We Had No Rules

We Had No Rules

by Corinne Manning


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A young teenager stays a step ahead of her parents’ sexuality-based restrictions by running away and learns a very different set of rules. A woman grieves the loss of a sister, a “gay divorce,” and the pain of unacknowledged abuse with the help of a lone wallaby on a farm in Washington State. A professor of women’s and gender studies revels in academic and sexual power but risks losing custody of the family dog.

In Corinne Manning’s stunning debut story collection, a cast of queer characters explore the choice of assimilation over rebellion. In this historical moment that’s hyperaware of and desperate to define even the slowest of continental shifts, when commitment succumbs to the logic of capitalism and nobody knows what to call each other or themselves—Gay? Lesbian? Queer? Partners? Dad?—who are we? And if we don’t know who we are, what exactly can we offer each other?

Spanning the years 1992 to 2019, and moving from New York to North Carolina to Seattle, the eleven first-person stories in We Had No Rules feature characters who feel the promise of a radically reimagined world but face complicity instead.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781551527994
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press, Limited
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,235,044
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Corinne Manning is a prose writer and literary organizer. Their stories and essays have been published widely, including in Toward an Ethics of Activism and Shadow Map: An Anthology of Survivors of Sexual Assault. Corinne founded The James Franco Review, a project that sought to address implicit bias in the publishing industry.

Read an Excerpt

We Had No Rules

My family had no rules, at least it felt that way for a time because most of the rules were vague and unspoken: don’t lie, or steal, or hurt. If I was mean to my sister or my sister to me, we would apologize. We did the dishes together every night. We shared toys. When she read to me, I would thank her and if I wanted her to read to me, she would unless she had too much homework. Our parents hadn’t been parents before so there were rules that had to be enforced only after we broke them — after my sister broke them. By the time I was old enough to encounter the same dilemma I already knew the edict and through watching her I knew what could be avoided. Which was why, at sixteen, I left home just as my sister had, only, I ran away because there was one rule I couldn’t keep from breaking. If I knew anything about my parents it was where they stood, so why expect different results?

I was lucky, because when it was my turn Stacy was twenty-four, set up in a rent controlled apartment with only two roommates in Chelsea. She worked as a paralegal and attended classes at Hunter most nights. It was 1992 and I had a place to go.

Stacy was mad at first. She held my hand as we walked from the subway to her apartment and I felt so much better now that my hand had a place to be. My hands go icy when I’m nervous, and when I was little she used to rub my hands until they were warm again and I wondered if she remembered this. I felt small and untethered as we walked down those streets because I smelled perfume and trash and urine, saw posters of men kissing and women kissing, and because over the din of cars and voices I heard the roaring immensity of what I’d done.

“You gave them what they wanted,” she said. She jerked my hand as we turned a corner. I hadn’t seen Stacy since she left and she’d gone through a complete transformation. Running sneakers had been traded for leather boots that went up just over her knees and had huge heels. She towered over me by almost a foot. The bangles on her wrists clanked together and her hair—which was shaved when I last saw her, a rule broken — was a gorgeous orange mess.

“You made it easy for them. They want you to feel so ashamed that you leave. There’s this way they pretend there’re no rules and they subtly suffocate you. That’s what they did to me only they posed it as a choice. If you wanted to do it differently you would have given them an ultimatum and it would have been like: ‘either you accept me and we talk about this or I call DYFS on your ass.’”

I pulled my hand out of her grip to adjust my shoulder bag, but I regretted it because her hand wasn’t available anymore. She shoved it into the pocket of her neon yellow hunting vest. I stayed close to her, taking as much comfort as I could in the rub of her arm against mine.

We paused at a traffic light and I could tell she wanted to bolt across, but she was trying to set a good example of how one crosses the street. I leaned into her a little more.

“I’d rather be with you though,” I said. “I wanted to be with you.” It had been a long time since I’d seen her cry and there was this way that tears just suddenly flooded around her lids — you wouldn’t have known she was upset until this — like a mysterious dam had been opened. She grabbed my hand and rubbed her thumb briskly over my skin, then we ran together across the street.

