Heartbroken after her girlfriend leaves her for another woman, Leslie, a history grad student, follows her thesis advisor from Grand Rapids to Detroit for a fresh start. There she befriends seventeen-year-old Honor, who sparks a familiar passion within her. Feeling that she can’t act on her desire, she sleeps with Honor’s older friend, Bernard, a gay former street hustler who resents his past and, to make matters more complicated, also lusts for Honor.
As the three grapple with issues of sexuality and identity, author Marge Piercy manages to be both intimately attuned to her characters’ emotions and aware of their role in a larger social and economic context. Leslie, Honor, and Bernard struggle financially in a city that doesn’t offer many opportunities, and they discover that expressing their sexuality and finding love may be privileges they cannot afford.
“A novel as ambiguous and fascinating as life itself.” —The New York Times
“Piercy goes over her subjects with a fine-tooth comb and provides food for thought about some of our directions, feelings and values.” —Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Marge Piercy (b. 1936) is the author of nineteen poetry collections, including The Hunger Moon and Made in Detroit, and seventeen novels, including the New York Times bestseller Gone to Soldiers and He, She and It, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. She has also written a memoir, Sleeping with Cats; a collection of short stories, The Cost of Lunch, Etc.; and five nonfiction books. A champion of feminism, antiwar, and ecological movements, Piercy often includes political themes in her work and features strong female characters who challenge traditional gender roles. Her book of poetry The Moon Is Always Female is considered a seminal feminist text. Piercy’s other works include Woman on the Edge of Time, The Longings of Women, and City of Darkness, City of Light. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, radio personality and author Ira Wood, with whom she cowrote the novel Storm Tide.
Read an Excerpt
The High Cost of Living
By Marge Piercy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Marge Piercy
All rights reserved.
Leslie was balanced on the hard cushion of an antique chair designed for someone with a three-cornered behind. In front of her, too close, Hennessy straddled a chair backwards and loomed over her, telling loud anecdotes intended as far as she could guess as advertisements. "The minute Ted left the room, she walked over to me and stood there, just looking me up and down. Provocative. I could see she wasn't wearing a bra."
"Lots of women don't," Leslie said between stiffening lips. "It isn't mean to be provocative." She slumped forward. She too was not wearing a bra. Was that what had pinned him to her of all the women milling around this apartment? Some flaw, see you were asking for it.
"Listen, she knew. Then she leaned way over with her tits sticking in my face and she said" — he attempted to copy a languid expression, lifting one beefy shoulder — "she said, 'Mark, are you a good lay?' Just like that." He paused for reaction.
She stared at him, she hoped impassively. He had an almost handsome craggy face spoiled by a too square, too heavy jaw and an expression that was a perennial pout. His body, the upper part of his face seemed older than he was — a second-year graduate student like herself — while the lower half of his face seemed trapped in sulky early adolescence. If she said nothing, nothing at all, he might go away. But exactly like her, he seemed to know no one at the party. It was Cam's fault they were here, because Cam was acting in the damned play she had also gone to tonight. The Importance of Being Earnest. Support dead fags. She was itchy with discomfort in this fancy room with its mixture of wonderful-to-look-at, impossible-to-use antiques and modern couches like velvet-covered marsh-mallows. The walls of the livingroom were decorated with drawings of naked women, and she did not like that; she did not like the way men used bodies like hers to pin up on their walls and sell toothpaste and decorate glassware and magazines.
"So I said, 'Well, nobody's complained yet.' 'No?' she said. 'Let's see.' And she put her hand on me, right you know where. ... You're awful quiet, Leslie. Don't you believe me?"
She tried waiting him out, but he waited too. Could he really think not wearing a bra was an automatic general come-on? She had on a denim shirt, and her concession to the party was a fancy leather vest covered with an intaglio flowery design, two years old but still beautiful, that Val had given her for their second anniversary. "Sure I believe you, Hennessy." Politeness got the best of her.
"What's this Hennessy bit? Call me Mark. Jesus, we see each other every day."
