river water. Laura'sseverity did not mean unkindness; for the most part, it meantthe opposite, a form of affection. Unfamiliarperhaps uncomfortablebutsincere.
Laura figured out how we could have enough money andthings to survive, even if she did it unconventionally. She couldfix whatever broke, and she contrived recreations for me thathad somehow or other felt out of our financial reach before.But most of all, I think, she brought order to our scattered lives,an order I would need in the year to come. I made a habit ofcleaningor at least tidyingmy room before I went to myfather's on the weekends. I'd leave the laundry, in two separatepiles, outside my door, and it was always clean by the time Ireturned. If Laura didn't come in with my mother to say goodnight, I'd call for her. They were my parents, both of them, atleast on the weekdays.
The whole fall, I made my mother serve meal after meal ofUncle Ben's Long Grain & Wild Rice. If I saved a certain numberof box tops, I could get a Coleman canoe for three hundreddollars, an amount I had nearly saved from birthdays andChristmases in my bank account. It was a brand-name prepackagedfood that must have meant sacrifices for my mother,too, but she never let on. That Christmas, I gave Laura a beautifulgreen canoe. She took me into her lap and thanked me,then began to explain that we couldn't afford it, that she'd haveto return it. I could feel my eyes burning. My mother tappedher on the shoulder, and they slipped off into the other room.I heard whispering and looked at the unopened packages withmy name on them, trying to be excited. When they returned,Laura was smiling.
"Thank you, Sophia. It's a wonderful gift. We'll canoe in ittill we're all old ladies."
When Laura went to make the coffee, my mother told mein a soft voice that she'd explained to Laura how the canoewould pay for itself, making up the cost of rentals in just a fewyears. Then she laughed.
"No, really, sweetie. She's keeping it because you gave it toher. Because she loves you."
In my memory, that was the day we were closest, most afamily. My mother brought out her gift, three different-sizedoars, which I had not been able to afford, and we climbed,one at a time, into the canoe, and mimed paddling down theriver, while the other two steadied the boat on the scratchedwooden floor.
Perhaps my mother sensed already, that Christmas, thatwhatever they whispered in the kitchen was the map of the endto come. But I was a child, and I could not read in these signsa possibility of an end. In a way there is no word for, I hadalso fallen in love with Laura. I had chosen her as my parent,chosen to take her rules as my own. But I had never chosen therisk of losing her. I assumed that, loving her as I did, she wouldstay forever. We would really canoe, gray haired, in the newboat, long after it had cracked and been repaired. Maybe I understoodthat my mother and Laura might split up. After all,my mother had left lovers, her husband, before. But Laura hadbecome my parent and parents do not leave their childrenaftermy father and mother divorced, he was still in my life, onweekends and holidays. I was ten years old; I never imaginedthat someone I loved might leave me, too.
DESPITE THE EFFORTS OF my mother's and Laura's group, constructionbegan on the diesel power plant. From the top of MissionHill, we could see the outline of smokestacks, growinghigher almost daily. Watching it one night, Laura and mymother began a quiet debate of words I didn't understand,quick spelling out of letters I would lose track of before theyformed sentences. When I asked what they were talking about,they both hushed, but after I went to bed, I heard their angrymuffled voices from behind their bedroom door.
One night, when I was at my father's house, my motherand Laura went to spray-paint the community organization'ssymbola white elephanton the walls of the university club.A witness phoned the police, who arrived midway through thepainting and packed everybody roughly into the paddy wagon.My mother was the only one who spent the night in jail, thesuspected driver of the getaway car, our Chevy van. The witnessclaimed she had watched my mother for a full three minutesand could make an identificationwhich, in legal terms, meantmy mother could face eight years in jail.
They told me none of this. I watched the two of them bickeras they scrubbed every crevice of the car clean. No one askedme to help. When the doorbell rang, Laura would jump to getin my way, then eye our caller through the peephole beforeshe'd slide the door open a crack. My mother told me I was nolonger to answer; there had been a crime in the neighborhood(but there had always been crimes). I knew something waswrong, but I could tell by their silences and awkwardness, bythe growing tension between them, that I shouldn't ask.