She had a unique kind of foresight into what I was going through. When I arrived there was a closet made up like a room for me and her things were in bins just outside it. I didn’t complain about having no window because she did some sweet things to the closet to make it feel like a room. She suspended a kind of mobile out of spoon and fork handles that her roommate Jill made. Her other roommate, who it turned out was always touring with some band, built a few shelves at the end of the closet so I could put my things up there. My main light was a paper lantern and sometimes I felt like a baby in a whimsical cocoon.

That first morning she took me to get muffins at her favorite bakery and she watched me eat two chocolate chip banana ones, mine and hers.

“Look, I’m not going to totally police you but you can’t bring home just any girl because you have to remember that this home is also home to all of us, and if you and some girl decide to fuck —”

“Stacy!” I looked around to see if anyone heard but no one seemed bothered by it.

“If you decide to fuck you have to be respectful. No shouting. I don’t want to hear cause you’re my baby sister and Jill’s room is right against that closet and you don’t want to do that to her either. I’ve already told Jill and Toby this, but I’m going to say it to you too — don’t fuck my roommates. You can have sex with any age as long as they aren’t living with us at the time. You need to realize this.” She leaned forward real close and I stopped chewing.

“You and I are partners now and I worked hard to get this clean safe apartment with these not-so-clean stable people and if you fuck it up we are both out, and I know you don’t know this yet but sex is really fucking messy and what you get into will affect me too.”

“I know about sex,” I said.

Stacy smiled then tried to hide it.

“I’m pretty sure all you’ve done is hold hands under the covers at a sleep over and she let you kiss her neck while she pretended to be asleep.”

I looked down and picked up some crumbs on the wax paper with my pointer and put it in my mouth.

“She was definitely awake,” I said.

“I’m gonna to take care of you,” she said. “We’re gonna figure out school, I’ll help you find a job. You won’t go through what I went through. Okay?”

She looked at me so seriously. I nodded. I know that wasn’t enough of an acknowledgement, but the fact that I even nodded is commendable, I think, at sixteen.

I didn’t know, at this point, what she went through. I knew it was terrible because early on she called my parents and left this message on the answering machine that made me tremble and cry because on it she was sobbing and wanting to come home. She left a number for a pay phone so I called it, and when she answered her voice sounded like mine, like a child’s, and I begged my mom to get on the phone and listen. And my mom just kept saying, you made your choice, you made your choice, and I heard my sister on the other end screaming please, please, the word scraping away, digging for anything decent, striking rock after rock. I hid in the other room and finally someone hung up the phone.

After breakfast I sat on the lid of the toilet and watched her get ready for work, just like I used to watch her get ready for school before she left home. She straightened her hair and brushed it out so that it lay smooth and thick around her shoulders. Her lipstick was modestly pink. I didn’t breathe while she applied the liquid eyeliner for fear I’d somehow make her smudge it.

“I’ll be home at 2 and I don’t have to be in class until 7, so we can do whatever between then.” She smiled at me through the mirror. I was wearing an outfit mom had picked out for me—red cords and a pink turtleneck.

“Maybe we’ll dress you in some different clothes. I’ll call in some favors.” She closed her eyeliner and dropped it into her purse. She pressed her cheek against mine in lieu of a kiss. I was entranced: here I was smelling her makeup again. When she closed the door I felt a lonely kind of despair.

The phone rang, it rang and rang, and I followed the sound to the kitchen. This was my first view of Jill, who sat reading the paper in a tank top and boxers. She was very pale, her hair was dyed black and shaved underneath, and though that made her look a little tougher than my sister, when she looked up at me there was something flamboyantly soft about her.

“Don’t answer it, mister,” she said. “We screen.”

A man’s voice snapped on and I jumped.

“Hiii, this is Anthony. I like long messages.” It beeped, and there was the crackling sound of a phone returning to its cradle.

“Who was that?” I asked. She took a slow sip from her mug.

“Anthony. This is his apartment.”

I looked over my shoulder.

“Then where is he?”

“He’s dead,” she said like it was very boring, very common. She turned the page.

“Oh, okay.” I said. Then, “What from?”

She looked up at me.