Almost. They had the same boss. She refused to call him Mark. Formality was a poor defensive weapon but a comfort. He was inching his chair forward again until he had walked it well into the space she counted as her own, forcing her against the misshapen back of the chair. She imagined lashing out with her foot, a quick chop to topple him. Her mouth twitched in a quarter smile.
Taking that for encouragement, he reached for her hand. Big hot grasp. She could not kick him, because they worked together for George: Professor Sanderson. George was her bread and butter, her thesis adviser, almost her fate. George had brought her along to Detroit and the University when he had changed jobs, carried her along with an appointment as his research assistant with his files and his map collection. Therefore, she could not kick the chair out from under Hennessy, but she could pull her hand away. "Sorry. I have to pee."
Through the crowded party she nudged her way, past the couples dancing, the thud and growl of the speakers. She got stuck next to a long glass table. On it besides glossy art books was an ashtray in the shape of a woman. It wasn't the kind of cheap thing her brothers might have had, like a hula girl on a highball glass. It was artful, sort of African, and therefore all the more shocking, as it was supposed to be. The butts ground out on the woman's hollowed belly jarred Leslie. She gritted her teeth, suddenly hating the whole room of strangers. There didn't seem to be another woman alone who wasn't trying to pick up one of the available men. What was she doing here, among women who looked through her? She wanted to break the ashtray, but there were too many people around. She did something else, fingering her vest. She had seen an extension in the hall. She scooped up the phone as she walked past and took it on its long cord into the bathroom, shutting the door.
She dialed Valerie's number in Grand Rapids. Let the owner of the ashtray finance her call, Paul What's-his-name. Creighton. The director of the play. Her heart was pounding in her throat, her wrists. It rang and rang. Why did she think Val would be home on a Friday night? Because she did not want Val to be with anyone else. The phone was answered. She shut her eyes, shut them tight, to hear Val's high voice.
"I'm sorry, the number you have dialed is not a working number. This is a recording. Please check your number and try again."
She dialed Grand Rapids Information. "Do you have a new listing for Valerie Mendoza?"
They had no listing. Broke? Phone shut off? But Val had not vanished; she had moved in with somebody and that was the truth. She knew it. Let it not be Lena. But she was sure it was.
Enough. Time to get out. She wriggled along, awkward, diffident, to the bedroom at the end of the hall. Even the bedroom was full of people drinking and talking. There she saw Cam Rogers sitting against the bedroom wall, beside the bed heaped with coats. Cam worked for George too, as his secretary. She'd sit beside Cam and pay her a few compliments about the play before rescuing her pea jacket from the bed and going home where she belonged. "You were wonderful," Leslie began, squatting down. But Cam wasn't listening. Her head tilted against the blue wall, she brooded. "Is something wrong, Cam?"
Slowly Cam turned, focusing on her. Drunk? "Hi there, old Leslie. You liked it, huh?"
She had begun to be casually friendly with Cam, a big amiable scattered woman who when she wasn't working for George studied dramatics and acted with the local theater group. Cam did not attract her; she was too obviously heterosexual, even victimized, a big soft woman not quite able to carry off her own act. Her hair was bleached and she made jokes about dark roots; her eyes were elaborately made up in two shades of eye shadow and her long lashes seemed to molt. Her daring purple jumpsuit was creased in the wrong places where she had been slouching against the wall. Leslie could take one look at Cam and draw in with the scent of her musky perfume that Cam would always be falling in love with someone who wouldn't love her back, and now Leslie searched where Cam was bleakly staring and tried to decide who might be making her unhappy tonight.
A girl wearing a long bottle green velvet dress was sitting on a hassock, her back toward them, kicking off her uncomfortable shoes. She balanced a wineglass on the palm of one hand, running the other through fine wavy light brown hair that shimmered over her shoulders and halfway down her back, smooth and controlled as satin. "All right, it can be amusing! But to pretend you're fulfilling some grand role in society, that's silly!"
The voice was familiar: low pitched, husky, but knife-edge precise in its diction. Yes, it had been Cecily's voice in the play. Honor Rogers. "Is that your sister?" she asked Cam.