A month or so later, a group of women of my mother'sheight and coloring gathered in our apartment in the earlymorning to struggle into straight clothes, suits and lipstick, andaccompany my mother to the police station for the lineup. Theprimary witness pulled the one woman in jeans from the group,a woman not my mother. Photos of the event showed officerswithout badges, twisting demonstrators' arms. The organizationthreatened a countersuit, and my mother got off.
But the events had taken their toll. My mother and Laura'sarguments would already be in progress when I got home fromschool. A silence might fall for half an hour or more, whileLaura walked around the block, but she'd return, pick up agrocery receipt, and circle each purchase she considered unnecessary.One afternoon, my mother met me at the door and tookme to a shopping center, where we tried on ridiculously expensiveheadbands, patterned in red, purple, and green. I put eachone back.
"Choose anything you want. My treat," my mother said."We don't always have to suffer." But she couldn't find one shewanted, either. When we got home, Laura was still out, and itwas nearly midnight when she finally put her key to the door.I heard them talking sweetly to each other in the bedroom, andI hoped it would be all right, but the next day, they were fightingagain.
As I remember it, Laura's voice stayed calm and low, as mymother's pitched into screams, but this may not be fair. It maynot be true that Laura was always right in these arguments butI felt, miserably, disloyally, that I was on her side. It may haveonly been that I wanted her to stay. And I began to realize, shedid not have to. That was the difference. My mother did, andI could afford to sacrifice my support of her. Just be quiet, Iwhispered, hoping somehow my mother would hear it throughthe closed door.
When they argued, I went into my messy room and shovedtoys and dirty clothes in the closet, the dollhouse furniture underthe bed. I picked up the last miserable sock, the last Monopolypiece, the last thing that might make Laura give up onme for good.
* * *
LAURA LEFT WITHOUT A word. She took the canoe and, absurdly,ran off with Susi, her Brownie troop co-leader. Mymother took me to an ice-cream shop and tried to explain overour banana splits. "I guess she just didn't care enough about usto say good-bye," she told me.
A month or so later, living in a new apartment where thememories were not so vivid for us, my mother found a note onthe windshield of the van. She read it and ripped it up. WhenI asked her what it said, she told me it was from Laura. Shewanted the rest of her stuff back.
A few weeks pass, and I tell my father the story of seeing Laura at the movie theater.
"Why didn't you talk to her?" he asks.
"She Left us," I say, and it's in my ten-year-old voice, long-lost self.
"You know," he says, "She tried to see you. She called me a few times, I guess it must have been after their breakup, and said she wanted me to arrange a meeting between the two of you. She said your mother wouldn't let her see you."
"And you didn't tell me?"
"Sophia," he says, "I had no idea what the story was. I couldn't get involved."
It is impossible for me not to wonder what the note on the windshield said or whether Laura had taken the canoe not because it was a nice boat but because I'd gotten it for her.
Years after that night in the movie theater, I became involvedwith a woman and on one of our first nights together,told her the story of my mother's relationship with Laura andmy loss. Though my romance with this woman was short-lived,it opened the story for me again, and I began to search forLaura. I looked in the phone book for her very common nameand penned a short, safe letter:
Dear L. Brown: I have taken your name from the phone book because I am in search of a person of the same name. If the following description doesn't match yours, please disregard this letter. My name is Sophia Gould. I am looking for a woman named Laura Brown. She was my Girl Scout troop leader in Mission Hill and a good friend of my mother, Susan Patrick. Laura meant a great deal to me. I am nineteen now, a student at Columbia University. If you recognize these details, please write me back at the above address.
Excerpted from OUT OF THE ORDINARY by . Copyright © 2000 by Noelle Howey and Ellen Samuels. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.