“The virus.” It took me a moment to put it together but when I did I stated “AIDS” very loudly, like I’d seen a spider, like the virus was on me. The panic hit me so hard that I would have started crying if I wasn’t feeling so afraid of Jill. She looked at me compassionately but her voice was still laced with boredom.

“You can’t catch it from living here. It’s transmitted through sharing needles, or blood or unprotected sex. Want some coffee?”

I didn’t like coffee but I said sure. She poured it into a cracked teacup with roses on it. She added tons of milk and sugar then motioned to the seat across from her.

She wore something like Old Spice — I don’t know whether it was aftershave or deodorant. It could have reminded me of my dad, but it didn’t. I sipped from my little kid coffee and examined the table, Much of the mail was addressed to Anthony. After awhile I spoke again.

“I’m a girl,” I said. She squinted at me.

“I just — you called me mister before and so I just wanted to make sure you knew.”

She shut one eye, opened it and then shut the other.

“Of course. Bad habit. Last thing I want to do is fetishize my roommate’s kid sister. ‘Tis forbidden.”

“Is today your day off?” I asked. Her lipstick was so red that even though there was a mark on her coffee cup there was still plenty on her lips, which she pursed as she folded the paper.

“Sure is. If you were me, what would you do with today?”

I crossed and uncrossed my legs. I wasn’t sure how to sit next to her.

“I’ve only been to the city twice and we just rode the Circle Line and had dinner at Hard Rock Café.” Her face lit up.

“Wanna ride the Staten Island ferry and get a burger?”

“My sister’s home at 2.”

“We’ll be back way before then. Can I dress you up?”

She undressed in front of me and when she took off her shirt I looked away but I didn’t when she was taking off her boxers, because she was talking to me at that point and I thought she would have panties on underneath, so when I saw her bush, that it was darker and thicker than mine, and the way her furry thighs pinched around it, I pretended like I dropped something and bent down to look for it.

“What did you drop?” she asked.

“A bobby pin I was playing with.”

“I didn’t see anything fall,” she said and she took a step towards me — I thought to help me look for it, still bottomless — but she put the clothes I was borrowing on the bed then picked up a sequined dress from the floor and slipped it over her head.

“Found it!” I opened my hand as if to show something and then closed it quickly, but she didn’t even look. She fiddled with something on her dress so I stepped into the kitchen to change into the clothes she gave me. From the doorway I stared at her unmade bed while I pulled on the suit pants. I wondered how many people she had slept with. I put on the Depeche Mode T Shirt and tucked it in, on cue she stuck her head beyond the door frame.

“Untucked,” she said. She pulled the front and back out.

“Your sister’s like a redwood but you and I are about the same height. Little shrubs.” She smiled, she was just inches from my face and this was the first time I had to smile at someone who was standing this close to me whose bush I’d seen and who I didn’t know very well. She helped me clip on the suspenders, but I wasn’t sure where to let the straps rest, on the outside of my breasts, on the inside — definitely not on top of them.

“I had a breast reduction,” she said. I looked at her chest.

“We threw a fundraiser.”

I looked at my reflection in Jill’s mirror. My sister and I had matching breasts, but on me they looked heavy and uncomfortable, which they were. The suspenders made it all seem worse.

“Can I just let the suspenders hang down?” I asked.

“Absolutely.” Then she pulled on a fur coat that had been splattered with red paint. She told me she found it in the trash like that. Once we were outside she slipped her hand in mine.

“Is this okay?” she asked. I nodded. “It’s just that our outfits look so much better this way.”

That afternoon, before she went to class, my sister and I ate pork roll and cheese sandwiches and planned my haircut. I didn’t tell her much about my day with Jill — there wasn’t much to tell, except for the way people looked at us, and how sometimes I wanted to drop Jill’s hand but she wouldn’t let me. I didn’t mention that I knew about Anthony but when we were making food in the kitchen I didn’t answer the phone and she said nothing about it. I did tell Stacy that I liked the way Jill dressed me so she added to my wardrobe — an ex’s old combat boots, and some more band t-shirts, most of them I hadn’t heard of. She popped one of the records on while we got ready to do something with my hair. I heard my parents voice screaming in the direction of her room, don’t play music that loud. I winced.