Cam nodded heavily, as if her neck were too weak to support her head. "My baby sister." She nodded again. "Paul's letching for my very own little sister."
"Our director. Him."
The owner of the ashtray, the apartment, the party. He was in his middle or late forties and chunkily built with a face carved in broad lines and dark angles, crumbling only a little. Leslie asked Cam, "Are you worried? Or do you just think you ought to be?" She had never had a sister; the idea intrigued her. Younger sister, vulnerable, looking up to you.
"It's all my fault. I brought her down to try out. I never thought she'd get the part, I just wanted her to get a kick out of it. ... I had to do some fast talking to persuade Mama too."
Paul squatted, saying something into Honor's ear. When he stopped she flung back her long swan throat and laughed till her body shook. Paul grinned, with his teeth showing, his forehead wrinkled. Her dad's age. That annoyed her. Her boyish father would look at his wife and three sons and a daughter and two dogs and seem to wonder who the hell they were. How had he come to wake up with these noisy carping strangers on his back? The way he would look at them coldly, blankly, especially when he'd been drinking. This man was more self-important, more aggressive. She found his lust ugly, butt grinding out on the ceramic belly. Now he was taking Honor's arm, leaning close again, and the girl swung around to face them, freeing herself with a shrug.
"Did you have fun playing Cecily?" Leslie asked.
Somehow it was the right question. "Yes, but not as much as I'd expected. It's work, actually. Stupid rote work."
"Our Cecily doesn't approve of work. She wants to swallow a part like a birth control pill," Paul said wryly.
"The costumes are fun, anyhow." Honor ignored him, looking at them out of enormous eyes that seemed above the bottle green velvet such a pale brown as almost to be golden, like a cat's eyes. Her forehead and cheekbones were high, her nose long, her skin pale and rosily translucent. Her mouth and chin were delicate. "I wanted to come to the party tonight in mine — all frills and ribbons and a dear ridiculous parasol. But Paul wouldn't let me. He was petrified I might spill something. They rent their costumes, you know." Her eyes shone gold with mischief.
Leslie sat up straighter against the wall. Nineteen? Even though Honor was, odds on, talking to her to annoy Paul, turning her back on him as part of the same game as flirting outrageously five minutes earlier, she enjoyed the moment. "I'm Leslie McGivers. I work with your sister."
"Oh, Cam's talked about you." Honor raised her thin arrogant eyebrows. "She says you're brilliant. That George" — Honor drawled the name, looking under her lashes to see if Leslie noticed she used his first name. Ah, she was young — "brought you with him from Grand Rapids. That you have a black belt in kung fu and George treats you like his daughter and you eat rapists for breakfast."
"A brown belt in karate." But look at me with your golden eyes. Nobody has looked at me anything like that way for months. Christmas. Val with the snow in her shining black hair.
"Cam admires you, so I think you must be special. She hardly ever admires another woman." Honor beamed at her sister.
What else had Cam said? That she was a dyke? Paul glanced at her quickly then through her. She did not register on him. He had risen to his feet and he stood now at Honor's shoulder peering down into her green dress, at her breasts. But Leslie did not think Cam had guessed. No, Honor flirted with everyone; probably she flirted with the mirror when she brushed her teeth.
Another woman who had just come in slipped her arm through Paul's. "Come and dance. It's time for our ingenue to go home to her mama. ... You know, Cam, I have a little sister too, but I keep her where she belongs. At home in the closet."
Honor rose. She was tall, perhaps five eight and a good two inches taller than Leslie, who instinctively stood with her. "It is time for me to be in bed, even if I don't sleep in a closet like Cinderella."
Groggily Cam stumbled to her feet and began pawing at the coats on the bed. Leslie took hers as it heaved up. As they went past the crowded livingroom she saw that Hennessy had pinned another woman against the wall, hunched over her with his extended arm blocking her escape. "... and when I opened my eyes, there she was climbing into bed with me ..." Together they picked their way out and went down the broad stairs. Cam tripped on her big clumsy shoes and Leslie caught her under the elbow, set her back on her feet.
"You'd better drive," Leslie said to Honor.