“She sounds angry,” I shouted. My sister laughed.

“She is angry. You’re not angry?” I shook my head and she replaced the album with another female musician, who sang haltingly over an acoustic guitar. She still sounded urgent, but I didn’t mind as much.

“I like this a lot better,” I said.

“Well, Ani’s pretty angry too.” She pointed to her picture, taped in one corner of the mirror. She had a very pretty shaved skull. My hair was cut as short as my parents would allow — a rule set in place after my sister — and I kept it pinned back with barrettes. Stacy pulled at a few of the longer pieces, then stepped back. She reached for something in her bag and I thought it was going to be a pair of scissors, or a picture, but it was a pamphlet and she handed it to me. It was for a youth program that promised services that I didn’t totally understand, like job placement and training. It was filled with pictures of kids, a bouquet of races, who looked really happy but poor, and with some of them I couldn’t tell their gender. I wondered if any of them had the virus.

“This says it’s for at-risk youth,” I said.

“That’s you. That’s who you are now.”

I looked in the mirror, and I didn’t know if I felt like one, and I wondered if I looked like one. A few of the kids in the picture, that looked like girls, had shaved heads.

I could hear Jill flipping through some video tapes in the living room. I wanted to get her opinion on my hair — maybe on the youth program, too — but she was staying away while Stacy was around. I wondered if she felt as seriously protective about that apartment as my sister did.

“I kind of want you to shave it,” I said. Stacy rubbed her hands over my head and nodded.

“Rite of passage.”

“But that seems kind of boring and your head had a funny shape when it was shaved.” We both stared at me for a moment. My sister’s eyes opened wide and she got excited, almost like she was laughing at a joke.

“How about I try something and if you hate it we’ll just shave it off the rest of the way?”

When we came out of the room it was just about time for Stacy to leave for school. Jill sat on the futon watching some Woody Allen movie and when she saw me she nodded with a deep approval.

“You two are so related,” she said. The sides of my head were shaved and the very top, where the hair was still a little longer was teased in all directions like The Cure poster on Stacy’s wall. If I hadn’t had Stacy and Jill around me I would have stared at my face and thought I looked like a chubby Frankenstein, but they both kept saying how adorable I looked. I imagined how it might feel to have no breasts and this hair.

After Stacy left I wanted to be present in the world with my haircut. I sat next to Jill and helped myself to a handful of her popcorn, which she didn’t acknowledge so I ate some more. I was bored: Woody was complaining and it was Autumn in New York.

Jill’s eyes started to close, her head bobbed once then twice and for some reason, I asked:

“Do you have a significant other?” She perked up and turned towards me. She closed one eye and then the other eye and I felt like I knew something about her.

“You can say girlfriend or dates or ask if I’m seeing anyone.”

“What do you mean, dates?”

“Some people have more than one.”

“Ok, do you have dates?”

“Of course. Who doesn’t? Oh wait, your sister.” She moved the popcorn and settled more deeply into the futon, which meant technically that she moved closer to me.

“I don’t think I do either,” I said. She didn’t move, didn’t react so I kept going. “There was this girl I really liked and I think she’s gay too but I don’t know.”

Jill leaned in close to me. Corn and butter accented her Old Spice smell. She snaked her arm around my shoulder and I didn’t know what to do. I remembered what my sister said. I kept my body stiff.

“Is this okay?” she asked. I nodded. She moved closer.

“We both know your sister’s rule.” I nodded. She pressed her lips to my ear and I thought I was going to throw up — I had no other sense of what that kind of urgency could mean. Her lips on my ear made strange shapes out of the words.

“Your first kiss should be with someone who isn’t going to pretend that kiss isn’t happening. That way if it happens you’ll know that kiss’s not worth it — okay?” I turned my head towards her. My hair cut felt suddenly just like a hair cut, and if she thought she was kissing a chubby baby Frankenstein look-a-like she didn’t show it. She pressed her lips onto my lips and my right hip twitched and she laughed then kissed me again and though it was strange to feel the metallic taste of another person’s saliva, someone else’s tongue, it was like I had always been kissing and could spend the rest of my life kissing. I didn’t think of myself as foolish when I let the back of my hand rest on her stomach, but when she put her hand on my breast I wasn’t really sure if I liked it. I didn’t say anything. I had no sense then that there could be some things I didn’t have to like, that I could say no.

She pulled away and sat a little further on the futon. She folded her hands and I wouldn’t have been surprised if we started praying. I touched my hands together, too.

“I want to do something for you, but you have to understand that it’s purely instructional and that I’m not taking on anymore dates so you can’t get jealous that you’re not one of them. Jealousy just can’t exist for you anymore, okay?”

I nodded. I was trying really hard to listen but I just wanted her to kiss me again.

“This is purely instructional,” she repeated as she pulled off her underwear. She shifted and I smelled her and I felt embarrassed, mostly for myself. She spread her legs and took my hand and it felt so different from when she held it on the Staten Island ferry.

“I want to show you the G spot. This is something I do for people. So I’ll give you a latex glove and your finger will go inside me. Is that okay?”

I considered it. I didn’t know what the appropriate reaction was for someone with a haircut like mine.

“Okay,” I said and I meant it. I felt a deep guilt already like my sister knew what was happening and that I didn’t want to go through what my sister had — I didn’t want to ever say please the way she did, and as Jill brought my finger inside her and I watched it disappear with a gulp — I felt the certainty that some day I would say please like that, but hopefully under much different circumstances.

“Okay, so press up.” She winced. “No, with just the pad of your finger.” She relaxed a bit. “Okay, so it should feel like marshmallowy right?”

I nodded.

“Is this sex?” I asked.

“No. Now palpate for a second. You should also feel something more like just behind the front teeth. Like ridges.” She made a little sound. I pressed my tongue behind my teeth and tried to compare it to what I felt through my gloved finger but there was no comparison. Her eyes were very distant as if she were grading me based on an internal rubric. Beads of sweat bubbled up on her nose, little crystal domes — should I ask if I could kiss her nose? Did I have any agency? I only moved as instructed.

“That’s totally it.” She smiled at me. “To me it feels good and a little like I gotta pee.”

She took my hand out of her, the place it was meant to be, and I felt instantly cold. She pulled her underwear on. I held my damp gloved finger outright because I didn’t know what to do with it. On screen Woody had just broken a teenager’s heart.

“How will I know if it’s sex?”

She pulled the glove off and kissed my palm.

“You’ll just know.” She turned off the movie and stretched her arms over her head.

“I need to go to bed, I got a shoot in the morning and an action in the evening.”

I didn’t know what either of those meant, and I didn’t want to be alone yet with this hand, so I just chose the first one.

“Shoot, like needles?” I asked.

“No, like movies.”

“An actress,” I said.

“Sort of but more kinda like porn.”

“Oh, okay, cool,” I said. She pinched my cheek.

“A friend of ours makes it. It’s fun.” She closed one eye — I waited — but not the other eye. She stood, so I stood.

“You can ask your sister more about it.” She opened the door to my closet and I climbed in like I was a pet. I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t brushed my teeth yet, that it was 8 pm and I wasn’t tired. I reached and switched on the light before she shut the door. Through the wall I listened to the sound of her bed creek as it took her in.

This phrase, you can ask your sister more about it tormented me all night. I couldn’t wait very long in the morning. It was a great act of will that I let her go to the bathroom, take a bite of her toast, drink her coffee. I stared and stared at her and she looked up at me a few times before finally closing her textbook.

“You’re creeping me out.”

“Does Jill do court work, too?”

“No, kind of odd jobs.”

“Like what?” I asked. I tried to look as nonchalant as I had last night when my finger was inside of Jill.

“Studio assistant work, medical studies.” She paused for a moment, made a decision. “Sex work,” she added.

“Oh, okay, cool,” I said, “So like porn?”

“Includes porn. A range of things.” She glanced down at the cover of her book and ran her fingers down the face as if to open it, but set it aside instead.

“I did that for awhile,” she said, and I couldn’t help it, I flinched and covered my face.