"But I hate machines. I don't know how!"
"I'll drive, I'll drive," Cam muttered, fumbling for her keys.
It was an old dust-colored VW with one fender bright blue. "Why not take a taxi?" Leslie suggested. "I'll go up and call one for you."
"Mama would be upset."
"Yes, we do not upset Mama!" Cam declaimed. "It costs too much."
"How would she know? Get the car in the morning."
"She'd know." Cam giggled. "She's sitting up waiting. She always waits. She has to check us in and check us over."
"Camille!" Honor sounded icy. "She worries. We don't live in a neighborhood where you stroll around at night." She put her hand on Leslie's sleeve. "Could you drive us? Please."
"I'm not drunk." Cam leaned on the fender, still going through her purse. "The keys're here somewhere. I can drive perfectly."
She saw Paul at the second-floor window looking out at them, probably trying to decide if it was worth his while to come down. He turned then, as if deciding. "All right," Leslie heard herself say. "But I hardly know the city." Now how the hell would she get back home from wherever?
Thus she found herself patiently driving the battered VW whose gears slipped, whose brakes were mushy, whose choke did not appear to be connected with anything, while Honor gave her directions. "You turn at those lights, or maybe it's the street after, I'm not sure. Let me see. Not that one. Oh, that was it! We've gone past it!"
"The virginity of a younger sister," Cam was saying from the back seat in a loud flat voice about three inches from Leslie's ear. Cam's chin came to rest on the back of the driver's seat. "It's confusing. The virginity of most people is like they haven't got around to it. Except most people aren't virgins. But Honor — it's a positive thing. Like a Samoan princess."
"Be quiet, Cam. Or help me give directions!"
Finally Leslie parked in a bus stop and looked at a city map from the glove compartment. Honor and Cam lived on the near northwest side about six blocks off Grand River, and she plotted a reasonable route via the John C. Lodge Freeway and then south on Wyoming. "You're delightfully practical, Leslie," Honor said. "I'm always so tangled up in my own fantasies that I never notice the obvious, such as where I'm being driven. Also, it's so dull-signs that tell you not to do things. The only street names I ever remember are the pretty ones, the old French names like Beaubien and Saint Antoine, even if everybody pronounces them wrong. But they're all slums or factories. Or rubble fields. I can't imagine why you'd choose to move here."
"This is a metropolis compared to Grand Rapids, and Grand Rapids was wildly cosmopolitan after Ludington."
"Is that where you come from? Ludington? That's where the ferries cross, isn't it?"
"The Chesapeake and Ohio Car and Auto Ferry. Have you taken it?"
"Never," Honor said tragically. "We only noticed it on the map, Mama and I. One of those things you imagine doing. I dare say it'd be disillusioning — a second rate imitation of a real voyage on a real sea."
"With a bit of wind you wouldn't think so."
"Really? Does it get stormy?"
"A tanker broke up out on Lake Michigan the year I left home. Broke in half in a storm. Nobody got off." Defending her home now, as if she'd ever go back. But Honor had annoyed her. Really, she might be beautiful but she was ridiculously affected. Probably gone to some fancy private schools where they all tried to sound British.
"I've never been anyplace. Except in my head. But being a tourist sounds tacky. I'd like to travel, but for some compelling, some inherent reason."
Leslie laughed. "Like being a fugitive?"
"Don't laugh at me, Leslie. I hate to be laughed at. I always find a way to punish Paul when he does that."
"When Daddy was going to take us all to Niagara Falls, you wouldn't go," Cam said suddenly, chin on the seat back.
"Well, imagine going to Niagara Falls with Daddy and you and Mignon!"
Mignon must be another sister, whom she imagined as older than Honor, just as beautiful and already interested in women. And throw in a legacy from a rich aunt. "Does she live at home too?" Please not.
"No, she's in Columbus with her family," Cam said. "Poor Mignon."
"Why do you say that?"
"I don't know." Cam yawned warmly in her ear. "We always say that. Why do we always say that?"
Excerpted from The High Cost of Living by Marge Piercy. Copyright © 1978 Marge Piercy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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