“You thinking of channel 68, all scrambled?”

I kept my face covered. I wasn’t going to say anything about the moans, the flash of a boob, a mouth pulsing on a rod.

“It wasn’t quite like that — though there’s a place for what happens on channel 68. If it was just photos sometimes I’d have to stay still with my back arched for like a half an hour, but the people I worked with were positive and respectful.” I heard her mouth bite into toast. I still didn’t want to expose my face. I felt like I didn’t want to know all of this, that a g spot existed, or what a breast reduction was. I didn’t want my haircut or a youth program. I wanted to be home, with my barrettes and my sleepovers and my cartoons, and parents.

“You remember when I called home,” she said. I pulled my hands away. She looked stiff and tense like she wanted out of this conversation too, but neither of us could stop it.

“It was bad, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Literally, when I got off the phone, it was like a miracle, a woman I met at a shelter came by and told me about this gig she had with this photographer, Anthony. Turns out he was looking for ‘young radical women’ and she got me a shoot. That’s where I made friends who connected me, someone even helped navigate GED stuff. When Anthony got diagnosed he didn’t want his landlord or anyone in the building to know — landlord’s son’s been sniffing around tripling the rent on apartments and he wanted to control something and he didn’t want them to do that to his place. He went and stayed with his boyfriend, told the landlord I was his sister, that he’d be working abroad for awhile and the three of us moved in.”

She took my hands again and rubbed them in hers.

“It’s not like it’s something you have to do, unless, of course, you decide that’s something you want. You can choose what you want to be ashamed of. But you don’t need to be ashamed of me.”

Her hands, I noticed, were cold too.

“This is totally different,” she continued. “And if you want to try to go home, and just wait it out until you’re eighteen, I’d get it. Most people manage it that way. But I promise if you stay I’ll take care of you. Things will feel different, but that’s good. Whatever you’re afraid I went through when I first ran away you’re going through too, but in the gentlest way possible.”

We sat there, our icy hands clutched. Outside I heard the honking of horns and the rolling jitter of a jackhammer shaking me out on the inside.
“If I stay we’ll to have to move.” I pressed her hands to my forehead. “I broke the rules, I think.” I gulped and snorted and she kept her hands clenched on mine and brought them down to look at them. I don’t know what she saw there, what she was figuring out, how my hand could have possibly looked different, but she snapped her eyes to mine. We held our eyes there and in that pause I wanted her to see what happened. I wanted her to tell me that it wasn’t sex. But instead she waited and I saw the worry spreading across her face so finally I spoke.

“Jill wanted me to have a good first kiss and kissed me.” The tension eased on her face and her shoulders shifted. She stifled a smile then put my hands down.

“That’s — you know — that happens. Did you like it?” There was a quavering in her eyes and I knew what she wanted my answer to be and I wanted my answer to be the same as hers.

“I liked it a lot,” I said. “But it doesn’t need to happen again.”

“I’m glad it was nice. We won’t have to move but yeah let’s not have that happen again.”

She picked up the dishes and I walked with her to the sink. We stood beside each other the way our mom taught us before Stacy left: her hands in the soapy water, mine drying what she handed me. I dried dishes until every drop of water was gone because you don’t put away wet plates. The cabinet was up high and I stood on my tip toes and wondered whether I could slide the dishes in without breaking them. Even with her boots off Stacy was taller so she took what I held in my hands, suds of soap a bracelet around her wrist, as she reached for the cabinet above my head. Soon we were in a rhythm where she put the dry ones away with one hand and scrubbed with the other. I rinsed the dishes in between. Our arms crossed over each other. Neither of us had ever washed dishes this way before, but who cares. It worked and there’s no one alive who could look at this, could look at us, and say a person couldn’t wash dishes that way because anyone alive knows that you’re lucky every time you find any way of doing something that works.

Table of Contents

We had no rules 9

Gay tale 27

Professor M 39

The boy on the periphery of the world 55

Chewbacca and clyde 69

The appropriate weight 77

Ninety days 87

The painting on Bedford Ave. 105

Seeing in the dark 119

The wallaby 127

The only pain you feel 145

Acknowledgments 166

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